One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment by Mei Fong review – a harrowing examination of social control

Chinese child and father

This moving account of the single-child policy reveals its impact on China and the world

The Chinese language has no word for “brother” or “sister”. Instead, you are a jiejie (older sister) or meimei (younger sister); a gege (older brother) or didi (younger brother). Hierarchy and family relationships have been central to Chinese society for millennia. But in the past four decades, this central fact has changed utterly. For the majority of the population, siblings have become a theoretical concept. In 1980, China implemented perhaps the boldest experiment in social control of a population in world history: it declared that, with some important exceptions, Chinese couples would be permitted to have only one child each.

This demographic demand was a sharp reversal of existing policy. During the era of Mao, the Chinese were encouraged to have as many children as possible: in the Chairman’s words, “the more people we have, the greater our force”. But by the 1970s, as the economy settled down and the population kept growing, planners became worried that China’s population would become too large to support itself. At the time, neo-Malthusianism was in fashion around the world: the scientist Paul Ehrlich argued in his book The Population Bomb (1968) that “in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked upon now”. China’s leaders may not have read Ehrlich, but their own demographers promoted a similar message. And unlike the leaders of almost all the other highly populated countries of the time, China had a tool that it could use in response: authoritarian coercion.

Mei Fong’s vivid and thoroughly researched book tells the story of the consequences of China’s decision to restrict its population size. Her story begins with her taking a stifling ride on a packed train to Sichuan in 2008 with a group of peasant farmers returning home to find out if their only children have been killed in the terrible earthquake that hit the province that year. She also ventures to remote villages where local officials are charged by the central government with maintaining the one-child policy, leading to cases of forced abortions. One such case in 2012, where a woman named Feng Jianmei was held down and injected forcibly with an abortifacient, even caused a scandal within China and a declaration by the national authorities that they would review the operation of the policy.

Fong also takes us inside the decisions that led to the formation of the policy. In the late 1970s, the Chinese government decided that demographics was in fact rocket science and set a group of cyberneticists and engineers to ponder the problem. They decided that China’s ideal population size was 700 million and set out a linear model to show how it could be achieved by restricting births. As one of them put it in a 1988 book: “Since human beings appeared in the world millions of years ago, they have been battling with nature. Now they have finally conquered it with their wisdom and strength.” Unfortunately, the rocket engineers failed to consult any social scientists who might have pointed out that regulating family size is not the same as tweaking the measurements on ailerons or boosters.

As a result of social changes that the mathematicians failed to see, China is now getting older rapidly. On current projections, 34% of China’s population will be over 60 by 2050 (it’s around 12% now). Families have spent tremendous amounts of time and money in investing in the future of the one child who will be a significant part of their pension plan. No wonder that in 2015, the Chinese government announced that the policy would change to allow all families up to two children.

Yet as Fong points out, the policy may well have been unnecessary in the first place. Many developing countries have seen significant reductions in the population as they become richer, healthier and more urbanised. Japan is currently in staggering demographic decline (more than a fifth of the population is over 65) without any coercion at all; economic decline and anomie appears to have done the trick, along with a refusal to allow much immigration. In Shanghai, families have been permitted to have two children for some years (and in fact the policy nationwide always had huge numbers of loopholes). Nonetheless, Shanghai families are overwhelmingly choosing to stick to one child; the high cost of everything from property to education makes this more economically logical.

Fong doesn’t examine in detail the way that the concept of “overpopulation” has been questioned since the 1970s, but many factors have undermined it; for instance, China is a major trading partner with the world and has no need to be self-sufficient in food, and the green revolution in crops meant the spread of high-yield grains. Today there is much more concern about the sustainability of our lifestyles – can every Chinese or, indeed, American, own a car with the pollution that that implies? – rather than on the total number of people per se. Nor is China’s so-called demographic crisis insoluble, as it could be addressed by the encouragement of large-scale immigration into China; economically plausible but culturally difficult.

Still, the consequences of the one-child policy will affect not just China but the wider world economy for decades to come. Fong’s fine book is a moving and at times harrowing account of the significance of decisions taken by a small coterie of men (no women) with too much faith in science and ideology, and too little in humanity.

One Child is published by Oneworld (£12.99). Click here to buy it for £10.39

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rana Mitter, for The Observer on Monday 4th January 2016 07.00 Europe/London

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