Is China's one-child policy over?


Photo: Getty Images. Posed by models.

It is the first thing you ever own: before the baby clothes and toys, then the gadgets and car that follows. We are born with it, and die because it breaks down. Our body is the most important and personal thing we own, so no wonder we feel such an intimate connection with our doctor, and consider rape the ultimate violation.

But for half of us – the female half – such a seemingly clear-cut question of who owns your body becomes muddied when we are pregnant. Particularly in China where 336 million abortions have taken place since 1971, eight years before a radical family planning policy called the One Child Policy would begin and change the country forever. A percentage of these abortions were the direct result of pressure from family members, public campaigns and the actions of local authorities to abort second children.

Between 1949 and 1979, China's population numbers nearly doubled, coming close to one billion people. This was partly due to Mao Zedong's own encouragement ("there's strength in numbers") but also thanks to an old world preference for big families meeting improved child mortality and life expectancy rates. In an effort to counteract the population boom the One Child Policy fined couples for having more than one child (or more than two children – the policy varies place to place, and for ethnic minorities). And while heavy-handed arguably prevented an even heavier disaster: famine, chaos, of biblical proportions. Many Chinese people will agree it has been a necessary sacrifice made during extraordinary

Discussions of the One Child Policy in China tend to revolve around its usefulness and impact on the country. Contrast this to the abortion debate in the United States where arguments for and against are purely ideological. Are fetuses entitled to legal protection? Is abortion justified in rape cases? What of a woman's right to control her own body? And let's not forget God, the ultimate ideologue, is so not cool with this. Such philosophising can become maddeningly elaborate, and recent psychological studies reported in Pacific Standard magazine has revealed just how unusual this Western tendency is.


"Westerners (and Americans in particular) tend to reason analytically as opposed to holistically. That is, the American mind strives to figure out the world by taking it apart and examining its pieces," writes Ethan Watters, looking at the work of Joe Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan. As the researchers dub it, 'WEIRD' (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) minds possess the "tendency to telescope in on an object of interest rather than understanding that object in the context of what is around it."

And therein lies the single biggest difference between the United States, the most aggressively individualistic country on this planet, and China, which Watters writes "favors social harmony over self-expression". Is it fair for the government to enter a woman's uterus? An American will fall on either side of the political fault line and reply yes in order to save a life, or no it's trespassing on a woman's privacy. A Chinese person however will ask is it fair the country spirals into further poverty in the name of the multitudes of unborn? Where Americans seek absolutes, right versus wrong, Chinese society subscribes to collective rather than individual rights, employing an attitude of pragmatism.

Perhaps a closer analogy might be to examine the American non-profit "Project Prevention" that pays female drug addicts to use long-term birth control, or opt for permanent sterilization. The group has proven highly controversial in the States, but one could imagine be nothing strange in China. After all the One Child Policy travels on a similar logic – preventing the births of children who would be otherwise born into a life of misery.

Of course, that it is not to say that with moral flexibility "anything goes" (merely, that what "goes" changes). For example, here's something most Chinese people will agree does not currently "go": in June last year a gruesome photo of a seven month pregnant woman and her aborted child lying by her side was widely circulated on Weibo. Feng Jianmei had failed to pay a 40,000 RMB fine for her second pregnancy and in response local authorities took her to a hospital to induce labor. While such late-term forced abortions are technically illegal, abuses are the product of a system that demands local authorities keep birth numbers down, with collected fines acting as financial incentive for bully behaviour.

Support for the One Child Policy has always been conditional on circumstance, and there is a growing sense that that time is over, particularly with the appearance of a host of unintended side effects. Infanticide, abandonment or abortion of baby girls has meant the country now has a gender disparity of 122 boys to every 100 girls. With the first generation to be born under the policy now turning 34, a small group of men dubbed "bare branches" fear that bachelorhood will be a lifelong status. A very few have even turned to an underground network of bride trafficking.

Many individuals are also now the sole source of support for two ageing parents, and in some cases four grandparents. It is a challenge shared by many developed countries with baby boomers and low birth rates, but the critical difference being that China lacks the social security system and aged care infrastructure to match.

Recently the Atlantic published a provocative piece that argued, for many Chinese couples an end to the policy would make little difference. Writer Leslie Chung discusses one-by-one such groups: the migrant workers who fly under the government radar, the wealthy who simply give birth overseas, and a growing number of couples for whom "fines that were once prohibitive are now just a nuisance--a couple of months' wages, rather than a lifetime of savings." And then the potentially biggest group of all: the couples who, with or without tmilhe policy, only want one child, because they have become so exorbitantly expensive.

Regarding the potential end of the One Child Policy an ever-paternalistic Chinese government keep the public on a strictly "need to know" basis. Commentators make educated guesses based on movements from the government, along with leaks and rumours. Many have taken the recent merging of the National Population and Family Planning Commission into the existing Health Ministry as a sign that the importance of family planning is being downgraded, with eventual reforms to allow two children if either spouse is an only child (this is already allowed if both are only children). A growing number of scholars are saying even this is too narrow to combat the impending labor shortage.

Even if the end of the One Child Policy is all but official, it is still important, I believe, to make it official. As I mentioned, the license that handed reproductive rights over to the government was conditional. Maintaining social order may now require abandoning the One Child Policy, as opposed to enforcing it. And with an increasingly savvy and worldly Chinese public, pregnant uteruses join a list of domains (along with the press, social media, arts and judicial system) in which a little less government presence might be called for.