Mei Fong One Child Policy Essay

DECEMBER 1, 2015

FOR 30 YEARS the one-child policy was one of the first things people learned about China. I learned about it in geography at school in the UK around 1980, and it’s fixed in my memory with photos of Chinese nurseries. In those Cold War, pre-internet days it was not so easy to find further information, and as teenagers we were inevitably left with uncomfortable questions. Did Chinese parents really leave their babies in nurseries all week, and only take them home for the weekend? As time went on, the questions became more sinister: Were there really abortions of healthy fetuses at eight months? Were they all girls? Was it true about killing newborns? Did people really have to fill in an application form to get pregnant?! What if …

Since the announcement on October 29 of the end of the one-child policy, the media has been awash with articles and op-eds on what Mei Fong calls “China’s most radical experiment.” With impeccable timing, her new book offers a superb overview of the history and context of the policy, the different applications of the policy in different circumstances (regional, rural/urban, Han/ethnic minorities), and the impact of the one-child policy not only in China but internationally, in the past, present, and future. Fong writes in an easy, accessible style, and in 200 pages takes us behind the scenes of the Sichuan earthquake, the Olympic stadium in Beijing, the dancing grannies, the migrant workers, the orphanages, the transnational adoption of Chinese baby girls, birth tourism and surrogacy. She fills in the background to these familiar subjects with impressive research and interviews, conducted over many years (see her sources at the back of the book). There is an added poignancy in that Fong, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, is an ethnic Chinese woman of childbearing age; she is pregnant at the start of the book and the mother of twins at the end of it.

Over nine chapters, Fong introduces us to a wide range of individuals, and gives us a snapshot of their lives. The combination of these short accounts woven into the author’s informed narrative works particularly well, highlighting the personal decisions and compromises that individuals have had to make. They are not necessarily the decisions and compromises that the reader would make, personally, logically, or morally, but Fong’s determination to understand is such that we cannot help but consider what we would do in the same circumstances.

Take, for example, the phosphate miner Zhu Jianming (50) and his wife (45), who within 10 days of losing their teenage daughter in the Sichuan earthquake had decided to try for another child (his vasectomy to be reversed, her fertility left to chance), the thought of a childless old age being unbearable. How can anyone make a rational decision within 10 days of losing a child? And losing most of their child’s school friends? And the everyday structure of their life? When their city lies devastated? Wasn’t it risky putting all their money into a vasectomy reversal? At their age? And what about men and vasectomy? In China? Most of the family planning I’d heard about in China focused on women and on IUDs, abortion and sterilization.

Fong’s research was invaluable — it turns out that Sichuan is one of the few places in China where sterilizations are done on men, thanks to Dr. Li Shunqiang of Chongqing, who in 1974 pioneered the No Scalpel Vasectomy, a quick procedure that takes about five minutes. It was reversible, but when Fong inquired about this at a fertility clinic she was told that their clientele sought fertility treatment of a different kind: usually, women having trouble conceiving, having delayed having children, or scarred their tubes through multiple abortions.

Mr. Zhu had grown up in times of hunger. Having eaten grass and worms in his youth, he had supported the one-child policy. He had also been scared by potential fines. Their first child had been a boy, born mentally handicapped (there’s no further mention of him), and they had been allowed a second child on condition that Mr. Zhu underwent the vasectomy. While they are trying to cope with the death of their daughter, they tell Fong that their friends and neighbours are keeping a distance, worried they will be asked for help and money. The personal, emotional, financial, and social implications of their daughter’s death are so huge that we begin to see how trying for another child might seem an obvious solution.

Fong tells us that there are over a million shidu parents in China (parents who have lost their only child), a figure growing by 76,000 per year. Without offspring to support and provide for them — and, as they grow older, to authorize treatments and act as payment guarantors — shidu parents have particular needs, and are organizing themselves to petition for higher compensation, priority in adoptions, and specialized pension, medical, and burial needs. 

The impact of China’s aging population is felt throughout Chinese society. There are the single children themselves, on whom a family’s hopes are pinned, and on whom great responsibility will fall. By law (1996), children are required to support their aged parents. Beijing law (2013) requires children of elderly parents to visit frequently.

There are the men, who outnumber the women 117 to 100. As Professor Xie Zuoshi, at Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics, observed recently, the problem of 30 million bachelors is exacerbated by growing social inequity and income disparity. His suggestion of polyandry did not go down well. When criticized, he hit back: where was the morality in leaving all those bachelors with no hope of finding a wife?

