As a young girl, SAS Chinese teacher June Wang envied her friends from large families. Easy for them to complain about sibling troubles, when they had brothers and sisters to talk to and play with. Growing up, she had no such luxury. “Why am I all by myself?” she complained to her mother. “I feel so alone.”
In those days, it was rare to be an only child. Her parents had made the decision not to have any more. But when Ms. Wang moved to middle school, there was talk of relatives not being able to have the third child they wanted. In the 1970s the Chinese government launched the slogan “Late, Long and Few” (晚稀少) as part of a campaign to encourage couples to have no more than two kids.
During the baby boom decades of the Cultural Revolution, China’s fertility rates skyrocketed as high as 6.16 births per woman, according to data from the World Bank. At the time, with a population of 818 million, officials feared the growth was unsustainable. If it continued at the same pace, China might have to face the consequences of overpopulation without the infrastructure to support it.
Then came the turning point in 1979.
As China began economic reform under the new premier Deng Xiaoping, the government introduced a new law: people of Han Chinese descent – the majority of the population – were only allowed to have one child.
“I was born at the beginning of the one-child policy,” said Hilda Huang, another high school Chinese teacher at SAS. She lived in Shanghai, one of the government-administered cities (直辖市) of China. For many urban families who had no choice but to follow the policy, there was an unexpected benefit: they were able to provide a wealth of opportunities for their single son or daughter.
“In my dad’s generation…the family cannot afford to send all the kids to school,” Ms. Huang recalled. But she, like many of China’s only children, reaped the benefits of being the center of attention of middle-class parents, who wanted her to have “not only education but more support like extracurriculars.” Some of her peers were even sent abroad to study.
With so much attention lavished on them, the new generation under the one-child policy came to be stereotyped as “Little Emperors,” often seen as sheltered, spoiled and self-centered. Yet Ms. Huang countered, “The one-child policy has two sides. One is that more and more kids get good education. The other side is that kids are stressed out by their parents’ expectations.”
At first, the policy was hailed as a success. The Chinese government ran advertisement after advertisement to promote the new policy as the means to China’s greatness and development.
Those who did not comply faced harsh punishments. Rich families could sometimes get away with paying extravagant fines, but not everyone was so lucky.
In 1993, as part of research for her senior thesis, SAS Chinese teacher Sally Lean spent a year in rural China interviewing villagers to hear their personal stories. One woman described how her husband’s family had forced her to abort three times so she could “try to have a son.” Even though it was illegal to have the sex of baby checked, people found ways and means to get around the regulation. Infanticide, especially with unwanted female babies, was not unheard of.
In the cities, enforcement was “particularly strong,” Ms. Lean said. “There were community committees who would keep a close eye on all the people in their area, especially young, childbearing age couples. So if they discovered the woman was pregnant and they already had a child, [the committee] would supposedly try to reeducate those people so they would agree to have the second child aborted.”
And if a second child was discovered after birth?
“Quite often the second child was taken away, mainly…the daughter, if they had a son,” Ms. Lean said. Most were sent to live in an orphanage; a lucky few were adopted.
In the years to come, China would come to face myriad unintended side effects that accompanied their sprawling policy.
For one, there was the “lost generation” of extra children whose families had managed to hide them from officials. Parents had to send these children to private schools, because no record of their real identities existed in any government institution.
The gender ratio is another problem. In a 2013 report for the Population Studies Center, Dr. Yu Xie of Princeton University notes that Chinese families have historically favored male children because they were expected to care and “contribute to their [parents’] economic well-being” throughout their lifetime. Daughters on the other hand were seen as “temporary members” of the family until marriage.
Paired with the one-child policy and sex-selective abortions, this patriarchal tradition led to an ever-widening gap in the birth rate. Today there are almost 117 boys to every 100 girls born in China.
The imbalance has given rise to marriage scams, where desperate bachelors pay large sums to wed women, only to have their new brides run away with the money soon after. On the other hand, there is a market for slave brides who are trafficked from around Asia and forced into marriages with Chinese men.
And worryingly, like many developed nations, China has an aging population that spells trouble for their society and economy.
“My feeling when I go back to China to my hometown, is that [the majority of residents are] old people,” Ms. Wang said. “In Singapore, [there are] so many young people, but in Tianjin, most are 40-50 years old. It is seldom to see young people and children.”
It may not sound so bad, but consider that one of Confucianism’s core values is filial piety, which includes a duty to take care of one’s elders. Hilda Huang and her husband are both single children, and without siblings to help out, they are each solely responsible for taking care of their aging parents. Caring for young children and grandparents on top of that can take a toll on any working couple. And they aren’t the only ones.
As these shortcomings became evident over time, the government began to make small ‘exceptions’ in their once stringent policy. Ethnic minorities were generally allowed to have more than one child. To combat female infanticide, provincial governments modified the rule so that any couple who had a girl could try again for a baby boy without penalty.
In recent years the policy has been relaxed so as to allow couples who are themselves only children to have up to two kids. The same applies to parents whose firstborn is physically or mentally disabled.
Nevertheless, in Oct. 2015, the government’s announcement of an official end to the one-child policy was welcomed around the world.
BEIJING, Oct. 29 (Xinhua) — China will allow all couples to have two children, abandoning its decades-long one-child policy, according to a communiqué issued Thursday by the Communist Party of China (CPC).
“I think it’s a good thing for China. I think they should have changed earlier, maybe 10 years ago,” Ms. Wang said.
The new policy is by no means abandoning population control; it simply extends the two-child privilege to all families. Even then, experts doubt it will cause a major baby boom. In 2012, the number of Chinese living in urban areas exceeded the rural population for the first time in history. Based on the demographic transition model, fertility rates will likely continue to decrease as China becomes more urban and developed than ever.
“There are still a lot of young people who are not willing to, or don’t have time to have a second kid,” explained Ms. Huang, who is currently a mother of one. She herself feels “very, very hesitant” to have another child due to time constraints. “For us, maybe one is enough.”
Ms. Lean, who lived in China for about 20 years after graduating from her university in Australia, also happens to know “several Chinese friends who are women in their 30s or 40s who are not married, have quite a good life, who own their own apartment [and] take care of themselves.”
She added, “There are some women who are choosing to be single, and also an increasing number of middle age couples who are not having children. Modernization and development processes are allowing people to overcome old stereotypes and traditions.”
It may be too early to tell the effects of the policy reversal. But one thing is for certain: 35 years of history cannot be erased so easily with one wave of the CPC’s wand. Will we see an end to gender-specific abortions? What new loopholes will the government have to implement? How will the Little Emperors fare in the future?
There are no easy answers. In some ways, policy is like parenting. “[Even] if you have some experience [from raising your first child], you can’t change the wrong you did,” said Ms. Wang.
But China’s newly relaxed policy represents a second chance. The challenge is to raise a new generation differently, without repeating the mistakes of the past.
For her part, Ms. Wang is optimistic. “It will change, but need time.”