Thursday, April 3, 2014

The One Child Policy

One day, my daughter may well ask me how she came to BE my daughter, why she is not living in China with her biological parents.  I will not be able to tell her truthfully why she was abandoned (what an ugly, ugly word), though of course I can speculate: “Maybe they couldn’t afford to care for you and, so that you could have a chance of a better life than they could give you, they gave you up." At the bottom, however, the reason is China’s One Child Policy.
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)

Xin Liliang - Chairman Mao gives us a happy life
"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
"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.



  1. The one child policy is certainly bound up in the abandonment of Chinese children, but since the majority of children abandoned today in China have medical needs, poverty is the most direct cause. Certainly because many are limited to one child they would prefer a healthy child to provide for them later in life, but many of these children need medical care that is far beyond the financial abilities of the average Chinese family. Boys and girls are both abandoned because birth defects don't discriminate. If you haven't seen this article series, it is very informative:

    When I was in China, many of the Chinese people I spoke with said that younger couples prefer their one child to be a girl for financial reasons. In an agricultural society, a boy is more valuable, but with China pushing industrialization, they all say boys are too expensive. A couple is expected to buy their son a house/apartment in order for him to be financially secure enough to find a wife and as you pointed out, wives will be hard to come by in the future. They are also expected to pay for extra educational opportunities so he can get a good enough job to attract a wife. I suspect if this is true that this is an urban versus rural attitude shift.

    1. This is very interesting. Thank you!

      It's interesting that the article / series you linked talks about the trouble with finding families for boys as my wife and I are among the apparent majority who want a girl(s). We have talked about a son, but it hasn't been our first choice. I've often wondered at this (fathers are SUPPOSED to want sons, aren't we?): is it because we have been conditioned by nearly twenty years of adoption to think that Chinese adoption = daughter? I wonder if people really even realize on a gut level that sons ARE available or if (like me) they haven't kept up with the times and still think of China adoption as almost exclusively girls only? Indeed, I was reading a blog comment the other day in which a mom complained that most of the adoption literature (books, movies, etc.) focuses on girls, which is a bit hard on her adopted sons.

      All in all, there's a lot of trouble on the horizon for China, and I'm not sure how they are going to get out of it. What are they going to do?

    2. I've written about the adoptive parent preference for girls on my own blog. I find it an interesting sociological phenomenon. As you say, since it's been all girls from China for over a decade, it isn't surprising that when people think of adopting from China then it's easiest to picture a girl. But the preference seems to predate the China program and it's across the board. I'll just link to my post because I included links to other articles discussing possible reasons, but as I said, it's an interesting phenomenon and there are lots of good guesses but no one knows for sure why. It's probably a variety of different factors.

      I now find myself desperately cheering for China to change and find a way out of the mess that Mao started. I want my son to have pride for his history and his country, but there is so much that went wrong there too. It's hard to know that we'll have to discuss the good and bad both.

    3. Thank you for the link to your article. Ithink (hope?) that, as more people adopt boys, more people will internalize the idea that they CAN. FWIW, my wife and I are thinking about doing so down the road, though I pity the boy if he happens to be athletic and likes sports, because I most certainly don't!

      As for discussing the good and the bad... This is a subject that exercises my mind a great deal. I cringe at the idea of having to discuss movies like "Porkchop Hill", "The Sand Pebbles", or even "Murder by Death". The Chinese Exclusion Act. The origins of Chinatown. Footbinding. The Rape of Nanking. The Korean War. The Cultural Revolution.

      I guess it is a matter of taking it one day at a time.

  2. This is a link to an in depth look at the history, context, and consequences of the One Child Policy. Scholars have been suggesting a move to the Two Child Policy for a long time now, and China just implemented that this year.

    1. Thank you for the link. The paper was very informative. This Song Jian character... what is it with communist governments embracing dippy "scientific" theories???