China’s One-Child Policy: A Transition in Culture and Identity Towards Private Enterprise

“Mom, what would life be like for us if you and dad hadn’t moved to the US?” My mom chuckled and casually proclaimed in Chinese, “Well you wouldn’t here right now then.” Through my mom’s softly-coated answer, the hard realization hit: If my parents had stayed in China, I wouldn’t be alive and eating the shrimp fried rice in front of me. I imagined the cruel policy, happening several thousand miles away on another continent but its effect spreading across the globe and subtlety on me. But my stubborn mind had to find a solution to this unsettling problem. “Well, isn’t there another way Mom?” I asked. After a moment she answered assuredly, “Well, we probably would have paid a fine for you to be born.” Immediately the statement soothed my nerves, but I thought about what my life what be like in China, where the government controls childbirth, a natural human right and pleasure, and your wealth dictates how many kids you can have.

As I revisit this experience with more sophistication, I bring along more personal context, such as learning of my mom’s experiences and how if scenarios had been different, my brother would not have been born. Bringing this Chinese-American cultural identity, I explore the One-Child Policy as a Western outsider but also one whose intimate family has been affected by it. Having both Chinese cultural background and Western upbringing opens perspectives on both the pros and cons of the policy, especially its effect on China’s economy, and how the policy and its removal affect China’s future. Upon closer examination of the One-Child policy, while on one hand its unforeseen repercussions, cruel implementation, and unnecessary nature could plague China’s future, on another hand, it is the best alternative to population disaster and fielded positive effects of higher living standard and more educational opportunities that set China’s base for progression. Alongside these changes, contrary to the belief of culturally-oblivious Western critics, China’s traditional communal values could be culpable for the policy’s repercussions and the scraping away of these outdated values may benefit China’s citizens economically in an increasingly privatized world that now emphasizes individuality over community.

Full understanding of the motives for the initiation of One-Child Policy requires an examination of China’s history of political leaders and economic reforms in the late 1900’s. The precursors of the policy began with the reign of Mao Zedong in 1949, China’s first communist leader after the Communist Party won the Chinese civil war (“China CultureGrams” 2). Mao enacted a series of policies starting with the Great Leap Forward in 1958, intended to propel China’s economy (“China Junior Worldmark” 220). Instead, the Great Leap Forward caused starvation and ended in 1959 (“China Junior Worldmark” 220). Mao then incorporated the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to upheave traditional Confucius morals such as familial values and strip citizens of intellectual knowledge so that his authority would go unchallenged. According to Chinese Malaysian journalist and One-Child Policy critic Mei Fong, Mao thought that revolution was only possible if people valued state affairs over family structure (149). The government shut down universities, and Mao arrested all who opposed him. He formed an army with teenagers carrying red books who arrested those who opposed Mao’s law and worshipped Confucius, including their parents. People who were arrested were sent to the countryside, stripped of future opportunities. The Cultural Revolution was one of the most turbulent times in China’s history, where fighting between factions caused around 400,000 people to die (“China Junior Worldmark” 220). After Mao’s death in 1976, the subsequent power vacuum resulted in Deng Xiaoping taking power (Fong 48). Eager to prove his worth as a leader, he sought to improve China’s Gross Domestic Product to $1,000 billion by 2000 (Fong 48). In order to accomplish his goal, he needed to increase economic growth while also reducing the population (Fong 48). To open China’s economy, Deng enacted more moderate economic policies in the 1980’s (“China Junior Worldmark” 220). These policies allowed limited return for farm goods, which prospered the countryside, encouraged foreign investment, and increased foreign tourism, private enterprise, and trade (“China Junior Worldmark” 220). Despite the economic success of these policies, population planners calculated that China must incorporate a One-Child Policy to meet the goal (Fong 48). Thus, with such arbitrary means began China’s most scrutinized policy, that unbeknownst to their leaders at that time, would impact and shape China in drastic ways beyond just its population.

