The one-child policy was bad and so is “One Child Nation”

I was considering assigning the students in my Family Demography seminar to watch the documentary, One Child Nation: The Truth Behind the Propaganda, so I watched it. The movies uses the tragic family history of one of the directors, Nanfu Wang, to tell the story of the Chinese birth planning policy that began in 1979 and extended through many modifications until 2015. Nothing against watching it, but it’s not good. The one-child policy wasn’t good either, of course, leading to many violations of human rights and a lot of suffering and death.

Before watching the movie, I’m glad I read the review by Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist who spent about 25 years studying the one-child policy and related questions (summarized in three books and many articles, here). It’s short and you should read it, but just to summarize a couple of key historical points:

  • The policy was “the cornerstone of a massively complex and consequential state project to modernize China’s population,” and can’t be understood in the context of birth control alone.
  • Many people opposed and resisted the policy, but reducing birth rates was a commonly-understood goal, for both gender equality and economic development, and many women were glad the government supported them in that effort. The “vast majority” felt “deep ambivalence” about the policy, weighing individual desires against the perceived need to sacrifice for the common good.
  • The policy was unevenly applied and enforced (it was especially harsh in the provinces featured in the film), and after 1993 enforcement became less egregious. 
  • Exceptions were added starting in the early 1980s, until by the late 1990s the majority of the population was not subject to a one-child rule. 

There are some other specific errors and distortions, including the dramatic, incorrect claim that “the one-child policy [was] written into China’s constitution” in 1982 (as Greenhalgh writes, “the 1982 Constitution says only: “both husbands and wives are duty-bound to practice birth planning”). And the decision to translate all uses of the term “birth planning” as “one-child policy.” That said, the stories of forced abortions, sterilizations, and infanticide are wrenching and ring true.

I have two things to add to Greenhalgh’s review. First, a simple data illustration to show that China, really, is not a “one-child nation.” Using Chinese census data, here is the total number of children (by age 35-39) born to three groups of Chinese women, arranged according to their ages in 1980, about when the one-child policy began.

The shift left shows the decline in number of children born: the mean fell from 3.8 to 2.5 to 1.8 in these data. (Measuring Chinese fertility is complicated, but the census provides a reasonable ballpark.) But the main thing I want to show is that among the last group — those who were beginning their childbearing years when the policy took effect — 61% had two or more children. The idea that China became a “one-child nation” under the policy is false.

Second, the movie takes a hard turn in the middle and focuses on international adoption, and the illegal trafficking of mostly second-born girls to orphanages that sought to place them abroad. This was a very serious problem. But the movie tells the story of the most notorious scandal (for which many people served jail terms) as if it were the common practice, and centers on the savior-like behavior of American activists helping adopted children trace their familial roots. Granting that of course that corruption was terrible, and that the motivations of many (some?) adoptive parents (including me) were good, from China’s point of view it’s not a central story in the history of the one-child policy. As the movie notes, 130,000 Chinese children were adopted abroad during the period, during which time hundreds of millions were born.

Greenhalgh summarizes on this point, calling the film a:

“familiar coercion narrative, complete with villain (the state), victims (rural enforcers and targets), and savior (an American couple offering DNA services to match adopted girls in the U.S. with birth parents in China). The characters (at least the victims and saviors) have some emotional complexity, but they still play the stock roles in an oft-told tale. For American viewers, this narrative is comforting, because it provides a simple, morally clear way to react to troubling developments unfolding in a faraway, little understood land. And by using China (communist, state-controlled childbearing) as a foil for the U.S. (liberal, relative reproductive freedom), the film leaves us feeling smug about the assumed superiority of our own system.”

The many centuries of Chinese patriarchy are a dark part of the human story, and in some ways is unique. For example — relevant to this recent histyory — female infanticide and selling girls has a long history (a history that includes foot binding and other atrocities). The Chinese Communist Party, for all its misdeeds, did not create this problem. Gender inequality in China, including the decline in fertility — which was mostly accomplished before 1979 — has markedly improved since 1949. Greenhalgh concludes: “In China, before the state began managing childbearing, reproductive decisions were made by the patriarchal family. Since the shift to a two-child policy, they have been subject to the strong if indirect control of market forces. One form of control may be preferable to another, but freedom over our bodies is an illusion.”

One thought on “The one-child policy was bad and so is “One Child Nation”

  1. It’s important that the children are raised to be healthy adults, which may happen less often than believed.

    Most societies continue to misguidedly perceive and therefore practice human reproductive rights as though we’ll somehow, in blind anticipation, be innately inclined to sufficiently understand and appropriately nurture our children’s naturally developing minds and needs.

    A psychologically sound as well as a physically healthy future should be all children’s foremost right — especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter.

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