From a very young age, journalist Mei Fong was aware of the restrictive birth policies in China. Growing up in Malaysia as a third-generation Chinese and fifth daughter in her family, her family would often say “you are very lucky, you were not born in China, you would not be born, you would probably be given away.” As a journalist covering stories about Chinese manufacturing for the Wall Street Journal, she also discovered the repercussions of the one-child policy that deeply impacted the industry and economy as a whole. Her book, One Child, discusses one of the “most radical experiments in human history” and explores topics ranging from the nationwide gender imbalance to the emotional narratives of individual families who experienced the deep loss of their only child. She also brings in her own experiences contemplating the questions of parenthood. US-China Today sat down with Fong, an award-winning journalist and former USC professor, to discuss her book.
Who is your intended audience for this book?
Well I think that [there are] people who would be interested in reading One Child on several levels: so one level would be people interested in China. Then beyond that, people who are interested in the idea or concept of what it means to be a parent. My dedication of the book is basically it says to anyone who has ever contemplated the cost of parenthood because I think that’s really what it is – this whole book is all about what it means when we face one of the big questions in life: why do we want children? What happens when that desire is denied either by government fiat or by accident of nature or by infertility or any number of issues? These are sort of very powerful emotions that kind of result in tension and that makes for a good story telling.
What do you believe has been the biggest effect of the one-child policy in China?
I think one of the biggest effects is the fact that you will have a very imbalanced population, which is primarily too male, and very soon too old, and quite possibly too few. People were forced to make choices, and limit their family size because China was historically a society that preferred sons. The result is a male imbalance. China currently has an excess of 30 million single men, and not enough women. That’s about the population the size of Canada, so that’s pretty serious.
The other issue is the issue of the aging population. In part, it doesn’t have anything to do with the one-child policy. It’s the fact that people are living longer. But China has a very big cohort of people who are currently going to age. In the next twenty years to thirty years, the size of the senior population in China is going to explode to the point where, by 2050, one in four Chinese will be retirees. The problem is there isn’t enough of a young working population to sustain that aging population. Currently China has something like five working adults to support one retiree. That’s a good ratio economically speaking. But in a matter of 20 years, that’s going to jump to one and a half adult to support one retiree. And that’s a very economically unproductive kind of a ratio.
How might China address the repercussions of this policy in the future?
The first question is can they do this, will people respond to this and have more children. And the second question is even if they do have these children, clearly there’s a time gap issue, it takes something like 15 or 20 years before you can grow a worker or a wife. The demographic problems that China will face will be basically set for the next 20 to 25 years, no matter what happens. So it’s after that we will see if any of these issues can be resolved beyond that period of time.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve always thought that the one-child policy was one of the most fascinating things about China. I was sent to report on China for the Wall Street Journal and I started to see the repercussions of the one-child policy in many areas. It wasn’t just a question of women in the countryside being forced to have abortions, it was being felt in things like the economy. For a long time I was covering the manufacturing beat in China because China was a huge manufacturing juggernaut and it was a big important business story. Even in 2003, I started hearing rumors. Factory owners would come to me and they said, “Look, we are sort of having difficulty hiring people.” I was very puzzled by that because as I said, this is the most populous nation in the world. How could you possibly have an issue with hiring people? At that time I took that question to a lot of economists. One of the questions I raised was is this a result of the one-child policy. Even at that time, a lot of economists said, “No, no, we don’t think so. We think that China will still have plenty of workers for the foreseeable next 10, 20 years.” They did not anticipate that this would happen at this particular stage. But now it’s become sort of a truism that China will become old before it becomes rich because of all these demographic problems.
What do you think will be the outcome of the phasing out of the one-child policy that was announced last year?
It’ll be interesting to see if the government announces anything to follow that package of incentives to encourage people to have more children. Because on its own it appears a lot of opinion polls indicate that many people say “We don’t want to have a second child; we don’t care even you’ve lifted this restriction; it’s simply too expensive to have a second child; we believe that our best resources would be expended to have one child only.” Unless the government expends a huge amount of money to give free schooling and package services to incentivize that, I don’t know whether that would happen. It would be very interesting to see.China has been very successful in reducing population growth, can it be successful in increasing population growth? And that’s certainly an answer many countries would be interested in, because so far no country has managed to turn on the baby taps successfully once they turned it off.
There are many groups who have been uniquely affected by one-child policy such as “shadow children” who don’t have hukou registration, children in orphanages sent abroad in international adoptions and shidu parents who have lost their only child. Now that the one-child policy is being phased out do you think that these groups will gain more recognition from the Chinese government? How do you think these groups might play a role in changing government policy?
Of the issue of the adopted children, there are over 120,000 children adopted from China as a result of the one-child policy introduced into western households, out of which maybe about 70% into American households. Most of these children are in their mid-teens, the oldest of these children are just in their early twenties. So it’s kind of the early stage for them to see if they will do anything.
