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Friday, October 30, 2015

Various Thoughts on the End of the One-Child Policy in China

Yesterday China ditched the one-child policy. Since 1979, most Chinese couples were allowed only one child, with some exceptions. For example, countryside couples that had a girl first could try once more for a boy. Minority couples could have two children. Two only children who married each other could have two children.  But everyone else? Just one.


The policy was implemented the year my parents got married. I'm the second child in my family, and the first was a boy. If I had been born in China, I wouldn't have been born. Probably.


I've always been amazed at how Chinese people find their way around obstacles. A literal obstacle in a literal road is no hindrance to a Chinese motorist. He will drive on the sidewalk, in between cars, or through tiny alleys if need be. If there is any way around the road-block, he will find it.

Chinese people are equally inventive in getting around governmental regulations. I used to ask my Chinese college students to raise their hands if they were only children. Only about half of my students ever did; the rest came from families with two, three, or even four children, all born after 1979. Many were countryside families that were allowed two if the first was a girl, but many also had had children illegally.

There were ways around the policy. You could pay a fine. You could disappear to a different city to have the child, and register the baby under another family's name. You could have a relative raise the child; maybe for a little while, maybe for life.

I used to sometimes laugh describing how so many of my Chinese acquaintances had found ways around the policy. "Here's China saying, 'Have only one child!' and here are millions of Chinese having more!" Har har.


But when I heard the full stories, most of them weren't funny.


One Chinese friend came from a family with four children, three that had been born to her parents and one that they were raising for another relative that had more than one child. The local officials used to come by her house from time to time and beat up her father for having too many kids.

Every year in my classes, there would be a girl or two who had come from a family of three or four children. These were usually traditional countryside families, having child after child until finally getting a boy, who was always the youngest. Chinese culture traditionally values boys more than girls. (Wouldn't you, if your culture dictated that your oldest son was supposed to be your retirement policy?) Those were not rich families. The older girls suffered, not just from their lack of value to the family, but also from a lack of resources to adequately feed, clothe, and educate so many kids.

I went to visit a friend in a small town. Her younger brother had been born "illegally" (when my friend, the only child allowed by the law, was in high school), and was registered under the name of a family acquaintance. I was surprised to see that even though he was already several years old, the family was careful not to have him refer to his mother as "mom" in public. If the wrong local officials heard about the son, there was still a tiny chance her mother might have to undergo forced sterilization.


Many families followed the policy. Many Chinese people of my generation grew up without siblings. Their children will grow up without aunts, uncles, and cousins.

My composition students soon taught me a new phrase: "4 - 2 - 1." It showed up in their writing all the time as they worried about their futures: two people bearing the sole responsibility for their four aging parents and their one child.

It used to drive me nutty when my students failed to make a distinction between "cousin" and "sister" or "brother" in their English writing and speaking. They would say, "I am the only child in my family," and two sentences later start talking about going shopping with their "sister." You can't do that in English! People will be confused! But in a way, this illustrates the wonderful Chinese ability to get around problems. In the absence of siblings, cousin and friend relationships became sibling-like.


Sometimes the policy forced impossible decisions.

I remember praying for a brand new Christian who found out that the child she was carrying had a serious disability. She only gets one child. Should she bear this one? But how can she not? And what does her new faith say about abortion?

Families that purposefully or accidentally had a second "illegal" child were at risk of losing their jobs. If you have a good job in China, it's probably because you are a Party member. And Party members especially must follow the regulations, or they will lose their jobs. What do you want more - your second baby or your livelihood?


Once I was teaching an adult English seminar over the summer. A student I didn't know well came up after class one day to ask leave. She had just found out that she was pregnant with her second child, and needed to take a few days off to abort it.

"Isn't there any other way?" I asked.

No, she and her husband didn't want another child, and they legally were not allowed to.

She left and came back.

The first day back, she sat with her head on her desk for six hours, saying nothing.

By the third day back, she was able to talk a little more. She apologized for not participating in class. She had no idea what the emotional affect of an abortion would be.


I welcome a China without a one-child policy.


China now has a two-child policy. In many ways, it retains the human rights problems of their previous population policies. I will welcome future changes toward more ethical, more reasonable population control.


Post-Script: It's weird to speak freely on this. For years, living in China, I avoided political topics at all costs. You gain almost nothing by bringing them up, and you can so easily damage the relationships you came there to build. I'm speaking freely now because I can, but a little part of me still hopes no Chinese friends are here reading this. (But if you are, welcome! I'd love to hear your thoughts.)

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