Few, except environmentalists, will miss China’s one-child policy
‘In September 2013, Liu was taken to the Peopleʼs Hospital of Fangzi District, where she was administered a drug to abort her unborn foetus. She was six months pregnant’
‘The Little Emperors are Chinaʼs future, single-minded and resolute, and may not be quite as malleable as their parents’.
In its 34-year history, Chinaʼs one-child policy has inflicted untold misery and suffering on its population. Despite state censorship and a culture of almost servile obedience and compliance, countless reports have leaked to the press of harrowing personal tragedies and gross human rights abuses.
Late-term and forced abortions have been commonplace, as has child trafficking and female infanticide; womenʼs menstrual cycles are kept under surveillance by the state and aborted foetuses can be seen left in dustbins or floating by Chinaʼs riversides.
In a country where abortion had originally been outlawed by then leader Mao Zedong, the one-child policy – introduced as a measure to counter spiralling population growth – has resulted in over 336m abortions and 196m sterilisations in a legacy that will forever cast a shadow over China’s troubled history.
Following a meeting of top Communist Party leaders in Beijing in November, it was reported by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, that significant changes were to be made to the one-child policy. Under the new rules, couples in which one partner is an only child will now be allowed to have two children; this exception had previously been afforded to couples where both partners were only children. It is believed this rule could be extended to cover all families by 2015.
As with most things in China, the reasons for the proposed changes are purely economic: the Peopleʼs Republic, going back to the days of Mao Zedong, views its people as numbers or units, rather than citizens. Over thirty years of the one-child policy has resulted in worrying population trends and disrupted demographics. It is believed that Xi Jinping, who was elected president in March, will pursue reform of the one-child policy as a matter of urgency.
Although Chinaʼs population stands at 1.35bn, this is expected to peak at 1.45bn in about 10 years and to decline sharply thereafter. Officially, the fertility rate stands at 1.7 births per couple – below the 2.1 births needed to maintain stable population levels – while other estimates have placed the figure as closer to 1.5.
China also has an increasingly ageing population which threatens to put tremendous pressure on the pension system – 8.5 percent is currently over 65, and according to United Nations data it is set to rise to 23.9 percent by 2050. The working-age population also fell for the first time in January 2013 which, if sustained, could threaten economic growth and mean less workers supporting an ever-growing number of retirees. There is also a significant gender gap in the population where females have been aborted in preference to males.
The first children of the one-child policy have been left with the so-called “4-2-1 Problem”, where each is left providing for two parents and four grandparents. Statistics show that the ill-conceived policy has resulted in serious demographic problems that are economically unsustainable. As an economist at Citi Research said in October: “China has reached a turning point where the demographic dividend will become a liability”.
When the Communist party came to power in 1949, population growth was seen as essential to the workforce and in bolstering the military for an anticipated third world war. At first, Mao Zedong had encouraged large families, and abortions, sterilisations and the use of contraceptives were prohibited. Though these rules were somewhat relaxed in later years, the result was Chinaʼs population growing from approximately 500 million in 1949 to almost a billion under Maoʼs rule.
When Deng Xiaoping took over power in 1978 following the cultural revolution and Maoʼs death, he was persuaded by a group led by rocket scientist Song Jian that in order to secure Chinaʼs future economic targets, the population would have to be restricted to 1.2 billion. The intially “temporary” solution they proposed – the one-child policy – remained instead for over 30 years.
Implementation of the one-child policy
The one-child policy was introduced nationally in 1979, having previously been trialled in just a few provinces. Under the rules, couples could have only one child, or in rural areas two if the first child was a girl. The State Family Planning Commission (FP) and the Communist Party were entrusted with the task of enforcing the policy, with officials being held personally responsible for population targets.
In a process quite unique to the Peopleʼs Republic of China, the one-child policy involves the systematic monitoring of womenʼs menstrual cycles; this is carried out by family-planning officers, party members and local volunteers on all women of childbearing age to determine which pregnancies are ʻlegalʼ. Whether or not a pregnancy is legal is determined by eligibility rules and in some cases by quotas set down for the particular village or workplace.
Should a woman fall pregnant with a second child or if the pregnancy is deemed ʻillegalʼ due to quota levels, she is subject to often exorbitant punitive fines which, if unpaid may result in a forced abortion. ʻUnauthorisedʼ children cannot be registered in the state until the so-called “social support fee” has been paid, are not issued documentation, and therefore cannot avail of medical care, schooling or employment. As defined by The State Council in 2002, the social support fee is “a fee paid by citizens giving birth extra-legally to compensate for the governmentʼs public goods spending, (to) adjust the consumption of natural resources and to protect the environment”.
