Trou­bled birth of de­mo­graphic disaster

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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-

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