Literary Review

‘Reducing quantity to increase quality’

Mei Fong.  Photo: Special arrangement

Mei Fong. Photo: Special arrangement

Introduced in China in 1980 to enable economic growth, the one-child policy, which, according to the Chinese government, prevented 300 to 400 million births, was abandoned in 2015. Mei Fong’s One Child gets behind these numbers — arguing that they are closer to 100 to 200 million births — with a layered account of the violence and pain the Chinese people suffered because of the policy. The book tracks the profound social, cultural and economic damage it wreaked, alongside a vivid portrait of a fast-transforming China. Fong, a Malaysian-Chinese-American journalist, was staff reporter for the China bureau of The Wall Street Journal , and won the Pulitzer in 2007. Excerpts from an email interview:

“Perhaps the greatest damage” done by the one-child experiment is that it “forced people to think rationally — perhaps too rationally — about parenthood.” What has it meant for children to grow up amidst these realities?

With only one child, the ‘investment’ — emotional, financial — is huge and concentrated; so the children in general lead more protected lives, burdened with heavy expectations. It starts at inception: Chinese parents of singletons will go through abnormal expense and trouble to protect the health of newborns. Of course, new parents are always anxious, but the Chinese are extreme. When I was in Beijing, there was a type of expensive maternity overall very much in vogue, because it supposedly had radiation shields to protect the foetus from cell phone signals and microwave emissions. Many urban Chinese parents also go through a lot of expense and difficulty to buy imported milk powder after scandals over locally made, tainted products. So much so, places like Australia and the U.S. have placed curbs on bulk purchases. That’s created a crazy situation where overseas Chinese students moonlight as milk powder “smugglers”. This is milk powder, not meth! This carries on into adulthood. Only children come under great pressure to sacrifice job mobility and career choices in order to please their parents.

When the parents of “the out-of-plan second child” cannot afford the hefty penalty, the child goes unregistered. She cannot go to school or find medical treatment, for instance. The number of such children is around 13 million. Can you say a bit more about their experiences? How will the revocation of the one-child policy in 2015 make a difference to them?

Under the two-child policy, municipal authorities in some areas have begun ‘forgiving’ these out-of-quota children, and slowly allowing them registration status. But for some, it’s already too late. The one-child policy is over three decades old, which means there are people in their 20s and 30s who have missed access to education and basic healthcare during the crucial growing-up years. They will be a lost generation.

About the Olympics, you write, “Indeed, selective breeding to raise more talented humans… is at the heart of both the one-child policy and China’s elite sports program.” Can you tell us more about these efforts, their scope?

The one-child policy has always had an explicitly stated goal of reducing quantity in order to increase quality of the population. A common slogan used by birth planners has been “Raise the Quality, Control the Size” ( Tigao renkou suzhi. Kongzhi renkou shuliang ).

Similarly, China’s elite sports system was predicated on identifying the talented, and devoting the country’s at-that-time scarce resources, to these select few. All for the glory of the nation.

In my book, for example, I use the example of basketball star Yao Ming. Both his parents were local basketball stars that were informally match-made by their respective coaches. When Yao was born, at the start of the one-child policy, his early promise caused a consortium of sport coaches to unsuccessfully lobby authorities to allow Yao’s parents to have a second child. They wanted them to breed more Yao Mings.

Ironically, the one-child policy is now helping lead to the break-up of China’s traditional sports system. Parents are increasingly reluctant to subject their precious one-and-only child to the strictures of the system, which in the past included separating children as young as five years from their parents to undergo extremely strict — some say brutal — training regimens. And, of course, when you shrink the population so drastically, you shrink the talent pool.

Why was the one-child policy not strictly imposed in regions with large ethnic minorities like Tibet and Yunnan?

These are not populous areas.

How has the tragedy of the one-child policy been reflected in popular culture? Are there fictional or cinematic works that have dealt with it?

Nobel prize-writer Mo Yan, who specialises in tales of magic realism, wrote a short novel called Frog , about a midwife who goes mad after decades enforcing the one-child policy. She spends her last years making little dolls to represent all the foetuses she aborted. Another book, The Dark Road , by Ma Jian, is about a family that goes on the run to avoid officials after the protagonist Kongzi’s wife is pregnant with a second child. Kongzi is a descendant of the sage Confucius, and his first child is a girl, so he’s desperate to preserve his family lineage. It’s an unrelentingly bleak journey that doesn’t end well.

