'One Child' considers the long-term impact of China’s one-child policy

Journalist Mei Fong makes a convincing argument that the number of births prevented by the policy – while great – is not as large as the Chinese government says.

One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment, by Mei Fong Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 272 pp.

China’s one-child policy has led to some horrible abuses, such as women being rounded up, handcuffed, and forcibly taken to have their pregnancies terminated, writes journalist Mei Fong in her book One Child.

'One Child' describes such incidents in chilling detail. But it also looks at the long-term harm that the policy has caused to Chinese society.

The book is especially timely, given the recent announcement that Chinese couples will now be allowed to have two children. As the author, Fong notes, the policy had already been relaxed in recent years to allow, for example, a husband and wife who have no siblings to have a second child.

But when and where the policy was strictly enforced, draconian measures were taken, says Fong. In some cases, families were held hostage until a pregnant woman surrendered to the family planning authorities, personal possessions were confiscated, or enormous fines were levied.

Some of these actions were illegal but, as Fong notes, family planning officials and party leaders at all levels knew that their jobs depended on not allowing birth quotas to be exceeded.

The policy was implemented in 1980 with the promise that a less-crowded China would lead to a better standard of living. Fong makes a convincing argument that the number of births prevented by the policy – while great – is not as large as the Chinese government says, and that China’s economic success in recent decades cannot be attributed to the slower population growth. Also, the trend toward smaller families had already begun before the policy was implemented, Fong argues.

The author is a Malaysian-born ethnic Chinese journalist who shared a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting from China for The Wall Street Journal.

In this book, she relates her own story of seeking treatment to conceive while covering China’s attempts to prevent its citizens from doing so. This first-person account sometimes distracts from the more compelling narrative.

One of the more dramatic sections of the book is the story of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which 8,000 couples lost their only child. Fong describes traveling on a jam-packed train from Beijing with a migrant worker couple – desperate to get home to their isolated village to find out the fate of their only child, a teenage girl.

Some of the book's language seems a bit flippant, such as when Fong writes that the sound of this migrant woman screaming upon learning of her daughter’s death meant “game over.”

For parents of other girls, the one-child policy often led to infanticide or the abandonment of a baby girl – in order to try for a son to carry on the family line. Thousands of the unwanted girls were adopted by foreigners although, Fong reports, some of these adoptees had actually been abducted by Chinese and sold to orphanages.

The preference for baby boys has led to a tremendous gender imbalance in China, and "One Child" delves into many aspects of how this will affect society.

Similarly, a nation of one-child households may soon find itself without enough young workers to support and take care of hundreds of millions of retirees.

The children born to these one-child couples have been nicknamed “Little Emperors” because their parents and grandparents spoil them. Fong offers examples of such over-indulgence, but also notes that those children are their families’ only hope for the future, and thus come under enormous pressure.

China’s social safety net has a lot of holes in it, and the elderly often rely more on their families than on government help. Fong notes that China has few nursing homes and hospice facilities, and explains why it is actually harder for an elderly person who has no children to be accepted into one.

In the book, we see not only the shattered dreams of couples who wanted more children, but also the poignant regrets of some officials who participated in abusive action to enforce the one-child policy.

As China prospered, some families could afford a fine for a second child, but an illegal birth could also mean that the child could not be registered for public schools or health care if the parents were not permanent residents of that city.

The author says that many urban Chinese support the government’s family-planning policies, and only a tenth of those who were already eligible to have a second child chose to do so. Some 60 percent of one-child couples said the one-child policy had nothing to do with their decision not to have more children.

But even those who admit the need for family planning are highly critical of the tactics used by China’s population police.

“Force is never justified. Those people are real evil,” one woman told the author.

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