A gripping account of China’s failed attempt at social engineering and its pervasive effects on the Chinese people
An intimate investigation of the world’s largest experiment in social engineering, revealing how its effects will shape China for decades to come, and what that means for the rest of the world
When Communist Party leaders adopted the one-child policy in 1980, they hoped curbing birth-rates would help lift China’s poorest and increase the country’s global stature. But at what cost? Now, as China closes the book on the policy after more than three decades, it faces a population grown too old and too male, with a vastly diminished supply of young workers.
Mei Fong has spent years documenting the policy’s repercussions on every sector of Chinese society. In One Child, she explores its true human impact, traveling across China to meet the people who live with its consequences. Their stories reveal a dystopian reality: unauthorized second children ignored by the state, only-children supporting aging parents and grandparents on their own, villages teeming with ineligible bachelors, and an ungoverned adoption market stretching across the globe. Fong tackles questions that have major implications for China’s future: whether its “Little Emperor” cohort will make for an entitled or risk-averse generation; how China will manage to support itself when one in every four people is over sixty-five years old; and above all, how much the one-child policy may end up hindering China’s growth.
Weaving in Fong’s reflections on striving to become a mother herself, One Child offers a nuanced and candid report from the extremes of family planning.
In the midst of the Cold War, China’s rocket scientists came up with an ambitious plan that had nothing to do with missiles, or space exploration, or weaponry of any kind.
It concerned babies.
On September 25, 1980, China’s Communist Party unveiled this plan through an open letter that asked members to voluntarily limit their family size to one child. The request was, in truth, an order.
Thus began the one-child policy, the world’s most radical social experiment, which continues to irrevocably shape how one in six people in this world are born, live, and die.
Like crash dieting, the one-child policy was begun for reasons that had merit. China’s leadership argued the policy was a necessary step in its Herculean efforts to lift a population the size of the United States’ from abject poverty. But like crash dieting, the one-child policy employed radical means and aimed for quick results, causing a rash of negative side effects.
The excesses of the one-child policy, such as forced sterilizations and abortions, would eventually meet with global opprobrium. Balanced against this, however, is the world’s grudging admiration for China’s soaring economic growth, a success partially credited to the one-child policy.
What we fail to understand is that China’s rapid economic growth has had little to do with its population-planning curbs. Indeed, the policy is imperiling future growth because it is rapidly creating a population that is too old, too male, and, quite possibly, too few.
More people, not less, was one of the reasons for China’s boom. The country’s rise as a manufacturing powerhouse could not have happened without abundant cheap labor from workers born during the 1960s–70s baby boom, before the one-child policy was conceived.
To be sure, fewer births made investments in human capital more efficient — less spreading out of educational resources, for example. Many economists, however, agree that China’s rapid economic rise had more to do with Beijing’s moves to encourage foreign investment and private entrepreneurship than a quota on babies. Privatizing China’s lumbering state-owned enterprises, for example, spurred private-sector growth until it accounted for as much as 70 percent of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2005. Arthur Kroeber, one of the most prolific and respected economists who specializes in China, said, “Let’s say China grew 10%; I would be surprised if more than 0.1% of this is due to the one-child policy.”
China’s vast cohort of workers is growing old. By 2050, one out of every four people in China will be over sixty-five. And the one-child policy has vastly shrunk the working population that must support and succor this aging army. In recent years China has made great strides in rolling out nationwide pension and health-care schemes, but the social safety net is far from adequate, and the leadership will have to do much more with much less time.
I started reporting on China’s economic miracle in 2003 as a Wall Street Journal correspondent. I was on the factory beat, covering the workshop of the world. Every little city in southern China’s Pearl River Delta defined itself by what it made: I made regular stops at Jeans City, Bra Town, and Dollar Store center, wrote stories about the world’s largest Christmas tree factory, and about a brassiere laboratory that birthed the Wonderbra.
Few envisioned a worker shortage then. But I was starting to hear stories about factory owners being forced to hike wages. Some resorted to offering previously unheard-of perks like TVs, badminton courts, and free condoms. Most economists at the time saw it as a short-term labor supply issue that would soon sort itself out. For how could you run out of workers in China?
As it turned out, the work force shrinkage happened faster than anticipated. The one-child policy sharply accelerated a drop in fertility. China’s massive 800-million-person work force — larger than Europe’s population — started to contract in 2012 and will continue doing so for years to come, driving up wages and contributing to global inflationary pressures.
After twenty years of below-replacement rates, China is taking baby steps to encourage more couples to have two children to ease demographic pressures. So far, it doesn’t appear to be working. Only about a tenth of eligible couples applied for permission to have a second child one year after Beijing introduced its most recent nationwide round of changes, a take-up below even the most pessimistic projections. Many say it’s simply too costly and stressful to raise multiple offspring in modern-day China. In that sense, the one-child policy can be judged a success, for many Chinese have thoroughly internalized the mindset that the one-child household is the ideal.
If Beijing is unable to reverse this thinking, then somewhere in the decade between 2020 and 2030, China’s population will peak and decline. By 2100, China’s population may have declined to 1950 levels, about 500 million, a startling reversal for the world’s most populous nation. No other country has ever shed this much of its population without the aid of warfare or pestilence. And at the same time, the policy’s enforcement has occasionally been vicious, bordering on inhumane in certain cases, and it has encouraged a number of baleful side effects, from a potentially explosive gender imbalance to what is essentially a black market for adoptable infants.
