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.”

Fox News took my quotes out of context and added wrong information

Following up on Part 1, discussed here, Parts 2 and 3 of the Fox News series on demography and social change also featured quotes from me. Part 2 used a reasonable quote in a reasonable way, but Part 3 did not.

Part 2 is a good teaching lesson in sky-is-fallingism, a Fox News signature. As they’ve done before, they literally start with a 1950s TV show as if it were historical footage, and then proceed to the chaotic now.

“If Tommy suddenly woke up today, he’d be an aging Baby Boomer, receiving benefits from a Social Security trust fund that is more than 2 trillion dollars in debt. He might be tending to his aches and pains with medical marijuana, now legal in 33 states. He might see his childhood friends are legally married [showing gay male weddings] while almost half the mommies in the U.S. are not.”

Cut to racial minority students in UCLA gear. Etc. The most extreme cut is between the Heritage Foundation person saying, of Democrats, “We’re the party of government, and that way if we have voters attached to government programs they’re going to stick with us,” before, literally, cutting to archival Mao and Stalin footage, with the voice-over:

“That, while the hard lessons of socialism — 70 million dead in China, 20 million dead in the Soviet Union — that happened during Communism, are often neglected in colleges, now focused on social justice curricula.”

Great stuff, good for teaching. Anyway, my quote in the piece is just saying young people nowadays don’t like to be lectured about traditional values. They just frame it like that’s a bad thing. Here it is:

Part 3 is where they misused my quotes, in two places. The episode is about how low fertility leads to immigration, which creates chaos and causes populism. Plenty wrong in here, but I’m just focusing on my beefs. First, on immigration, they say:

“Europe’s accommodation of refugees fleeing ISIS and the civil war in Syria, has proved a bridge too far.”

Philip Cohen: “Immigration poses challenges to the dominant culture. It’s obviously politically fraught.”

Cut to rioting footage. Narrator: “From Greece to Italy, Germany, France, and the Nordic countries, clashes have erupted. Nationalist politicians are forcing a reckoning with multiculturalism.”

According to my own recording of the interview, however, what I said immediate after, “It’s obviously politically fraught,” was this:

“On the other hand, there’s a great pent-up demand for immigration. There are plenty of people who want to come here. The immigrants who come here tend to be the better off, more highly skilled and educated people from the countries that they’re coming from, contrary to some stereotypes, so they end up strengthening the U.S. economy even as they improve their own wellbeing. So if you can get over all the challenges and conflict that sometimes comes along with rapid immigration, what you end up with is an answer to the population [problem].”

Lesson learned. Not surprising they didn’t use my pro-immigration other hand. I should have anticipated that better and made the other hand the only hand in my comment. However, they had invited me to discuss Millennials and marriage, so I wasn’t prepared for immigration.

The piece has distracted tangents into robots in Japan and the one-child policy in China. I also wasn’t prepared for the one-child policy on that day, but I always have a take ready on that. Here’s what I said, according to my recording:

“One thing to know about China is the birthrate had fallen a lot before the one-child policy. So even if you like the idea … [they interrupted to say they had bumped the focus, so I should start my answer again] …One thing that’s important to realize about China is that population growth had already slowed a lot before the one-child policy started, so they really didn’t need the one-child policy to slow down population growth. And it was quite draconian. It went against what most people wanted for their families. The implementation of it was very repressive. It included forced sterilization, and abortion, and very harsh penalties for people who had extra children. So it was really a human rights disaster.”

In the piece, however, they used the part about forced sterilization and the human rights disaster, but didn’t use where I said, “they really didn’t need the one-child policy to slow down population growth” — and replaced it with voice-over that said, “overpopulation compelled the Communist government to force a one-child policy on the populous.” So they took out something true and added something false.

To see how wrong that it, here is the trend in total fertility rate (births per woman) from 1960 to 2016. This shows how much birth rates had come down in China under policies that promoted smaller families along with women’s healthcare, education, and employment, by the time China implemented the one-child policy in 1980:


I put India and Nigeria on the chart to show how successful China already was relative to other large, poor countries with high fertility in the 1960s. There was no demographic justification for the one-child policy, and the fact that it became draconian and repressive is a clue to how out of step it was with the family lives of the Chinese people.

The reason this matters is not particularly important for the Fox News piece, but it’s very important to understand that progress on reducing fertility is better achieved through empowerment and development than through command and repression. Now that we’re seeing countries interested in increasing fertility, this is important historical context. (Here’s a good review article by Wang Feng, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai [paywalled | bootlegged])

Anyway, regardless of the implications, it just goes against accuracy and honesty to remove true information for false information.

Anyway anyway, here’s Part 3:


It’s not the one-child policy, repeated correction edition

The Washington Post has a poignant story about elderly parents in China whose lives are disrupted by the deaths of their only children. In a society with low fertility, an inadequate pension system, and a high cultural value on generational legacies, this loss is often devastating. And for those who wanted to have more children, but were prevented from doing so by China’s repressive one-child policy, the suffering is more acute, resulting in anger directed toward the state.

I wish, however, that American media would stop unquestioningly attributing China’s low fertility rate to the one-child policy. The Post‘s William Wan writes:

For more than three decades, debate has raged over China’s one-child policy, imposed in 1979 to rein in runaway population growth. It has reshaped Chinese society — with birthrates plunging from 4.77 children per woman in the early 1970s to 1.64 in 2011, according to estimates by the United Nations — and contributed to the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio at birth, with baby boys far outnumbering girls.

That’s an odd paragraph, because it notes the policy was implemented in 1979 (it was actually 1980), and then compares fertility rates in the “early 1970s” to the present. Isn’t the more reasonable comparison to 1980? The data are available:

Source: World Bank or United Nations.

The drop from 2.6 in 1980 to 1.6 or so today is important (although of course it can’t all be attributed to the policy). But the “plunge” from 4.77 was mostly before the policy took hold.

A recent paper by Wang Feng, Yong Cai, and Baochang Gu considers the common claim that the one-child policy averted 400 million births. They write:

In stating that the one-child policy averted 400 million births, the promoters of the policy first misinterpreted the original results from the study mentioned above. The number of births averted was for the period since 1970, not from 1980, when the one-child policy was formally implemented nationwide. This mistake is crucial because most of China’s fertility transition was completed during the decade of the 1970s—that is, before China’s one-child policy was enacted. Within that decade, China’s total fertility rate dropped by more than half, from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979. Most of the births averted, if any, were due to the rapid fertility decline of that decade, not to the one-child policy that came afterward.

Dear American news media: Please make a note of a it.