When a good history of modern China is written (if it ever will be), much of it will be a litany of incredible blunders, of failures to look ahead that absolutely boggles the mind, of death and tragedy on a scale seldom seen in the bloody history of mankind. One of these was a conscious decision by the communist government to encourage people to have many children. In a predominantly agrarian society such as China was (and, to a large extent, still is), this makes a certain amount of sense: offspring are a ready source of very cheap farm labor.(1) Further, they can inherit the farm, keeping it in the family for generations. But there was more to Mao’s urging people to have children than simple agriculture: he would empower China and counter US military superiority (and especially our possession of the Bomb) with sheer numbers:
“I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left. I’m not afraid of anyone.”(2)
"Chairman Mao gives us a happy life"(3)
Unfortunately for millions of Chinese who died of starvation under Mao’s regime, the policy of having more children ran bang against the realities of China’s inability to feed them all.(4) As Mao’s grip on power weakened in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, more sensible Chinese leaders began to realize that the population boom would become a ticking population bomb for China. Official policy shifted from "have lots of children!" to "marry late and practice contraception". In 1979, the Chinese government took the next logical step and instituted the One Child Policy.(5)
"Less births, better births to develop China vigorously"(6)
As with Mao’s policies that led to it, the One Child Policy has had many unintended consequences. The most glaring is the gender imbalance in China, where there are now roughly 1.2 men for every woman.(7) This is driven in large part by social custom: in many Asian cultures, boys are much preferred over girls as boys make better laborers and hence can provide better for their parents (think of it as choosing a retirement fund). China has also been heavily criticized for certain draconian aspects of enforcement of the One Child Policy such as forced abortions and forced sterilizations.
Looking at it coldly, the One Child Policy makes sense: without it, China would simply have too many people. But… Forced abortions? Forced sterilizations? Abandoned children? Men who can have no realistic hope of marriage and, hence, no hope of children of their own? People who may have nobody to support them in their old age?
I don’t think that China has seen the end of catastrophes brought about by Mao’s policies.
This is the background for a little Chinese girl becoming my daughter. This is what I shall have to explain to her one day.
(1) A friend of mine born into family of North Carolina tobacco farmers once told me that his parents told him point-blank, “We had you to work tobacco.” He assured me that he loved his parents and that they loved him and his siblings, but economics was the sine qua non for children, not love.
(2) Mao Zedong, “American Imperialism is a Paper Tiger” (speech, Moscow, November, 1957), The Epoch Times (English Edition)
(4) Nobody knows for sure how many Chinese died during the Great Chinese Famine that was due in large part to Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”; estimates range from 15 to 45 MILLIONS.