Abortions and the one-child policy
Forced and late-term abortions have been common in China under the one-child policy: the 1979 abortion law set 28 weeks of gestation as the upper limit for performing legal abortions, but this has often been ignored by unscrupulous and over-zealous officials.
In 2000, Jin Yani (20) was dragged from her home by ten family-planning officials and subjected to a brutal forced abortion – nine months into term. Jin had conceived five months before marrying her fiance – a crime in China, where couples must be married to conceive. Jin Yani, who after the abortion could no longer bear children, took the unprecedented step of suing the authorities for medical expenses, psychological distress and her inability to conceive.
In September 2013, a group of 20 officials from the Shandong Province Family Planning Commission allegedly forced their way into the home of Liu Xinwen (33) after she had been found in violation of the one-child policy. She was taken to the Peopleʼs Hospital of Fangzi District, where she was administered a drug to abort her unborn foetus. Liu was six months pregnant.
Last year, 23-year-old Feng Jianmei – seven months pregnant with her second child – was taken from a family memberʼs home by family planning officials, blindfolded and brought to a nearby hospital for a forced abortion. Feng and her husband had been unable to pay the 40,000 yuan for violation of the one-child policy. The case drew international attention when Fengʼs family posted pictures of the aborted foetus on the internet.
With state control of birth rates, mandatory surveillance of womenʼs menstrual cycles, forced abortions and sterilisations, it is perhaps not surprising that China holds one of the highest female suicide rates in the world.
In many ways, the one-child policy has proven to be a success. In terms of population control, it is estimated that 300m births were prevented under the scheme – almost equal to the entire population of the United States. As an experiment in social engineering, the policy could hardly have been more effective.
With a relaxation of the policy, a greater number of births will mean a greater carbon footprint. According to an international group called The Global Carbon Project, China accounted for 70% of the global CO2 increase in 2012. Although there is a shift towards other forms of energies, China still burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined – and with current population levels. Reports made last year that China will have 600m vehicles on the road by 2050 will now also need to be revised to reflect estimated population growth following changes to the policy.
Over thirty years of the one-child policy has shown how even modest and restricted population growth can have a devastating environmental impact; for example, in 2006, the ancient city of Linfen was identified by the World Bank as the most polluted city on Earth. It’s claimed that on some days almost 25% of pollutants in the air above Los Angeles originates in China, and pollutants from China’s smokestacks have been shown to cause acid rain in Seoul and Tokyo.
The one-child policy, however flawed, helped prevent greater environmental damage; time will tell if the historic changes and future population growth will lead to economic success or conduce to environmental catastrophe.
Chinaʼs Little Emperors
The restrictions imposed in China by the one-child policy have resulted in a phenomenon where a whole generation of ʻonly-childrenʼ have grown up without siblings, uncles, aunts or cousins. Castigated and ridiculed by the Chinese media, the now adult children of the one-child policy –dubbed ʻThe Little Emperorsʼ – have been described as selfish and pampered, consumerist and obese, with inadequate social skills and an inflated sense of entitlement.
Whether or not this is justified, Chinaʼs Little Emperors can hardly be held to blame. Accounts from Chinese schoolchildren paint a poignant picture of rigid and often unrealistic expectations from parents. In China, academic achievement is all, and when there is only one child, there is only one chance to succeed. Coupled with the fact that parents are often relying on their child to support them through old age when perhaps the state will not, the pressure to perform is immense.
Unlike some of their western counterparts, Chinese children are devoted to study, since study gains approval and leads to personal success, status and wealth – aspirations which at once seem at odds with Maoʼs vision of Communist China, where the needs of the party come before all else. The ʻLittle Emperorsʼ may be self-centred and narcissistic, but they are Chinaʼs immediate future, single-minded and resolute, and may not be quite as malleable as their parents.
The one-child policy was only intended for one generation – however, many vested interests have long fought to keep it in place. The ‘social support fee’ incurred by families has subsidised cash-strapped local governments and lined the pockets of incentivised family-planning officials. The announcement in November, therefore, that the policy would finally be reformed is indicative of the direction Xi Jinping wishes to take China under his rule.
While the progressive reforms by Xi Jinping are welcome, they nevertheless come too late for a generation which has been enslaved by the one-child policy’s rule, the women who have been treated so callously and the 336 million unborn the state decided should be terminated. As China begins to move on from 34 years of oppression, the question is, for a nation so proud of family and heritage, how it begins to forgive its rulers, and itself.