Troubled birth of demographic disaster
Ren tai duo: “China has too many people.” Mei Fong, an American journalist who spent many years living in and reporting on China (and won a Pulitzer prize for it), says you hear the phrase all the time in the world’s most populous country, and when you are crushed into an overloaded train or standing in an endless queue it is hard not to believe it.
But the truth, she says in One Child, a detailed, comprehensive and often painful book, is more complicated. The one-child policy introduced by the government in the post-Mao era has created a society that is unbalanced, unhappy and possibly unsustainable. At some point, everyone neglected to think things through.
The principle seems obvious enough. If the population is increasing faster than economic growth, slow the former and pump up the latter. Fong notes that the people who designed the policy were not social scientists — they had all been purged in the Cultural Revolution — but military officers. They believed social engineering was no different to ballistics or bridge-building: you simply crunched the numbers. They also had the advantage of working in a political system where theory could be put into practice without much in the way of dissent. If the human cost was awful, well, there are omelets and there are eggs.
Fong, born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, explains that before the one-child policy — which is called jihua shengyu, or “planned birth program” — there had been a fairly successful voluntary program encouraging couples to have only two children.
The new policy added a significant element of coercion, ranging from compulsory sterilisation to forced abortions.
Fong encounters lots of stories of abortions at the seventh-month mark or later, and of cases where babies were killed by injection as they were being born.
Even people who support abortion (as it is understood in the West) may find these passages grim reading.
Fines for disobeying the policy became an important source of revenue for local government authorities. Officials had a great deal of discretion in deciding punishments, and fines were often multiples of annual income.
This problem was greatest in the countryside. In the cities, affluent couples were often willing to pay the fine to have a second or third child, creating a new level of discrimination. Important party figures, of course, could often organise an exemption for themselves.
Was the policy successful? The Beijing technocrats believed that it reduced the number of births by more than 400 million but Fong dis-