The End of the Only Child Era

December 1, 2015   •   By Helen Wang

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.