Many today almost forget, or were not around to remember, that back in the 1960’s and 1970’s concern about over-population was a serious and world-wide concern.  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” — a claim so ludicrous it is hard to believe so many people took him seriously.  Countries around the world are now battling the economic consequences of chronically low birth rates.

However, in this context, it is easier to understand why the United Nations gave its first ever population award to the Chinese minister for population planning in 1983.  Such was the social hysteria of the time that the forcible violation of women’s bodies in pursuit of government policy won a United Nations award.  It is a good reminder that international politics is not always well thought out, nor is the dignity of individuals always a key concern for international entities run by individuals with agendas.  This approach continues in many international aid policies today.

Mei Fong’s recently released book One Child gives a harrowing insight into the continuing social cost of China’s one child policy.  An investigative journalist within China for many years, and of Chinese descent herself, throughout the book she touches on the unnatural destruction of family, the lack of dignity the policy afforded women (extending to downright brutality and late-term forced abortions), and the commodification of something as sacred as children.

Although a mother of IVF twin boys herself, Fong also explores the wider consequences of a national mentality in which humans lord over their own fertility.  Unnaturally restricted to only one child, Chinese couples began to seek the perfect one child – be that through selecting gender, twins (common practice to get around the one child policy), screening out genetic diseases, and increasingly trying to select traits like intelligence, height, looks, blood type and even double eyelids.  To achieve this they routinely rejected fertilised embryos, had abortions, committed infanticide, abandoned female babies, and rejected children from arranged surrogates who didn’t fit certain criteria, forcing abortion on vulnerable woman being commodified themselves.  There is big business in babies.  Fong comments:

“The one-child policy already widened inequalities in China.  If you’re rich, you’re likely to have had more children with less impunity [due to the ability to afford large fines].  What if those children can be smarter, less disease prone, and taller?  Then China will draw ever closer to the dystopian society envisioned by Aldous Huxley in ‘Brave New World’, where the population is created in a lab and classified.  Alphas are rulers, and worker bees like the Epsilons are cognitively stunted and programmed never to aspire above their station.” 

The book gives terrifying insights into the day-to-day practicalities of enforcing a one-child rule, particularly in rural China where people are poorer and more vulnerable.  Enforced differently from province to province, family planning officials were given birth targets and basically free rein to enforce them with actions such as fines, forced contraception, jailing elderly parents, and forcing abortions.  While technically breaking laws in many cases, there was an unspoken understanding that actions to enforce the policy would be overlooked and go unprosecuted. 

Feng Jianmei’s story is but one example.  In 2012 the twenty-two year old factory worker who was pregnant with her second child, but believed she qualified for a second-child exemption, once hid out for several hours on dark rainy hillside in an attempt to evade officials.  However, when she was seven months pregnant officials caught her and dragged her to a hospital with a pillow over her head.  She was injected with a substance to kill the baby and made to pay debilitating fines.  She later said, “I could feel the baby jumping around in me all the time, and then she went still.” According to Fong, Chinese censors have been quick to quash the spread of countless other such examples. 

Such was the state machinery in place, employing hundreds of thousands of enforcement officials and associated bureaucrats, that when it became apparent that a one-child policy was not necessary economically – and was in fact hindering China – it proved difficult to unwind.  Those that set the one-child policy machinery rolling failed to foresee the economic and social consequences China is now dealing with: a diminishing workforce with which to support the swelling elderly population; hundreds of thousands of bachelors who have little chance of finding a wife; parents who lost their only permitted child in tragic circumstances and now languish in old age in a country where family is your pension plan; pressured only children who must meet all their parents expectations for their lives and look after them single handedly in old age; not to mention the immeasurable joy lost to families denied a basic human right — to have a family. 

The group of rocket scientists who came up with it have a lot to answer for.  They decided that China’s ideal population size was 700 million and presented a questionable linear model to show how it could be achieved by restricting births, forgetting to take into account how human behaviour or technology might change their projections.  Not the most emotionally intelligent group, one of them wrote 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.” 

Never a laudable goal to begin with, in retrospect the one-child policy proved completely unnecessary to reduce birth rates given world-wide birth trends.  In Shanghai, families have been permitted to have two children for some years and all of China has now adopted a “two child policy”.  However, families are overwhelmingly choosing to stick to one child.  A one-child mentality has become engrained, with many now believing it easier to provide the best education and life if one has only one child; years of government propaganda has worked.  

Fong exposes the scary, inhumane consequences of messing with humanity’s most basic building block; reproduction and the family.  The consequences of the one-child policy will be felt for decades to come, and provide a lesson for all.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...