This past weekend, residents of an apartment complex in the city of Jinhua in China’s Zhejiang province heard a child crying somewhere and summoned authorities. Firefighters sawed through the sewage system to extract a baby boy from an L-shaped pipe only 10 centimeters (not quite 5 inches) wide. The boy is being called Baby No. 59 after the hospital incubator he is recovering in. Many have been expressing outrage via Weibo, China’s version of Twitter (which is banned there). “This kind of thing makes me speechless. Since I was young, I’ve seen deserted babies on trash heaps. It seems that in Chinese people’s eyes, throwing a baby away is not an evil thing,” Weixian de Shuozhuo wrote.
The shocking finding of the baby — who had apparently been flushed down a toilet headfirst – is just one more incident highlighting why China’s One-Child Policy needs to end.
The One-Child Policy and Chinese Society
The Chinese government has recently announced that it is phasing out the agency that oversees the One-Child Policy. The policy has had a huge influence not only on China’s demographics but on centuries-old cultural practices and beliefs about family.
In a recent academic paper, Chinese demographers describe the One-Child Policy as among the “deadly errors” of recent Chinese history, along with the 1959-61 famine in 1959-61 and the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But there is one significant difference: the lasting effects of the One-Child Policy.
While those grave mistakes both cost tens of millions of lives, the harms done were relatively short-lived and were corrected quickly afterward. The One-Child Policy, in contrast, will surpass them in impact by its role in creating a society with a seriously undermined family and kin structure, and a whole generation of future elderly and their children whose well-being will be seriously jeopardized.
While many in the West have heard of women forced to have abortions after breaking the policy, some families have been able to have more than one child, but at a price, says Alexa Olesen of ChinaFile:
Around 35 percent of Chinese families are subject to a strict one-child rule. Fifty percent or so are allowed a second child if their first is a girl and then the rest are subject to a two or three child policy. What’s always striking to me though is how supportive many Chinese are of such a radical policy. The constant lament heard across China is “Too many people! 人太多” This message has been internalized and many people, even those allowed to have two kids, are opting to have just one.
Penalties for those who do have a second child are harsh. Film director Zhang Yimou was recently reported to have seven children and could have to pay a fine of 160 million yuan ($26.06 million). Yang Zhizhu, who had been a law professor based in Beijing, said that “social upbringing fees”of 350,000 yuan for having a second child had left him a “beggar.”
One-Child Policy: Skewed Sex Ratio and Demographics
According to the Chinese government, the One-Child Policy has prevented 400 million births, though experts estimate the number to be half as much, says The Atlantic. But the effects on Chinese society are evident.
In a case of culture asserting itself over state-mandated social engineering, the policy has left China with a lopsided sex ratio. A centuries-old preference for boys has meant that families have put girls up for adoption or aborted them.
Whether male or female, China now has a generation of young people who have grown up as “Little Emperors” (or Empresses) with four grandparents doting on them as well as numerous uncles and aunts. Indeed, under Mao Zedong, older generations were encouraged to have many children to carry out an official policy of ”the more children, stronger the nation.”
Now, as environmental journalist Michael Zhao puts it, ”it would have been much better off if we had avoided the first ‘have more children’ mistake.” China faces a future in which its population of elderly people is far, far larger than those who are younger and working. By 2050, 23.3 percent of China’s population will be over 65, in contrast to 13.7 percent in India. Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University, underscores that such a high percentage of retired people can be at “a big disadvantage for long-term economic and strategic competition” as the “economically productive proportion of the population” is far smaller but still must support a growing population of the elderly. Social strife can result when governments have to devote more resources to health care and living expenses.
One-Child Policy: A Failure and a Mistake?
Olesen in fact says that the growth of China’s population would have “almost certainly have slowed” without the One-Child Policy, albeit “at a less precipitous rate.” The reason is economic growth, which has been correlated to lower fertility and which China has certainly experienced in the past decades. In fact, countries whose birth rates were similar to China’s in the 1960s and 1970s have seen their population growth slow.
Baby No. 59 remains in the hospital in Jinhua and is said to be in stable condition. Authorities are reportedly questioning a 20-year-old unmarried mother who lives on the fourth floor of the apartment complex. She has told police that the baby slipped into a sewer pipe after she went into a shared bathroom. She also said that the baby’s father refused to support her and she could not afford an abortion.
It goes without saying that the discovery of the newborn in the pipe has “sent shockwaves across China.” Will the government, now that it has taken steps toward phasing out the agency that implements the One-Child Policy, get rid of the policy itself?
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