Dark Side of One Child Policy of China
Reformist, and then General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, promulgated the policy. As a close follower of Deng Xiaoping, Hu used the birth control policy as a weapon to combat the leftists, who followed Mao’s doctrine “more people, more power”.
Traditional Chinese Thinking
"Book of Songs" (1000-700 B.C.)
"When a son is born,
Let him sleep on the bed,
Clothe him with fine clothes,
And give him jade to play...
When a daughter is born,
Let her sleep on the ground,
Wrap her in common wrappings,
And give broken tiles to play..."
China’s One Child Policy – World’s Worst Law!
China’s one child policy (OCP) which was earlier hailed as an unprecedented success story of “demographic engineering” is now proving to be a demographic disaster and people now call it the worst law in human history. The way it was implemented has also often made human rights activists and sociologists to reflect on Hitler’s holocaust to wipe out the Jews from Europe.
Although worries predominantly come from the typical economic arguments of shrinking workforce (China’s working-age population peaked in 2012) and expanding elderly population (In 2013, there were 194 million elderly people above the age of 60 in China) the socio-cultural costs are heavy and unimaginable. The OCP gave death blow to the once-revered Chinese family-centered culture. The respect for elderly vanished as they got reduced to the status of babysitters while their own children toil for wages in far away cities. The radical shift to a 4-2-1 family structure, four grandparents to one grandchild, deprived the seniors the family safety net as they face the hardships of old age. Lonely and neglected life is the new reality they never prepared for.
The founder of Communist China, Mao Zedong could have never imagined that soon after he is gone (in 1976) his disciples would fall prey to the ill-founded Malthusian phobia of overpopulation. Just three years later they imposed the one-child policy. It was an ambitious demographic engineering venture never seen in the human history before. As a result, China's birth-rate dropped from 5.8 births per woman in the 1970 to 1.6 in 2011. Impressive, isn’t it? Family planning officials boastfully claim to have prevented 400 million births since the policy was adopted – it is larger than the US population of 310 million. However, the positive effects of slowing population growth have gradually disappeared since 2010.
The result appeared outstanding to global leaders ignorant of the demographic dynamics and the “Chinese success story” began to be quoted everywhere. The state owned Chinese propaganda machinery of course remained ever ready to talk about the brilliant(?) success story of their population control initiative. What was rarely discussed was the creeping distortion in the boy/girl sex ratio apart from the distortions in the demographic pyramid, both with perilous long term consequences on the socio-economic dynamics.
China’s sex (boy/girl) ratio at birth (SRB) remained fairly normal (106/100) up to the 70’s when there was no state control on family size. The OCP made the SRB increasingly unbalanced: it rose to 111 in 1990, and peaked at 121 in 2005. In some rural areas, the SRB was believed to have been as high as 130. Current estimates suggest the ratio to be 118 in 2010 – somewhat better, but still highly distorted. As a result, currently there are 32 million more boys under the age of 20 than girls. This is close to the Canadian population.
Today, China’s total fertility rate is just about 1.4 children per mother, almost touching the warning line of 1.3 when the "low fertility trap" sets in. This most recent (Dec 2014) warning comes from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Once a country falls into the low fertility trap three self-reinforcing mechanisms － demographic, sociological and economic－work together to maintain a downward spiral in fertility that is difficult to recover from. Therefore, experts are calling for an accelerated scrapping of the one-child policy.
Clearly, this national cataclysm has profoundly caused long term disturbances in the Chinese society.
Where are the Missing Daughters of China?
It is argued that China's population control policy has killed more human beings than any other law in history, even exceeding the 45 million killings during Mao's Great Leap Forward. While no one knows how many abortions the law has exacted on Chinese women, the estimate for 2008 alone stood at 13 million.
State imposed birth restrictions and the Chinese preference for sons encouraged unprecedented abortion of baby girls that has given China the world's most unnatural sex ratio. The abortion of female foetuses and infanticide was greatly aided by the easy availability of portable ultra-sound scanners.
With the birth of about 1 million extra male children each year the pool of extra male population gets that much bigger. Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have revealed that eight "disaster provinces" of China's 29 provinces had 26 – 38 percent more boys than girls; only seven provinces were within the world's average sex ratio.
When the Chinese authorities imposed the one-child policy in 1979, hundreds of millions have experienced government-mandated despair. An entire generation of women has undergone multiple abortions—often forcibly and at late stages of pregnancy—bearing physical and emotional scars that can never be measured. Simultaneously, couples resorted to abortions, infanticide, or abandoning infant girls to ensure their ONLY child was a boy. Due to traditional beliefs, the one-child policy has been forcing couples to choose between “their future retirement and the lives of their daughters.”