China’s extreme population growth in the mid-late 1900’s, plaguing the country of resources and lowering standard of living, inspired urgent initiation of the policy and extreme strictness of which it was enforced. In 1950, China’s population was just 563 million but increased to one billion by the early 1980’s (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 4). Its rapid growth can be attributed to several factors. China’s predominately manual farming economy before 1900 yielded large families to produce more workers (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 4). These already large families then multiplied, creating even bigger families. Moreover, in the twentieth century, better health care led to longer lives while more births skyrocketed the population (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 4). On a global scale, China was the most populated country, taking up 21.3% of the global population (“China Junior Worldmark” 215). Rapidly, this growth was depleting resources and reducing standard of living as well as opportunities per person. A late 1970’s study showed that even if China initiated a two-child policy, its population would still rapidly grow for many decades before slowing down, when it would already be too late (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 5). To attempt to decrease growth, China first installed a voluntary birth program, which asked citizens to delay marriage and have no more than two children (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 5). This program dropped China’s fertility rate significantly (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 5). Despite the success of its voluntary program, in 1978, China officially implemented the One-Child Policy, designed as a short-term measure to curb its population (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 5). Couples who agreed to only having one child got easier access to health service, higher hiring priority, education, and public childcare, for both parents and the child (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 7). Those who violated the rule were penalized with heavy fines, appropriation or destruction of homes and property, physical harassment, work penalties, and loss of employment (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 7). The policy made contraception available universally and emphasized the civic duty of having one child in schools (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 5). For three decades to come, the policy would cause extreme turmoil and repercussions.

The policy’s shortcomings in certain areas and its unintended repercussions, such as a disproportionately small female gender ratio, a spoiled and inept young generation, and a rapidly aging population undermined its effectiveness. After the policy’s initiation, China’s population continued to grow at a rapid rate (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 10). Its continued growth was due to several factors. First, wealthy urban couples would often pay fines in order to have a second child (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 10). Next, the government relaxed the policy for rural families, who had many elderly family members to take care of and needed kids to do farm work (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 9). In addition to the policy’s ineffectiveness in certain areas, it created a huge gender disparity. Families, especially rural ones, only allowed to have one child, hoped for a male baby to carry on family pride and honor, a sign of respect in Chinese culture. Therefore, some couples bribed doctors to use the illegal ultrasound technology to determine the sex of the fetus (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 14). Statistics show that 121 males babies were born per 100 female babies born, but by 2014, the gap narrowed to 117.6 male babies per 100 females babies because preference for males was dropping among higher educated, younger people (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 16). Nonetheless, the damage was done: Because of the gender ratio, by 2030, twenty-five percent of men in China will be bachelors (Fong 109). Because raising a family holds the utmost importance in Chinese culture, this disparity creates an increasingly desperate culture of finding a bride. To compete for brides, men offer caili, a dowry they give to the bride (Fong 109). Because people often have to borrow loans and use money from parents for the caili, this stockpiling of money reduces spending and therefore slows the economy (Fong 116). Often, the sum leaves many grooms and their parents in debt (Fong 112). It is a lose-lose situation: those who do not find a bride are left sunken from parental expectations and stripped of pride, and of those who do marry, stripped of financial means. A 2013 study by Zhejiang University showed that Chinese bachelors had less self-esteem and more aggression compared to married men, and this, along with the disproportionate amount of males, may account for up to a third of China’s rise in crime (Fong 115).

Along with China’s increasing batch of unmarried men, the policy has produced a pampered, low-skilled young generation that is more risk-averse (Fong 90). Because parents only have one child, they overvalue that child and spend all their financial resources on him or her (Fong 90). Since many parents of the one-child generation were deprived of an education because of the Cultural Revolution, they push their children towards success to make up for their own shortcomings (Fong 93). This pressure may have contributed to unfavorable characteristics in the children. A 2012 study by a group of economists lead by Lisa Cameron shows that children born after the policy were less generous, showed less trust, were more pessimistic, and more-so favored safe bets over high risk bets than those born before the policy (Fong 91). In fact, with skyrocketing property prices and more graduates than ever in the job market due to China’s educational expansion, the children born in the one-child era face the hardest challenge of any generation but are the least equipped (Fong 95). To ensure their success, parents push their kids to pursue safer jobs, such as becoming lawyers or a doctors, rather than riskier endeavors like starting a business; this not only smothers China’s young generation’s creative ambitions but also holds back China’s private sector (Fong 99).

As China’s population rapidly ages, its old generation now relies on the younger generation to support them; but while the elderly are still financially “pampering” their children at the expense of themselves, the younger generation has failed to do its share. Ultimately, parents exert pressure on their one child so that the child has the economic capacity to take care of them when they are old. Filial piety, respect for one’s elders, is one of the most worshipped Chinese traditions. This tradition is emphasized even more as a smaller young generation must care for a rapidly growing older generation, whose numbers are increasing because of better health services. China’s median age increased from nineteen to thirty-five from 1970 to 2010, and the percentage of people over eighty doubled (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 15). However, in 2013, China’s pension system for the elderly reached a shortfall of 18.3 trillion yuan (Fong 139). With little support coming from the government, the elderly must turn to the younger generation, which must take care of their parents instead of the other way around.

