[SCMP Column] The Two-for-One Trauma

November 09, 2015

I thought I would celebrate the abolition of China’s draconian one child policy. Instead, it has reminded me vividly of the dark and unpleasant underbelly of China as a still-Communist country, and of the traumas inflicted in the name of the policy on literally hundreds of millions of Chinese and their families since introduction three and a half decades ago.

I have often tacitly condoned the “One Child” policy as an unpleasant necessity.  Slowing population growth in the world’s most populous, and then one of the poorest, countries seemed such a priority that means justified the ends. China’s leaders say the country’s population today would have been 400 million larger than the present 1.3 billion. They say poverty would still have been acute and widespread, and that the improved livelihoods seen by tens of millions of Chinese would never have been possible without the policy. It has been depicted as a difficult and courageous policy decision – a sort of “tough love”.

But as I am now reminded of the awful things condoned in the policy’s name, and the traumatizing experiences of so many millions of families over so many years, I feel embarrassed by my complacency.

I am especially embarrassed when I note data from elsewhere in the world that suggest China’s population growth might probably have stalled anyway. In economies worldwide, the parallel developments of industrialization, of urbanization, of education for women, and improved access to contraception have also resulted in sharp declines in birth rates – without any of the draconian horrors enforced by China’s officials in the name of the One Child Policy.
Worldwide, fertility rates have slumped from 3.9 to 2.5 between 1975 and 2015. Population increases have tumbled from 1.87% per year to 1.2% in the same period. While China’s contraction was sharp – from 1.76% to 0.5% - contractions elsewhere were equally sharp. Hong Kong’s population growth tumbled from 2.89% a year to 0.75%, and Japan’s from 1.6% to negative 0.16%.

Of course, people normally turn to India for comparisons of what might have been. Here, fertility rates still sit at 2.5 – down from a stratospheric 5.0 in 1975 – while population growth has just slowed to 1.2% a year from 2.26%. But India’s population remains agricultural and rural, and obstacles to better female education and access to contraception remain major challenges. It is arguable that industrialization and urbanization – and drawing women into the workforce – have played a much bigger role in steadying China’s population than officials acknowledge.

Abandonment of the One Child policy is of course long overdue, and has been discussed for many years – as has reform of the hukou system that blights the free movement of Chinese people to work around the country. And when you ask why the obvious has taken so long, the answer is appallingly clear: over 500,000 people across the country even today have a direct economic interest in the income earned from the “permissions and punishments” embedded in the policy. Millions more had a vested interest in enforcement of the system.

None is willing to admit the uncounted billions that have been gouged from the country’s families in the name of the policy, but the sums are self evidently enormous. While the fees charged to obtain permission to have the first child have been cancelled, still the hassle and documentation tasks have remained onerous and resented. And the punishments that are now called “Social Fostering Fees” can be eye-watering. Responses from 17 provinces revealed fees in 2012 totaling RMB16.5 billion for that year alone – with no information on how the money was used.  It was not uncommon for a family to be “fined” over RMB200,000 for the sin of bearing an unpermitted child. Famously, the film-maker Zhang Yimou was fined a total of RMB7.48 million for defiantly fathering four children.

Of course, worst of all was the “local busybody” network involved in enforcement of the policy. This ranged at the less grim end of the scale from snooping on people’s sex lives and ensuring women took proper contraception, to the grimmest of activities – forcing abortions and willfully separating newborns from their natural families. As an outsider, it is hard to imagine the traumatizing effect such snooping activity has had over the past 36 years in countless communities across the mainland.

Shame, then that the dreadful practices of the one child policy will live on in what has now become a “two child policy”. Permissions will still have to be sought. Fees will continue to be paid. Punishments will still be meted out. Palms will continue to be greased. The nastiness at the heart of the system will remain alive and well.

In the meanwhile, the price paid in terms of collapsing fertility rates and in the cost that everyone in the workforce will have to pay to look after the elderly and retired is expected to soar. In 1975, China had 164 “kids” under 24 for every 100 of working age. Today, they have just 51. And at the other end of the demographic chart, the number of over 65s compared to the number in the workforce has risen from 11 per 100 in 1975 to an expected 30 in 2030.

When the honest history of the one child policy is eventually written, I fear we will discover it was never a necessary evil after all. It was just evil. We will discover that a combination of urbanisation, industrialization, female education and access to reliable contraception could and would have achieved the same results without any of the traumatizing side effects suffered by an entire generation of Chinese families. And if that is so, the sooner the “two child” policy is abolished the better – whatever the protests of the millions that have profited from the system over the past 36 years.
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