The shortage of more than 30 million women is a "huge societal issue and another big challenge,” according to U.N. resident coordinator Khalid Malik. For sure, the enormity of the problem is only going to be bigger in the future. China's own population experts have been warning about this issue for years, but the government continued to remain Malthusian phobic.
Although unfortunate, this gender bias exists not only in China but in many societies across the globe. Experience tells us that whenever people have been forced to limit their family size, they have preferred to keep the male child and abandoned the female child, often even before her birth.
Where Have All the Girls Gone?
Consequences of “Missing Girls” Phenomenon
A recent study of government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Services (CASS) predicted that 24 million Chinese men might not be able to find brides in 2020. The numbers from the state agency is likely to have a downward bias; social organizations put that number in the 30 million to 50 million range.
The shortage of women has led to crimes such as forced marriages, bigamy, prostitution, rape, adultery and is also manifesting as homosexuality and distorted sexual habits. The “missing girls” phenomenon has fuelled human trafficking of girls and women, according to organizations fighting it. They are lured or kidnapped and sold— even multiple times — into forced marriages or for commercial sex trade. Women from many neighboring countries – Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, Mongolia and North Korea – are trafficked into China for commercial sex exploitation in growing numbers.
According to a nonprofit group fighting sex slavery, the sex-ratio imbalance in China is leading to a “new tsunami of demand.” It is one of the world's worst offenders in combating human trafficking.
Army of Bachelors
China is a lineage-based society and the unmarried men who represent the end of the line for their families are called guang guan or "bare branches" by the society – evoking images of family trees. They are seen as “losers in societal competition” and are regarded poorly by their communities; they suffer discrimination which often extends to their parents. This creates deep feelings of shame that pushes them into isolation and often into anti-social behaviour and alcoholism. These men are likely the drivers of a growing market for female trafficking and are more likely to engage incommercial and unprotected sex.
According to authors of the book, Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population, the vast army of surplus males could pose a threat to China's stability. In their analysis, low-status young adult men with little chance of having families of their own are "much more prone to attempt to improve their situation through violent and criminal behavior in a strategy of coalitional aggression."
The growing crime rate in China, which is often linked to the huge "floating" or transient population (some 80 million of which are low-status males) seems to add weight to their observation.
The Chinese government is trying to reverse the gender imbalance. Recently, China has reshaped some social policies. For example, it is promoting preferential admission to universities for girls-only families and making sex-selective abortions, which are illegal, even more difficult.
How Many Children Allowed in China?
How the Policy was Implemented
Right to Reproduction, Not a Fundamental Human Right
Right to reproduction is not a fundamental human right in China. Instead, the right to reproduction is effectively a privilege granted by the state, subject to the condition of fulfilling one’s duties to the state. According to an official response to a query on a government website in Hubei Province, once a couple has enjoyed the right to have a baby, they have the duty to use contraception.
Exceptions to the OCP
The OCP does have exceptions which vary from province to province. Prior to the November 2013 changes, a second child was allowed under the following conditions:
- where both the husband and the wife are only children;
- where the first child is handicapped;
- for rural residents, where the first child is a girl; or
- where both spouses are ethnic minorities.
Powerful Family Planning Bureaucracy
The implementation of the policy is monitored by the Family Planning Association (FPA) which has a full time staff of about 300,000 and tens of millions of volunteers overlooking every nook and corner of the country. The FPA officers are generally members of the Communist Party; they are notorious for being intrusive as well as imposing. They evoke universal disdain and dread. They can act quite arbitrarily to order abortions and sterilizations.
Local family planning officials are assigned a set of performance targets like certain number or percentage of births and contraception use. Performance related incentives keep them ever vigilant about non-compliers and policy-breakers. In many areas they take advantage of the “neighborhood crime watch” mechanism, encouraging neighbors to snitch on each other to ensure that the rules are not broken.
They often impose collective responsibility on individual work units. For example, an annual bonus could be denied to all employees of the unit if any of its employees has more children than allowed. In November 2013, a Guangdong an assistant professor was fired for allegedly violating the OCP so that the other employees would not risk losing their annual bonus of 3,000 yuan ($500) each.
Violations invite fines and punishments. Fines prove rather heavy for ordinary folks – several times their average annual income. Inability to pay fine is invitation to harassment which can take any shape. Poor or village folks who lacked capacity to pay fine often reported about officials taking away their cattle, beating them up or ransacking their homes. Loss of job and wage-cuts are other penalties. There have been reports of extreme punishments too.
For instance, a woman from Shanghai who was pregnant with second child, got fired from job, forced to abort and was sent for psychiatric treatment. She later ended up in a labor camp; no one knows what happened thereafter. While such incidents may not be very common but even few are enough to scare people into submission.
