How China’s One-Child Policy Got it Wrong

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Cultural & Political

As a writer I believe in the power of words. They can make you laugh or cry. But there’s only one topic that makes me retch involuntarily. Child abuse.

Combine that with my new-found passion for feminism since the birth of my not-so-tiny-now, adored daughter, and I almost thought for this article, I would have to throw my journalist ethics out the window.

Because the one child policy of China has resulted in mass murder, sex-selective abortion, neglect, maltreatment and abandonment of its baby girls. The question of whether the Chinese government is directly responsible for this is hotly debated and whilst they would never admit outright cause and effect,

The Chinese government appeared to recognize the linkage by allowing families in rural areas (where anti-female bias is stronger) a second child if the first was a girl. Nonetheless, in September 1997, the World Health Organization’s Regional Committee for the Western Pacific issued a report claiming that “more than 50 million women were estimated to be ‘missing’ in China because of the institutionalized killing and neglect of girls due to Beijing’s population control program that limits parents to one child.

Joseph Farah, “Cover-up of China’s gender-cide” Western Journalism Center/FreeRepublic, September 29, 1997.

Duty-based ethics says that some things – if considered the ‘right’ course of action – should always be done, no matter what bad consequences they produce. And despite my horror, it would be useless to ignore that the policy was implemented for a reason.

China imposed strict birth controls in the 1970s to limit growth of its huge population, noting that resources, especially land, were increasingly strained and that changes were needed in its new push to modernize.

China’s Population Laws Threaten Baby Girls, Favor Boys

This is interesting because it means that the working hypothesis of the Chinese government was that it was the population growth which caused poverty and hunger in the following relationship:

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In the 1970s, the Chinese government believed that the only way to solve the strain on its resources was by enforced birth control because they fundamentally misunderstood the relationship between population growth, poverty and hunger. They thought it was the ‘right’ thing to do.

But here’s the true relationship.

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Poverty is the cause of population growth, not the effect. But why would poor people choose to have so many children? Simple. Because the large majority of their children die from hunger or hunger related causes. Therefore having a lot of them increases the chances that some male heirs will live to be a source of security for their parents. The alleviation of poverty would therefore have been the most effective way to encourage birth control. But because male heirs are favored, the enforced birth control led to female infanticide. Abuse of baby girls, became a survival mechanism.

But now the National Population & Family Planning Commission will be merged into the Ministry of health indicating that the one child policy – or at least the zeal with which it was once enforced – is on the wane, even though many have found ways to circumnavigate the policy already. Not surprisingly, given the relationship between poverty, hunger and population growth, this circumnavigation is most prevalent in the poorest regions of China.

Min was born in 1986, six years after the one-child policy came into effect. She is the second of five children, a reflection of lax enforcement of family planning in the Hebei farming village where she grew up. (Min’s father told me that one family in the village had six children; another man, who had fathered seven children, had been the village chief.) Min herself, along with everyone she knows, has two children. When history’s largest social experiment in state-regulated childbearing comes to an end, it will have been borne disproportionately by the Chinese urban middle-class.

Why the One Child Policy has Become Irrelevant

The one-child policy not only should be scrapped out of moral obligation, but also that it should never have existed in the first place; because (with my journalist integrity intact) disregarding the disastrous consequences of its implementation, the one child policy tackled China’s problem from the wrong direction. And for those who are interested in some of the direct consequences above and beyond the widespread female infanticide, the stringent policies have resulted in more abusive behaviour towards adult women as well.

The imbalance between the sexes is now so distorted that there are 111 million men in China — more than three times the population of Canada — who will not be able to find a wife.” As a result, the kidnapping and slave-trading of women has increased: “Since 1990, say official Chinese figures, 64,000 women — 8,000 a year on average — have been rescued by authorities from forced ‘marriages’. The number who have not been saved can only be guessed at. … The thirst for women is so acute that the slave trader gangs are even reaching outside China to find merchandise. There are regular reports of women being abducted in such places as northern Vietnam to feed the demand in China.”

China battles slave trading in women: Female infanticide fuels a brisk trade in wives,” The Vancouver Sun, January 11, 1999

But what of the problem it was initially meant to solve – the strain on the economy? Well. the outcome of restrictive breeding is a severely declining population.

Kathleen Brush, author of The World Made Easy says

In 2011, China had 100 million people over 65. In 2014 it will rise to 200 million and by 2025 it will rise to 300 million. With fewer young people, due to the one-child-policy, this will place a tremendous tax burden and/or outright cost burden on working-age adults to support this enormous population of elderly.

The danger is no longer on the physical resource of land but on the Chinese economy as a whole which doesn’t have enough workers to support its aged population. And if past history is any kind of indicator, the Chinese aren’t afraid of fatal consequences of their policies.

So watch out, because it’s the elderly – and especially those without children to support them – who will be next in the Chinese government’s firing line.

A thousand thanks go to Ron Smothermon for his work on population growth & poverty theories.