01:12, September 02 41 0 theguardian.com

2018-09-02 01:12:04
China’s lost little emperors... how the ‘one-child policy’ will haunt the country for decades

Endings matter. They herald a reckoning, something that doesn’t come about very often in a place like China. While there has been very little official stocktaking over painful aspects of the country’s recent history, private citizens are free to do their own assessments and there has been an enormous amount of public venting on the shortcomings of the one-child policy in recent years.

Part of this is because, unlike the 1989 Tiananmen Square student demonstrations, which mostly affected the educated elite, the one-child policy has imprinted itself deeply into the lives of almost everyone in China, creating a hugely imbalanced population that has too many single men and too many retirees. The pressures are felt – and will continue to be felt – across every social level, from “bare branches” – rural men unable to find brides – to college-educated urban women stigmatised as “leftovers” if they stay single.

“One child” is a misnomer. For the 30-plus years the policy was in full effect, only about a third of Chinese households were subject to stringent one-child limits. The rest could have more children, conditional on where they lived, the kinds of jobs they had or their ethnic makeup.

Two years ago, I published a book on China’s family planning practices, basically saying that the one-child policy was on its last legs.

My book came out just as China announced a switch to a nationwide two-child policy. This was popularly hailed as “the end of the one-child policy”. Pedants like myself called this premature. The end is coming, I insisted, but not yet.

Whether one or two, childbearing was restricted, with painful punishments for transgressors. I’d met dozens: farmers who’d seen their homes razed, college professors who’d lost jobs, women forced into infanticide or abortions.

Many are still haunted by memories, including an official who described how he chased a woman neck-deep into a pond, where she pleaded in vain to save her pregnancy.

The end of the policy will come only when all childbearing restrictions and, more importantly, all penalties are dropped, I argued.

Now there are credible rumbles that Beijing may switch to a three-child policy or possibly drop all restrictions soon. I am once again a latter-day Cassandra shrieking: “The end is nigh!”

Public understanding of the consequences of the one-child policy have shifted, too. When I started researching my book, I felt a sharp disconnect between city dwellers, who seemed mostly in favour of the policy, and rural dwellers, who suffered the most from its extremes.

But in recent years, even the initial beneficiaries of the policy – “little emperor” singleton children, for example – are becoming aware of its shortcomings as they shoulder the burden of an ageing society. “When I was an only kid, I had so much attention from my grandparents. I was so spoilt. But now I have to give back and it is tearing me apart,” confided a friend who is nursing a parent with dementia.

She is not alone. By 2050, one in four people in China will be a retiree, with but a nascent social safety net for support. With fewer workers paying into the system and more pensioners drawing from it, the pension shortfall could reach trillions of dollars by 2050, according to a Deutsche Bank estimate. That is why there’s a popular Chinese saying: “We’ll get old before we get rich.”

The proposed elimination of birth restrictions has prompted a bitter re-examination, writes the Globe and Mail correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe, with a “simmering anger among Chinese citizens over the ways their lives have been forcibly sculpted”.

Endings also matter because they signal new beginnings. The end of the one-child policy will signal a new phase for Beijing, one dedicated to actively promoting sagging birth rates. Rather abruptly, the country is switching from “one child” to “one more child”.

Worryingly, recent trends suggest that Beijing may borrow more from its old playbook, leaning towards coercion, not persuasion. Instead of bonuses and incentives, there has been increasing talk – and some action – in the direction of fines and punishments.

Earlier this month, academics at Nanjing University proposed a “childbirth fund” that would require mandatory contributions from young workers to be withdrawn only by those who have two or more children. In essence, it would be the opposite of the social compensation fine during the one-child policy, which forced transgressors to pay up to 10 times their household income.

In June, new rules restricting abortions in Jiangxi province raised fears that women’s reproductive rights could be eroded. Some provinces have cancelled “late wedding leave”, a 30-day, paid work leave given to encourage people to defer marriage until after the age of 25. In 2016, a city in central China sent a letter to members of the local Communist party chapter urging them to have a second child to encourage others, peddling the slogan: “Doing it starts with me.”

The abrupt switch from banning to boosting births gives rise to some hilarity and much cynicism. Recently, I saw an article on the history of birth planning propaganda posters.

There was one I’d seen years ago in the countryside, a popular slogan: “Get abortion! Get induction! But never get delivered!”

Another, put up after the two-child policy change, says: “Conceive, give birth and raise it, but never get it aborted!”

Mei Fong is the author of One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment and former China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal

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