In 2008, news of widespread violation of the policy came from Hubei Province where over 90,000 people, including scores of state officials and lawmakers, reportedly did not stick to one-child norm. It led to expulsion of about 500 members from the Communist Party.
Denying birth certificates and identity documents to additional children has been another way to harass “erring” couples. It denies schooling opportunities and makes them ineligible to join the work force when they grew up. To escape trouble, many people did not declare extra children after the first one; as a result, they remained undocumented. These undocumented or "black permit" children are usually shifted from place to place among relatives and friends to escape detection. The number of such undocumented children has been estimated to be at least 6 million. This is also a common punishment for children of the political or religious dissidents, even if their parents followed the one-child norm.
What kind of human dignity and future these unaccounted and “alien” citizens have in China is anybody’s guess.
How “Extra Children” got Protected
While the authorities have been strict in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, in other areas possibilities existed to get by with extra children without fine or punishment. Extra children are tolerated and documented as long as parents pay the fine; thus, the policy was never a worry for the rich people. Ordinary folks devise ingenious ways to protect their “extra” kids. A study conducted in the year 2000 indicated that probably only one child in five was the “only child”. Here is a representative sample of ways to bypass the policy:
- Rich people can arrange for delivery abroad and work thing out.
- Get divorced and then remarry later.
- Get the first child declared handicapped.
- How about bribing the doctors to declare the second child twins of the first one! This trick gave birth to jokes about "twins" born 10 years apart or doctors asking the pregnant women, "Is it your first child or you are having twins?"
- Giving birth in far off areas as the first child.
- “Parking” additional kids with childless friends or relatives who wanted babies.
Thus, it can be safely assumed that there were widespread violations of the one-child policy.
Was the One Child Policy really Necessary?
China's one-child policy has been mostly looked at from the angle of human rights violation that led to sex-specific abortions creating lopsided gender ratio and bureaucratic coercive practices. The State machinery credits the policy for preventing 400 million births. But a rising number of demographers and sociologists have been disputing that idea. With their more careful analysis of population data before and after the policy took effect, they claim that China's population growth rate would have decreased any way and the OCP was unnecessary. Diluting the State claim, they would give credit to the policy for preventing a much smaller number of births than the State’s claim.
China's population growth rate was already declining sharply
Demographers say that the Chinese fertility was already falling in the decade before the policy was enacted. China’s fertility rate was 5.8 births per woman in 1970; it fell to 2.8 births in 1980. So the trend of decline was already in motion when the OCP took effect and the further decline in fertility to 1.6 by 2011 cannot be called “spectacular” – contrary to the state officials’ claim. Therefore, saying that the OCP caused fertility decline from 5.8 to 1.6 thirty years later is like “Obama also taking credit for economic growth during the Clinton years!"
The decline in the decade 1970-79 was a result of Chinese ongoing efforts with other population control measures such as raising awareness on benefits of smaller families, making contraceptives easily available and promoting the "Later Longer Fewer" policy, which encouraged women to wait longer to have children and have fewer of them.
In fact, Bangladesh is a recent good example of how raising awareness of family planning particularly among women and increasing easy access to birth control tools are sufficient to effectively reduce the fertility rates. Without any state imposed birth control and the complication of sex ratio distortion it reduced its fertility rate from 6.9 in 1970s to 2.4 in 2010.
Another thing they point out is the fact that the OCP was not universally applied on the whole population. The policy was implemented differently in different regions, and there were numerous exemptions. For example, in some places, you could have more than one child if you were a fisherman or belonged to minority groups. In others, you could have second child if the first child was a girl or handicapped.
Therefore, the OCP did curtail the fertility to some extent but the public awareness on the advantages of smaller families was already working on people when the policy was enacted.
A Lesson for China
- Population Development: What Kerala can Teach India and China
Kerala,a tiny state of India, has achieved demographic transition solely based on human development. This is different from the economic development model prescribed in the West.
Can China Reverse the Policy?
In November 2013, the China announced a new adjustment in its OCP. It changed the existing rule that allowed two children for couples only when both parents are only children. Now couples are allowed a second child if either parent was an only child. Rural couples, ethnic minority couples, and couples where both parents are only children were among those couples already permitted under previous exceptions to bear a second child.
An year later, the response to the new rule has been below government’s expectations, largely for economic reasons, but also because decades of government propaganda have convinced them that one child really is best. It is a case of too little too late.
The trend reflects how a combination of the one-child policy, rapid urbanization and rising incomes have dramatically changed people’s mindset. Experts say that even a total abandonment of the one-child policy tomorrow would do nothing to relieve the problem for decades. Growth of the Chinese economy, the stated object and purpose of the policy, is poised for a crisis.