Despite being works of fiction, both strive to be realistic in their depiction of the cruelties performed in the enforcement of the policy.

In writing about a tragedy of epic proportions, was there anything you found hard to confront?

I was reminded of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil in encountering members of the “population police”. A former enforcer I met, who by her own reckoning was responsible for something like 1,500 forced abortions, is now a pleasant-faced housewife living in an American suburb. She indulgently described how she’d given candy to the local kids during Halloween. I think that’s the true evil of the policy — it made so many ordinary people revert to their most base instincts in an effort to survive, to do their jobs, to just scrabble ahead of their friends and neighbours.

It was fascinating to read about the ethos of “xiang banfa” (“find a solution”), which you say is an art form, a way of negotiating and creative rule bending in China. Has this ethos emerged as a response to the harsh laws? Or is it part of the larger cultural realities of China?

I think this mode of thinking extends beyond the one-child policy to other areas of life in China. It’s a function not just of the harshness of laws, but their erratic enforcement. Sometimes the rules are there, but not always enforced, or they are mitigated by knowing the right people. So you try your luck. Sometimes the rules aren’t clearly stated. So you try your luck. People cannot trust that the rules will be mostly evenly applied across the board. It’s one reason why dashboard cameras are so popular among China drivers — it’s a low-trust society.

You are sharply critical of the authoritarian Chinese regime. You even suggest that Zhang Yimou, the film director, is the Leni Riefenstahl of China. How has your book been received in China?

One of the reasons for my criticism is the limits authorities have placed on knowledge, on discussion, on media. Which is to say, there isn’t yet a Chinese-language version of my book. It makes it hard for there to be a discussion among the people most affected by the issues in my book. A few years ago, I had received an offer from a major Chinese state-owned publisher for the Chinese-language rights, with the proviso of altering any “sensitive” content. I tabled the offer until I had written the book and could concretely discuss what they thought was “sensitive”. But in the interim, Xi Jinping’s administration has tightened controls on the press, on lawyers, and many other things that make for a civil society, so much so the publisher now tells me they can’t publish my book. It’s not just China either—think of the kidnapped Hong Kong booksellers. There’s a chill on the Chinese-language publishing industry, and I don’t see it warming up anytime soon.

The book’s reception among Chinese immigrants?

My book is only available in English so far (there are plans for a Japanese edition.) Most of my book events have been in the West, so they tend to attract Chinese students studying abroad. They are unquestionably beneficiaries of the one-child policy, and some find it hard to square their reality with the criticisms raised against the policy.

Recently in London, for example, a young college student told me, “Without the one-child policy China couldn’t have advanced economically. Without the one-child policy we would have too many people.” She finished off by saying, “Without the one-child policy, I wouldn’t be here.”

I disputed her first two points, but heartily agreed with her third. Quite possibly, her parents might not have been able to afford to send her to London if they had a larger family. I also pointed out, she would have had a different response if she had been a peasant woman forced to undergo a late-term abortion. Or was one of the 30 million men in China doomed to perpetual bachelorhood because of the female shortage. These are not the kind of people who attend London book talks. But their realities also reflect the truth of the one-child policy.

When I first decided to write this book, I aimed it primarily at a Western audience, because I thought they are the ones who would know the least about the issues. But time and again many Chinese readers have come up to me, or written to me, to say, “I never knew this or that part existed.”

At the start, you say that your research helped find an answer to the question, “Why do we have children?” What is the answer?

There are many reasons. Some of us have them for emotional and financial support. To follow Nature’s imperative. To continue the family line and make our parents happy. Some of us have children more by instinct than design, like flowers turning to the sun. Some have children to satisfy that innate human instinct to create, the same urge that powers our need to paint, cook, tell stories, plant trees. We do not all give in to this urge. Some of us find other means to satisfy our need to create, to feel, to survive. But the urge to have children is a potent force. It is not powered by national imperatives, for it is older than all notions of nationhood.

Chandan Gowda teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 18, 2022 2:59:39 pm |