There are the women. Far from women “holding up half the sky,” Fong recalls her own experiences of sexism and racism in Beijing. She doesn’t shy away from such matters as forced abortions and female infanticide, and devotes an entire chapter to international adoption. In 2005, at its peak, almost 8,000 Chinese babies were adopted by Americans. Chinese adoptees, the vast majority being girls, are becoming young adults, and will have uncomfortable questions of their own.

It is a paragraph from the chapter on adoption that really hit home for me. Fong writes:

Almost all the harshest critics of transnational adoption I spoke to are adoptive parents and beneficiaries of what they say is a broken system. Stuy [Brian Stuy, who has made it his business to prove the existence and extent of child trafficking associated with state orphanages] acknowledges the disconnect. “You have to go down the rabbit hole before you find out,” he said. “I would say 95 percent of adoptive parents don’t want to know, and even if they know, don’t care to do anything about it. Why rock the boat?”

“Disconnect” was the word that I had been struggling to find. I had been invited to review this book on the basis of a comment I left on the Paper Republic website. I am one of four editors running the Read Paper Republic series, committed to publishing a short story, essay, or poem translated from Chinese to English, once a week for a year. Could we find a piece relevant to the one-child policy on short notice? Mo Yan’s Frog and Ma Jian’s The Dark Road came immediately to mind, but then we drew a blank. How was it possible that something as huge as the one-child policy didn’t seem to feature in anything we had read? Surely it affected everyone in China? We had just published a story by Lu Min, so I asked her. By chance, she had written a piece about her own family experience for the literary journal Shou Huo, and we were able to publish the English version within a few days. My comment invited readers to suggest other titles — the invitation is still open!


Recommended Reads

  • Mo Yan, Frog
  • Ma Jian, The Dark Road
  • Lu Min, A Second Pregnancy, 1980
  • Xin Ran, Buy Me the Sky: The Remarkable Truth of China’s One-Child Generations



Helen Wang is Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum, and a translator of Chinese literature.

This interview was previously published on the Young China Watchers’ blog and is reprinted here with kind permission. Young China Watchers is a global network of China-focused young professionals across nine chapter cities, engaging with the most pressing issues emerging from China today.

Mei Fong, a Malaysian author and journalist, is currently a fellow at the think tank New America. Prior to that, Fong won a shared Pulitzer Prize for her stories in the Wall Street Journal on China’s transformation ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Her book One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment was published in November 2015. YCW’s Joyce Lee speaks with Fong about journalism in China and the one-child (now two-child policy).

Young China Watchers (YCW): What was the reporting environment in China like when you were posted to the Hong Kong and China bureaus of the Wall Street Journal in 2001?

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Mei Fong: Hong Kong is a way station for a lot of people who want to get into China. It’s particularly hard to get a journalist visa in China, so some media companies like to post you there to begin. Reporting in China then was a little closed off, although you might argue that it’s even worse now. You had to get a visa and be invited into the country, sort of like a vampire. I would spend a lot of time looking for opportunities like trade fairs, cultural shows, or whatever would garner me an official invitation.

In 2006 I was accredited in Beijing, and in theory that meant I could only report around Beijing. If I wanted to report elsewhere, I had to get invited by local authorities, which was too bureaucratic for breaking news or controversial stories. I remember sneaking down to Fujian to do a story about a cancer village. I hid my notebooks in my clothes in case we got stopped; authorities were a little more circumspect about searching women. The public security people showed up, and they were all women. They didn’t search us, but told us to leave and escorted us down the mountainside. When we got back to the city, I was still worried that they would come back and search us, so we ended up overnighting in a bathhouse. You don’t have to supply your passport, so you can check in anonymously and sleep on a big couch with an assigned number.

You wrote gripping articles on the “invisible army” of migrant workers in China in the mid-2000s. Have the risks facing the migrant worker population changed or attenuated since the Beijing Olympics?

I always chased stories that illustrated a bigger theme or principle. For a long time, my beat was manufacturing and trade. When you talk about garment quotas and WTO regulations, your eyes glaze over, but drill down to a deeper level and it’s about the $10 t-shirt purchased at Walmart and made in the small village in China. Behind the great wheels of industry, there are a lot of smaller cogs, and I found the small cogs fascinating to illustrate the bigger principles.