But can this young generation—after all, the one with “spoiled” and “pessimistic” children—take care of the ones who raised them? On the parents’ side, many elderly save money that could be used for health services for their children and grandchildren (Fong 143). But most children are not upholding their share of the bargain: many leave the rural areas where their parents are to work in urban areas and others immigrate to other countries, only to hardly visit back (Fong 149). To describe China’s young generation’s betrayal of filial piety, Xiao Hebi, a Chinese resident, said “’Nowadays our children have become rulers; we just don’t dare say anything to make them angry. Not like in the past, when your children obeyed you until you died’” (Fong 155). Indeed, the parents’ pampering of their children, a result of them only having one child, has come back to haunt them through a perverse filial piety wherein “children have become rulers.” This lack of support leaves the elderly stranded, for they do not have the economic means, and the One-Child Policy took away their only source of pride: a large, robust family to take care of them.

From an economic standing, the smaller labor force as a result of fewer people born may cripple China’s economy (Fong xiii). By mid-twenty-first century, the working age to retired people ratio is expected to drop by more than 75 percent, from 8.3 working adults per senior to about 2.5 percent (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 15). With an increasingly industrial economy depending on the labor force, China’s labor shortage may undermine its economic growth, which One-Child Policy critic Fong argues to be due to its large labor force from the 1960’s-1970’s baby boom (xi).

In addition to the policy’s negative side effects, the policy’s enforcement induced a system of coercion, trafficking, and government deceit. March 2013 data showed that doctors performed 336 million interventions and 196 sterilizations since 1971 when policy was implemented (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 11). Many of these inteventions were forced by authorities, often in the late term of pregnancy (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 11). Erli Zhang, a former family planning official who was responsible for many forced interventions said, “‘I feel quite guilty. Chinese women have made huge sacrifices. A responsible government should repay them”‘ (Fong 62). This confession was significant because it was one of the first times a Chinese official from the propaganda-heavy government admitted his “guilt” and promoted women rights, which helped pave the way for reforms. Another negative byproduct of the One-Child Policy is China’s orphanages’ trafficking of children born in violation of the policy and selling these babies to oversees families (Fong 172). In 2009, Guizhou Province officials were exposed in seizing children born in violation of the policy and selling them to orphanages (Fong 173). Chinese babies sent oversees to countries such as the US are victims in these cases, growing up in American environments and being made fun of for their culture which they know nothing about. But the government has hushed many other cases of human rights violations—or at least tried to. The Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008 killed many thousand children in their schools and left many parents childless and desolate; because of this, the government allowed more than one child for mourning parents of quake victims (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 10). But the 2008 Beijing Olympics were approaching, and China needed to appear to the public as divine, majestic, and booming (Fong 20). To cover up the severity of the earthquake and its emotional effect on those who lost their only child, the government not only falsified the number of people dead in the earthquake but also bribed parents to keep their mouths shut about the incident (Fong 21).

Could China have curbed their population without these heinous human rights violations? Fong argues that China’s “Later, Longer, Fewer” family-planning campaign was also highly effective in reducing children, without the cruel execution that came with the One-Child Policy (xiii). In ten years, children per women in China decreased from six to three (Fong xiii). Fong further argues that in China’s neighboring countries, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, birthrates plummeted without such cruel enforcement (Fong xiii).

Nonetheless, the policy has successfully decreased China’s population and raised standard of living, its intended goals (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 13). Census numbers for 2010, released in 2011, show that the policy reduced population growth to less than 1%, while the average household size is down to 3.02 from 5.3 in the 1950’s (“China: One-Child Policy” par. 17). But the controversy starts here: Was the result worth its repercussions and traumatic measures? University of California Berkley academic Malcolm Potts says that policy was painful for the individual but gave China important economic benefits and was one of the most important changes to China and the world (Fong xv). Potts argues that a declining birth rate divides demographics so that the economically-productive proportion of the population grows faster than the general population (Potts par. 3). This, in turn, brought 150 million people out of poverty (Potts par. 3). Bowdoin College professor Sarah Conly takes an even more interesting twist: She argues that with finite resources and perpetual growth, the economy is bound to shut down, and if China uses its resources unsustainably, then it is borrowing from the future (Conly par. 12). Therefore, curbing China’s resource usage is less painful than changing in future when it is worse (Conly par. 12). However, Conly emphasizes moral values of being a responsible citizen and promoting general welfare as motives for reducing population growth, instead of using force like what China did (Conly par. 15). Ironically, though, even if executed by force, the policy created a culture where citizens now restrain from having a second child because of financial saving and habit (Fong 59).

