Is China's one-child policy over?

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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 times.mil

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.

11 comments

  • The world should take a serious look at emulating the Chinese example. Think of what the future holds for your children. Overpopulation, environmental degradation, global warming, reduction in clean water and food resources and increased warfare. Do you really want your children to face this?
    Before its too late, stop propagating now!

    Commenter
    Benita
    Location
    Austrtalia
    Date and time
    April 08, 2013, 11:44AM
    • I think you meant to say procreate... but your word works. Just!

      ALL western societies have declining birth rates. Money and education are the reason.

      So why are we to emulate the chinese? Or should they emulate us?

      Commenter
      cranky
      Location
      pants
      Date and time
      April 08, 2013, 12:31PM
    • @cranky

      What are you even talking about?

      The west has no restriction on how many children you can have, and most of the people in the west choose to have few if any children

      The Chinese enforced a limit on how many children can you have.

      There's no need for emulation both countries are already heading the same direction, it's just 1 is state enforced, and the other is not

      Commenter
      AK
      Date and time
      April 08, 2013, 1:54PM
  • 1 child policy won't be around for much longer.

    There are many things you can say about the Chinese, some call them tyrant, some call them ruthless, some call them clever, some call them greedy.

    You may agree or disagree with any, all, or none of them.
    But 1 thing that is undeniable about them is they're pragmatic. They will do what it takes to gain an edge.

    Remembering that they're already aware of the 2050 Aging population time bomb, I'm pretty sure that within a decade the 1 child policy will be removed. at least for the time being

    Commenter
    AK
    Date and time
    April 08, 2013, 12:34PM
    • The aging population time bomb can't come soon enough. Imagine the size of China without this policy; at least this was one idea that was in the good of the people (what parents do with unwanted newborns is another ethical matter entirely).

      Commenter
      Problem?
      Date and time
      April 08, 2013, 3:55PM
  • I'm so enjoying Daily Life's articles that come with cross-cultural perspective. (Ruby Hamad's one about culturally appropriate protests was another outstanding example.) Thanks for helping us to see the breadth of women's experiences around the world!

    Commenter
    Tamie
    Location
    Tanzania
    Date and time
    April 08, 2013, 3:19PM
    • Whilst I've never heard is articulated I wonder whether the one child policy had a lot to do with political control. Given China's historic tradition of power and control of infrastructure, resources within localised and large family groups does it not make sense for a Communist regieme to enact a policy that undermines this power and centralises it?

      Personally I think China is so huge and so diverse that it really must tread slowly and carefully with change. Whilst going there and being immersed is probably best, a recent PBS doco series certainly highlighted a lot of educated, decent people with a growing desire for justice and environmental.

      Being in charge of that country and steering it in a sensible direction that maintained its cohesion would be one hell of a tough job.

      I think 1 Child policy will be around for a while yet. Too ingrained to change midstream with some but hard to change 1000's of years of culture where large families were the norm. Besides, does anyone think there are really 1.3 billion Chinese or are these just the figures reported? I wonder what goes un-reported.

      Commenter
      MattG
      Date and time
      April 08, 2013, 3:19PM
      • Controlling how and when people breed is a slippery slope.
        It creates a precedence that dictates how each and every person lives their lives.

         How you make love
         Who lives
         How you eat
         Who dies
         Who may breed depending on cast

        Do you think the super powerful in china only had one child?
        Nope, this is pure authoritarian, fascism evil nonsense.

        So called greenies and socialist have convinced themselves that complying with a collective notion will bring the world more happiness.
        I have Stalin, Mao and Hitler to argue otherwise.

        The people of this world will be paying for the greed of the .001% for a very long time.
        The .001% will continue their gluttony while we submit and blame ourselves into serfdom.

        The truth is, unhappy people breed more than happy people.

        We need more true happiness and we will breed less and pollute less.
        But there is no money or power possible for the .001% if everyone is content and happy.

        Commenter
        Mark C
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        April 08, 2013, 4:11PM
        • Many studies have shown that the worlds population is due to peak at araound 2050 to 2100. This is because as countries become more advanced children need more and more education before they become economic assets to the family, also women are receiving more and more education and opportunity to find roles other than motherhood and lastly because as countries become richer there are more social programs for the old to rely on rather than children, and of course the mortality rate has reduced drastically.

          When the 1 child policy will end will depend on the Chinese governments need for that revenue.

          Commenter
          DD
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          April 08, 2013, 4:11PM
          • One-child policy is a policy for population collapse !

            Long-term stable population requires 2 children per woman, and that is assuming that all of them do. In practise, it requires about 2.2 children per woman, on average.

            As far as I have ever read, the objective of the one-child policy was the stabilisation of population in china, not the shrinking of population in china. Already some Chinese express concerns that they are about to be outnumbered by Indians.

            The one-child policy was inevitably only going to last about one generation.

            Commenter
            enno
            Location
            sydney
            Date and time
            April 08, 2013, 4:11PM

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