I did the story on migrant workers because there was a huge buildup of Beijing before the Olympics, cranes everywhere and buildings coming up in no time at all. Enormous billboards covered the construction sites, and I wanted to go on the other side. It wasn’t easy because I’m a foreigner and a female. I looked for legal aid bureaus working with construction workers, and started making friends with them. Once, they smuggled me in so I could see their worksite.

I wrote that their lives were very harsh: They lived away from home, sometimes got cheated out of wages, had no running water, and awful worksite conditions. The issue now is that these industries are slowing down drastically, so there are a lot of layoffs. What happens when the boom is a bust? Suddenly there’s no jobs, no money, and you’re returning home to a place and people that barely know you. I would say that would be the interesting story now: the return home.

Congratulations on the publication of your book on China’s one-child policy. Can you describe your approach to this complicated topic?

A lot of foreign correspondents write a book to commemorate their time in China. It occurred to me that nobody had written the big-scope book on the one-child policy, everything from the origins to the actors to the impact. I was also predisposed to think along those lines because of personal issues. I had a miscarriage when writing about the 失独父母 (parents who lost their only child) in Sichuan after the big earthquake. I also struggled with infertility and went to an IVF clinic in Beijing. Suddenly fertility and questions of why we become parents were at the forefront of my mind. I felt these were also universal questions that went beyond China.

Most of what is written about the one-child policy is at an academic level. I stand on the shoulders of really smart people like Susan Greenhalgh at Harvard. She has a great body of work that looked at the origins of the one-child policy and how it involved defense scientists. There’s also the new generation of demographers, people like Wang Feng who famously called the one-child policy a greater disaster than the Cultural Revolution. There were economists like James Liang—in his day job the CEO of Ctrip—who wrote about the impact on the economy. There’s a famous book written by Valerie Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer that speculates on whether China’s future state will be more muscular and aggressive because of the bare branches issue. I wrap all this research up with stories about what it’s like to be in a gender imbalanced society. So I do things like go for mass dating and visit single men in their homes. This is meant for the general reader.

How can we reconcile the positive and negative consequences of the one-child policy? For instance, the policy has led to a significant gender imbalance and forced abortions in China, but some suggest it helped skirt the perils of overpopulation.

I think there were some redeeming qualities. But at the same time I’m astonished by the number of people who don’t know much about the policy and have come to erroneous conclusions. One of the big overarching myths is that the one-child policy helped China economically and helped the world ecologically and environmentally. Maybe it did a little bit, but the question is: Could this have been done better? There’s an assumption around the policy that it was the be-all-and-end-all to rein in the world’s largest population, when it’s very clear that many of China’s neighbors managed to do precisely that thing without having to resort to anything as drastic or coercive as the one-child policy. If those methods had been adhered to, then we certainly wouldn’t see the demographic disaster that China is now engaged in, where you have a too-old, too-male, and too-few population looming ahead.

China announced a two-child policy last year amid concerns over its graying population. Is the relaxation of population policy coming too late?

The very fact that China has shifted to a two-child policy, and will probably lift all restrictions down the line, is a strong indication that things need to change. They’ve switched tack to the point of encouraging people to have children, but almost no modern country has been able to reverse this trend. Perhaps France has stabilized at two children per family, but that’s only after spending a huge amount to do so: packages on maternity benefits, free schooling, and so on. No country has a solution that China would be interested in emulating, suggesting that China is going to be on its own. Certainly, I am of the camp that it is too little, too late. Even if you do galvanize the country into producing more babies, it takes 20 years on average for these babies to grow into workers. This means there’s no altering the course for the next 20 to 25 years.

Now what else can be done along the scale? China has not historically been very open to immigration; it is a very Han-based culture. They announced an overseas Chinese card as a way of making it more attractive for overseas Chinese to move to China, but those numbers alone will not suffice. They need a whole package to inspire people to have children, while struggling with a population of retirees bigger than all of Europe, with all the attendant issues. The question is: Where is the money going to be allocated and how much?

Having studied the long-term transformations under China’s one-child policy and urbanization campaigns, what is the next major story or slow-burning trend on your radar?

For a long time, the story was China’s rise. A lot of people were almost too enthusiastic, in the direction of, “China’s going to take over the world!” Now is the beginning of the slide: China’s decline, China’s collapse, China’s slowdown. Maybe the caution there is not to go too much in the other direction, until we see more signs.

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