China’s one-child policy was crafted by military scientists, who believed any regrettable side effects could be swiftly mitigated and women’s fertility rates easily adjusted. China’s economists, sociologists, and demographers, who might have injected more wisdom and balance, were largely left out of the decision making, as the Cultural Revolution had starved social scientists of resources and prestige. Only the nation’s defense scientists were untouched by the purges, and they proved not the best judges of human behavior.
The sad truth is, the harsh strictures put in place by the one-child policy were unnecessary for economic prosperity. By the 1970s, a full decade before the policy, China already had in place a highly effective and less coercive family-planning policy, called the “Later, Longer, Fewer” campaign. In the ten years the Later, Longer, Fewer campaign was in place, women in China went from having six children on average to three.
Many demographers believed this pattern of falling fertility would have continued without the imposition of the one-child policy, a reasonable assumption considering similar fertility trajectories among neighboring Asian nations. After all, China’s neighbors also managed to slow population growth — and turbocharge the...
Honorable Mention, ASJA 2017 Writing Awards
"A searing, important, and eminently readable exploration of China's one-child policy."
— NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
“The policy itself remains a monument to official callousness, and Fong’s book pays moving testimony to the suffering and forbearance of its victims.”
— NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
"Not to be missed ... [Fong] combines tough, broad economic analysis with individual stories."
— ECONOMIST / 1843
“A timely, important work that takes stock of the one-child policy’s damage…ONE CHILD is, like the policy’s abolition, long overdue, and Ms. Fong was the perfect person to write it.”
— WALL STREET JOURNAL
“Fong’s fine book is a moving and at times harrowing account of the significance of decisions taken by a small coterie of men with too much faith in science and ideology, and too little in humanity.”
“Fong writes eloquently and with an authority that reflects her knowledge of many cultures ... A deeply moving account of a policy that looks set to haunt China (and the world) for decades.”
— INDEPENDENT (UK)
“With impeccable timing, [Fong's] new book offers a superb overview... 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.”
— LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
"Fong excels in telling the personal stories of others, providing the reader with insight into how an Orwellian policy, rarely understood by outsiders, has played out in the lives of over a billion people."
“The country's one-child policy, to be officially phased out in 2016, created more far-reaching social distortions than even its most vociferous critics realized, argues Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Fong in this timely exposé of a reproductive regime whose inner workings Chinese officials have tried hard to keep under wraps… Finished just before the announcement of the policy's demise, One Child is a touching and captivating anthropological investigation of one of the most invasive laws ever devised.”
— KIRKUS REVIEWS
"Timely ... Compassionate ... Fong illumines individual grief and dignity ... [Her] human-scale portrayal of individual stories, weaving in her own fraught journey toward motherhood as well, makes for an approachable and edifying treatment."
— LIBRARY JOURNAL
“Mei Fong’s brilliant exploration of China’s one-child policy must change the way we talk about China’s rise. One Child is lucid, humane, and unflinching; it is vital reading for anyone focused on the future of China’s economy, its environment, or its politics. It not only clarifies facts and retires myths, but also confronts the deepest questions about the meaning of parenthood.”
— EVAN OSNOS, National Book Award-winning author of Age of Ambition
“Eye-opening, powerful, and utterly gripping, One Child had me hooked from page one. Mei Fong possesses a rare eye for the details that truly illuminate a story, the ones that most of us overlook. She writes beautifully and vividly, revealing sides of China I’d never imagined to exist.”
— AMY CHUA, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package
“Babies are a strange topic for a weighty book about China. But Mei Fong’s moving and highly personal account of the one-child policy will teach you more about the dysfunction and cruelty of modern-day China than any other. The story of her train ride to Sichuan Province with parents whose only children were killed in the 2008 earthquake is as heartbreaking as anything I’ve ever read about China.”
— BARBARA DEMICK, author of Nothing to Envy
“One Child is a critically important book about a major force that has shaped contemporary China, necessary reading both for policy experts and anyone interested in the future of one of the world's most important nations. But it is also a riveting read, written with the flair and compassion of a novel, that throws new light on the tough decisions we all face – and the joys we discover – in family life.”
— ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, author of Unfinished Business
“One Child is a timely and informative look into China’s infamous effort to control its enormous population. But Mei Fong has also given us a wry, bittersweet, and often very personal look at how courtship, marriage, birth, and death interact in the post-Mao Chinese family. A lovely antidote to decades of chillingly cold Party-speak from Beijing.”
— ORVILLE SCHELL, author of Wealth and Power
“Mei Fong reveals the dark underbelly of China’s one-child policy. Whatever the original intentions, its implementation led to heartache, human rights abuses, and coercion of women across the country. Also poignant is the fact that the legacy of this state attempt to control reproductive rights may linger as an Achilles heel derailing its economic rise.”
— PAUL FRENCH, author of Midnight in Peking"In human history, China’s one-child policy is unique. If you want to understand how it affected the lives of ordinary people and Chinese society as a whole, you need to read this. With its vivid character portrayals and incredible stories, One Child is an eye-opening book."
— XINRAN XUE, author of The Good Women of China and Buy Me the Sky: The Remarkable Truth of China’s One-Child Generations
"A highly impressive account of one of the controversial aspects of today’s China, combining policy analysis, extensive on-the-ground reporting, and personal experience."
— JONATHAN FENBY, author of The Penguin History of Modern China and Tiger Head, Snake Tails
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