Upon further examination of China’s inherent culture, which is mostly oblivious to Western critics, many of its repercussions can be blamed on China’s cultural values instead of on the policy. The lack of academia and therefore reasoning as a result of the Cultural Revolution may be culpable for the initiation of such a strict and harsh policy in the first place (Fong 51). Fong argues that “the country had been so beaten and demoralized, its intellectual capital so sapped by the Cultural Revolution, the idea of rationing children, in the same way coal and grain were rationed, made sense”(51). Fong alludes to the “demoralized” culture of China, without regard of humanity and only of numbers, as one willing to take such a risk. Furthermore, without cultural context, Westerners may inaccurately see many side effects of the policy as direct effects of the policy. Conly argues that China’s tradition for males to carry on family lineage, not the One-Child Policy, caused China’s gender imbalance (par. 14). To prove her theory, Conly cites that fertility rates fell in the US and Europe, where there is not a policy, without gender imbalance, and places with gender imbalance do not necessarily have a One-Child Policy (par. 14). Moreover, China’s spoiled and dependent young generation may be caused by the huge population and low living standards, which forced people to fight viciously against hoards of others for opportunities. This culture causes parents to overinvest in and control their children to guarantee their success, leading to the child’s dependence on them. The policy, having reduced the population and therefore, giving each child a higher chance for success, should reduce this desperateness and parental lenience. On the opposite end of filial piety, Fong argues that the rapid aging can be attributed to two reasons: Chinese belief of a hellish afterlife and child reputation (162). The Chinese stigma of death and Chinese belief that their fate will be determined in hell afterwards, causes many elderly to take measures to prolong life (Fong 163). Moreover, many children of the elderly, in order to show mianzi, or face, pay bills for their parents to undergo various unnecessary treatments to prolong life, which often results in a longer but less quality life (Fong 161). This culture of showing mianzi, on a larger scale, has contributed to China’s disproportionately large old generation because the elderly has died more slowly than previous generation.

But exonerating the One-Child Policy of blame for the repercussions doesn’t necessarily eradicate the problems itself, right? After all, no matter who caused it, there is still a gender disparity, a rapidly aging population, and a weak young generation. No. Because these problems have been caused in part by China’s archaic culture, the One-Child Policy has and will continue to reverse this thinking, and eventually, solve these problems. China’s increasing educated upper class promotes gender equality, the aging population will soon die off, and the weak young generation, receiving never-seen-before quantities of opportunities in education, will still be overall more prepared than previous generations. From the ashes of the One-Child Policy, China will rise, a blazing phoenix.

But one piece of evidence still holds against the policy: How will China’s lack of labor impact its economy? Fong argues that China’s economic rise is a result of its abundant cheap labor, and that this recent labor shortage will succumb China’s industry (xi). Recent reforms allowing parents, who were single children, to have a second child, have mostly failed to produce more kids. And that’s exactly what China wanted—and should still want. For this world is evolving, past agrarian and largely industrial economies, which depend on a sheer number of workers, into privatization, ideas, and individuality. By putting higher resources into each child, thus increasing quality over quantity, China is equipping its next generation to lead as higher caliber individuals. As this evolution takes place, China will have to sacrifice aspects of China’s communal culture as it fosters to individuality. Sure, this may mean children do not respect filial piety as much, and the elderly may suffer as a result, but China will have to adapt to modern trends. After all, the point of the One-Child Policy is not about taking care of the old generation; it’s about creating opportunity for the new.

Although the One-Child Policy fielded unforeseen repercussions, forced cruelty on its citizens, and could have been unnecessary, its successful implementation has resulted in a higher quality and lower quantity population that will lead to a culture of growing entrepreneurship at the expense of traditional Chinese values. Moreover, many of these values may be blamed for the policy’s repercussions, and the One-Child Policy, through changing China’s cultural values, will cause these side effects to subside. As I reflect on my personal connection to the policy, I think of a conversation I had with my mom. I asked her if she liked the policy. She answered, “Wo juo de you ban zu. Ren tai duo, mei you ban fa,” meaning “I think it helped. Too many people, no choice.” As I heard from Western critics about the policy’s cruelty in individual cases, I wondered why then, my parents, and most people in China, favorably view the policy. But as I dived deeper into China’s ingrained culture, I learned that the nation’s communist ideals—sacrificing the individual for the whole—motivated the people to have only one child. And China is just now picking the fruits of the labor: My mom and dad, having taken advantage of China’s educational reform by going to college, are now more educated and more financially successful than their parents. But despite her new wealth in the US, memories of my grandmother, who lives in China, brings tears to my mom’s ear, and she often talks about playing in her communal apartment as a little girl with her friends. My mom plans on bringing my grandmother to the US next year to take care of her, but by then, my mom will only have limited time to spend with her. Perhaps everything comes at a cost, but not all of its younger generation is uncaring for the elderly. But one thing is for sure: Chinese citizens will have to let go of its traditional culture, even for the old generation.

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