To give an early precedent, there was a big wave of south Korean girls who were adopted, and many of them are now in thirties and forties, and they’ve been able to mobilize and pressure the South Korean government into allowing more transparency into adoption records. They’ve also pressured them into allowing dual-citizenship for these South Korean or American adoptees. It would be interesting to see if any kind of a similar movement would happen on the behalf of the Chinese adoptees. But that’s certainly something going ahead, they are still too young, we will see if that happens, but that’s maybe a possibility.
As far as the Shidu parents are concerned, many of them have lobbied Beijing for additional financial compensation. Because they argued they have lost significantly, they have no kind of economic security now that the only child’s dead. I don’t know if they will gain something. Some of them may be able to gain some slight increments in terms of a pension statement. But I think the hardest group to see if they can get any kind of a compensation is the numbers of people who have had to pay huge amounts of what we call social compensation fees, which are basically fines for breaking the quota. So many of them have complained many of these fees are arbitrary and unfair. There has been a growing sort of a legal ground work for people trying to sue or use the courts to litigate people who’ve lost their jobs as a result of breaking the quota for the children, for example. But of course, at the same time, this is all going on, the space for civil society and civil rights in an open society in China’s tighten a lot. In recent years, a lot of civil rights lawyers, for example, have faced huge pressures. So I really don’t know what they will do, but it certainly will be interesting to watch.
What was the most surprising information you discovered in your research for the book? What are common misconceptions about the one-child policy?
I interviewed this man who had worked as a small minor county official because I wanted to understand how the population measures were enforced. So one of the things I knew was that it was very important for all the officials, not just the family planning ones but all the officials, to make sure that the birth quotas in the district were kept. And if they didn’t, then they will be subject to this kind of a punishment called the “一票否决”, “one vote veto”. What this meant was, they would have sort of a black mark and it didn’t matter how well they did their jobs, if they met the economic goals or targets or whatever, but as long as the birth quotas were not met, they were in risk of losing their jobs, of being censured, of having a pay dock. So that showed that the birth enforcement was a very, very high target for them.
So he had told me how he at one point, when he was very early in his career, had conducted a night-time raid on a woman who’s pregnant and kind of hidden herself away in the neighboring village. So he told me that they were very severe and they will catch this woman. They surrounded the house at night and he said, you know, we were very quiet, but she must have heard something because she ran, she ran and she ran and we chased her, we chased her until she ran into a pond. And she ran into the pond until she was up to her neck in water. And she stood there in the darkness and she began to cry. And she cried and she cried and she cried. And she said she had to have this child because if she didn’t, then her mother, her husband, her mother-in-law will never treat her right.
The imagery of this… This was like a gazelle in a watering hole surrounded by predators. So I said, oh what happened, what happened. He was very quiet for a minute. And he said, well, two women officials waited and they took her away.
This seem to me like a very powerful story. And that night, I went back to Chengdu, I met a student of mine, who had been studying in America. She was a PhD student but she was a local girl from Chengdu. She said, “Oh, so what happened to you today?” And I said. “Oh my gosh, this fascinating story was told to me,” and I told her. I find it fascinating, but I assumed she knew something of this nature because she was a local girl. I assume she had heard some of these stories growing up. But when I told her this story, I saw her eyes getting bigger and bigger. And then I said, “But, you know this, right? You must have had some classmates, I know you are a city girl, but maybe some of the classmates from the countryside would have told you one or two stories like that.” And she said to me, “You know Mei, you don’t understand, I went to a top university. To get to a top university, I had to go to a top high school and a top middle school. There are no children from the countryside in those places. So no, I really have not heard of a story like this at all.” And that to me was very surprising in a way. I assumed that a lot of these stories somehow percolate. But actually to a whole generation of China, the one-child generation that was shaped by this policy, these stories are like stories from a distant country.
Did you face obstacles in the research and writing of your book, such as having to self-censor any information for fear of repercussions for yourself or your sources?
Well, there were some cases where I did not disclose a full name or disguised a name of some of the interviewees I had – this was at their request. For me, I wasn’t so much worried about any repercussions. I am after all, not a citizen of China, so I am protected – even though I have a Chinese face, I have a foreign passport so I did not face some of the issues that some of the people who investigated certain issues. For example, I wrote about the Sichuan earthquake and some of human rights abuses that resulted from it but I never faced an issue like being put in prison such as what happened to some of the dissidents and activists who were local Chinese. My biggest concerns were always to protect my sources and make sure that they did not [face repercussions] because they did not have the privileges that I had. The most that happened to me was on one occasion, I was taken for a few hours and was questioned by the public security, and on one occasion, they chased my car and pulled me over. But these were all minor things – I was not in any way subject to the kind of harassments that Chinese nationals and citizens have been through in pursuit of some of the truths we talk about here.
How do you think the one-child policy will be remembered by the Chinese public based on your research?
I don’t know how the Chinese public will remember the one-child policy because one of the big issues in China is very many episodes of recent history have not been allowed to be fully expressed or remembered in China – issues like the Cultural Revolution, 1989 Tiananmen are still kind of taboo topics and so the one-child policy, I think, also is a little taboo on that subject. So part of the reason why I wrote this book was hopefully to sort of start the discussion going.