Reflections on China’s One-Child Policy
If China is leaving the “world factory” model, economy is not necessarily the only driver of this change. There are other factors at play, for instance, the family planning policy.
Recently I called my youngest sister, who worked in Kunshan, a prosperous industrial city near Shanghai, and we chatted about the job situation there. She said factory jobs are easy to get these days. I asked why that is the case. She said most potential workers are single children in the family. “If you were their parents, wouldn’t you want your only child to go to college and get a better job?”
I guess I would.
At the same time, there is a shortage of jobs for recent college graduates. In a meeting with college students in 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao made job creation for young college graduates a national priority, as having a job is a way to give a young person “dignity”. Job scarcity can also threaten social stability which the current Chinese administration try hard to maintain. Indeed, as shown in many regions in the world, it is a recipe for disaster to have too many young people and too few opportunities.
The lack of workers for factories, and the lack of jobs for college graduates, though seemingly unrelated, are actually both direct results of decades of the “family planning” policy. It is probably made worse by a tendency to adopt the US model of economic development that emphasizes knowledge sector jobs rather than industrial jobs. (John Taylor Gatto said in Weapons of Mass Instruction that people used to make steel, now they make bubbles, Internet bubbles, financial bubbles, to name a few.)
This year, quite a number of scholars in China are urging a revision or even revocation of the “one-child” policy. The start of this policy was fundamentally a mistake used to correct another mistake, a U-turn from a rock towards a ditch. Before the policy was instituted, there was a time when it was a virtue and contribution to the country to have many children. Chairman Mao said that “the larger the population, the greater the strength”, therefore he largely encouraged families to have more children, though there were times when he had second thoughts about the issue. Mao persecuted Professor Ma Yanchu, a prominent sociologist and Beijing University President who advocated population control. Ma left his position, burned his manuscripts, and disappeared from public attention.
Is China’s population control a total mistake? The problem is so complex that it defies criticism from a single perspective. First of all, “family planning” is not a Chinese invention, and it is a pretty good theory. In other countries, one would also need to prepare for the number of children to have, and the social, economical, psychological and even physical arrangements to make so that it is possible to raise your children in a fairly decent environment. However, a “one-child policy” is an extreme to go to.
It is not difficult to understand why there is population issue. Currently, China has 1.4 billion people in a land similar in size to the United States, which has 300 million people. Though this presents many opportunities, it also has a huge pressure on the country. Such pressure can be easily felt if you hop on to a bus in Beijing, or a subway train in Shanghai, if you can get on at all.
There is little people can do to reduce the pressure. Though we often have the illusion that there is a global village, migration in a “flat world” is not as easy as a few best-selling authors claim. Basically this means that the land of China will have to support its own population no matter how large it is. Legend has it that a western politician once criticized China’s population policy in front of Deng Xiaoping, then leader of China, Deng retorted by asking if he is willing to accept ten million Chinese as immigrants. That hushed the politician. As a matter of fact, if anybody has an issue remembering which countries have the largest population, and why this is a problem, simply check United States immigration services’ monthly visa bulletin, and there you will see India and China often being the only countries with a backlog in the bewildering quota system that govern USCIS decisions. Few countries would like to fully open its doors to the Chinese.
The overpopulation issue, however, should never justify the one-child policy as an intervention. In the name of family planning, atrocities such as forced abortion and sterilization were common. If anyone holding public office has more than one child, he or she may immediately lose the job, and receive a huge fine that are often several times a person’s annual salary. The fine is often called “social care-taking fee”, though a child may growing up knowing no other caretaker than his or her parents, instead of an abstract “society”.
After 30 years of the family planning policy, what would happen if the policy is abolished? Would people have more children than one? In present-day China, many young people, especially those born in the 80s, call themselves “apartment slaves”, “child slaves” to describe the heavy pressure they have to shoulder. After talking with friends and classmates back home, I realized that many people wouldn’t want to have more than one child even if they are allowed to. As a matter of fact, there is quite a bit of flexibility about this policy and people can often make exceptions for themselves especially in recent years when the public is casting doubts about family planning as a basic national policy. For instance, in rural China, it is possible to have another child if the firstborn is not a son. Also, in the cities, if both parents are single children in their respective families, they are allowed to have a second child. However, many choose not to take advantage of this “privilege.” It is getting prohibitively expensive to raise a child. I guess we’ve got a giant panda situation here. Sooner or later there will be a “tipping point” when the population will decrease and increasing it would be a tough challenge.
Elsewhere in the world, there are similar reservations among Chinese for having more children. I recently read a book (The Population Crash) that says Chinese women on average have far less children than other peoples. In Singapore, where there isn’t a one-child policy, Chinese women on average have 1.1 children, much less than other peoples in Singapore. In the Chinese communities in the US, having two children were common, but parents having more than three children will often wow a fellow Chinese. I do not know how to understand this phenomenon except a wild guess at the collective sub-consciousness of us Chinese from years of propaganda all over the world that having more Chinese increases the burden on the planet, even though generally most Chinese are hard-working, self-reliant, and rarely depending on the social welfare systems.
At this point, the policy will indeed need to be revisited. Economically, an aging population is not going to do China much good in the long run. China may seem prosperous, but not many people are taking the GDP growth seriously any more, unless the national wealth can be fairly distributed through equal access to opportunities for the country’s 1.4 billion people. Compared to the powerful few, most people are still living in relative poverty. The nation risks “getting old before it gets rich”, as a popular saying goes nowadays. Economically, the lack of younger people for factory jobs is forcing China to re-consider its “world factory” model of development. Only a few years ago, cheap labor is everywhere. As single children become the main pool of the labor force, it is easier to find someone to make the next bubbles.
Socially, when generations of single children grow up, they will be forced to live in a 4-2-1 family structure (four grandparents, parents and the child). If the social welfare system does not upgrade to accommodate such changes, it is going to cause huge stress for the child to support all the parents and the grandparents. Traditionally many Chinese parents were supported by their children. That’s simply not sustainable any more.
The lack of siblings of course conveniently rid the society of sibling rivalry issues that drive parents crazy (Remember “It’s not fair”! “He started it.” “Why me?”…. ), but that may be as much a curse as it is a blessing. Kids may grow up not knowing how to resolve conflicts, solve problems in spite of differences, and build relations with a fellow human being of his or her similar age. That’s not doing future marriages much favor.
The silver lining of that cloud is that this generation of single children are more assertive and more confident than their parents’ generation. After all, these little “princes and princesses” do not grow up having to make compromises.
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