Author Mei Fong talks about China’s most radical experiment

  • People
  • Friday, 01 Apr 2016

China's policy of having only one child per family has had lasting repercussions. Photo: EPA

It's hard to put into words what runs through the mind when reading Mei Fong’s One Child – a gripping work that delves into China’s infamous policy.

Though the policy was amended last year to allow couples to have two children, the legacy of the one child policy, introduced in 1979, runs deep and has had a huge impact on China’s citizens.

An award-winning journalist formerly of The Wall Street Journal, Fong, 43, combines her reporter’s nous with a fine sense of storytelling to present a remarkable work that takes readers on an unexpected journey through a very real and ruthless world.

Revealing insights into the book (which is reviewed opposite) in an exclusive e-mail interview with Star2, Fong offers a glimpse of life under Beijing’s decades of social engineering.

When you were researching One Child, and when you sat down to write it, what were the thoughts and emotions running through your mind?

There’s much that is painful to read about in the book – forced abortions, sterilisations, the pain of parents losing their only child. But I didn’t want the writing itself to be too emotional because I feared diluting the effect. So I tried to temper the emotion, letting it have full rein in judicious parts.

That said, certain bits of the book, certain memories, still have the power to make me tear up, many years down the road.

You’ve touched on a number of social implications of the one-child policy. When it was conceived, did officials fail to see these potential problems?

There certainly was some sense these problems might manifest. China’s one-child policy may have been drawn up by rocket scientists, but it isn’t rocket science to figure that if you limit people’s family size in a son-loving culture, it’s quite likely to lead to a gender imbalance down the road.

But many in the leadership thought the problems could be adjusted once China had achieved the desired level of prosperity. They didn’t realise that human fertility isn’t a machine that can be easily dialled up and down.

Can you describe how the authorities managed to initially coerce the people of Shifang (the policy’s testing ground)?

The one-child policy was such an unpopular policy from the onset, intruding into the personal and most intimate choices people made, that the only way to make it work was by a series of “sticks”.

The most heinous form of punishment was the threat of a forced abortion. Although late-term abortions are technically illegal in China, we know now of cases that happened even as late as 2012. A rural woman, Feng Jianmei, was seven months pregnant when she was taken away by officials for a forced abortion.

That case became an Internet sensation because a relative snapped a graphic picture of Feng lying next to the foetus, which looked like a perfectly formed child. No official ever served jail time for that crime.

The striking quality about One Child is how emotional it can be for the reader. Was it your intention to affect the reader so strongly in order to get the book’s message across, or would you say it’s an organic consequence of the narrative?

There’s so much in China that is so extreme and out-of-the-ordinary that there is no need to embellish at all. Rather, I think the difficulty is to recognise the extreme when you are living in the mix.

When I moved to China in the mid-2000s, the one-child policy had been such a fixture for such a long time that many folks didn’t think much about its strictures any more. They didn’t see how the policy had sunk its insidious roots into the business of everyday living.

Even though we tend to associate the one-child policy with excesses like forced abortions, it really has a much wider impact. For example, parents with sons struggle to buy their sons apartments to make them more attractive on the marriage market, so much so that Columbia economists calculated that the gender imbalance in China has accounted for as much as a 30% to 48% increase in housing prices. Chinese parents put dating ads for their kids in public parks. In 2013, Beijing even made a law that grown children must visit their parents often. Imagine!

Was there anything positive to come from the one-child policy?

I think the problem is we tend to lump reducing population with the one-child policy. They are not the same. There are lots of advantages to reducing population size – better resource allocation, more freedom for women, and a reduced carbon footprint.

Fong hopes her book will change how people talk about curbing population growth. — Photo: Handout
Fong hopes her book will change how people talk about curbing population growth. Photo: Mei Fong

I frequently apply the analogy “crash dieting” to the one-child policy. You can lose weight by eating sensibly and exercising. The results aren’t as drastic or quick as living on lemon water and jujubes, but there’s less risky side-effects. Similarly, you can slow population growth by urbanisation, educating women, providing easy access to contraception – or you can do something drastic like the one-child policy, which results in all sorts of lamentable side-effects, like a nation of surplus men, and a looming tsunami of old people with not enough working adults to care for them and keep the economic engine running smoothly.

Certainly, the one-child policy has benefited urban females born after 1980. With no siblings to divert parental resources, only daughters achieved more in higher numbers than ever before, with record numbers entering college and graduate school.

But women in other Asian economies – Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, to name a few – also notched similar gains, so it’s conceivable that the urban women in China could have done the same with a less extreme population policy.

Can you elaborate on how your interviewees must have felt living under the policy?

I think it’s the arbitrariness of the policy that is the most unnerving. Last October Beijing announced they are moving to a nationwide two-child policy. Imagine how women such as Feng feel, after undergoing forced abortions as late as 2012. Just a few years later, the Government is now actively encouraging people to have that once-forbidden second child.

There’s a fascinating point you make about how Beijing might find it more difficult than anticipated to encourage people to have more babies to redress the problem of an ageing population. Do you believe that Beijing created an unintended negative association with having more than one child, and that the country might suffer as a result?

You can’t spend 35 years spreading the message that the one-child family is the ideal without having some of it sink in. It’s always possible, of course, that Beijing can change this mode of thinking, but such a change would be enormously expensive. They would have to accompany it with a host of family-friendly policies, like subsidised schooling, increased maternity and paternity benefits. All this to be done just as China’s economic engine is slowing down.

What legacy would you like your book, One Child, to have? And what do you feel it has brought to the table in terms of the global discussion on topics such as climate control and concerns over population growth?

There are still a lot of people who are comfortable saying things like, “Despite its excesses, the one child policy was good. We should all have a global one child policy”. And yet, people don’t say things like, “The world wars were horrible, of course, but it did reduce the global footprint”. Or, “Slavery in America – gross human rights abuses, yes, but it did boost agricultural production”.

We have reached the point in history where we know not to say these things, because we understand the toll on humanity.

With the one child policy, I think we are fast approaching that point in history.

I hope my work helps.

Read the review of Mei Fong's One Child next week!

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