China’s One Child Policy

Warning: talks about abortion, human trafficking and forced sterilisation

China’s one child policy was in place between 1979 and 2015 and, as the name suggests, it was about limiting families to having one child.  There were exceptions, for example ethnic minorities were not subject to the policy and in the 1980s, a change meant that rural families could have a second child if their first was a girl.  If both parents were only children, then they themselves could have two children.  At some point, it was also possible to apply for permission for a second child if the first had a disability. 

In 2013, there was a partial relaxation that meant if one parent was an only child, the couple could have two children.

In 2015, China announced that every family now had the right to 2 children.

“The policy has in one way or another affected the life of every single person in China – which is every fifth person on the planet.”
– Mari Manninen

It is likely one of the most extreme and controversial birth control policy that humanity has seen. 

So why did it come into being?

Controlling population growth was thought to be the key to increasing economic prosperity and standard of living.  In 1957, Mao Zedong said:

“Our country has so many people, which no country in the world can compare with.  It would be better to have fewer births.  (Re)production needs to be planned.  In my view, humankind is completely incapable of managing itself.”

By the mid 1960s, China had developed its own version of the contraceptive pill and had “expanded the national distribution and propaganda network devoted to promoting birth control” (Whyte, Feng & Cai).

Across the globe, during the 1960s and 1970s, there was concern about population increases and by the late 70s, China’s population was approaching one billion.  To tackle this, in the 1970s, a campaign was established to reduce the population and it had the slogan ‘later, longer, fewer’; get married later, wait longer between children and have fewer children.  This campaign came with heavy coercion and enforcement and in the 70s the average number of children per family dropped from almost six to under three.  By 1979 the one child policy was officially introduced.

Before we look at how the policy was enforced, I think we need to consider gender. 

UN statistics say that China has over 60 million missing girls, girls who should have been born or shouldn’t have died as children.  Research carried out in rural China in 2000 showed that if a family had a boy and was pregnant again, 40% had an ultrasound the second time round.  If the first child had been a girl, that leapt to 70%.  However, this leaning towards boys precedes the one child policy; killing baby girls wasn’t uncommon in the 1930s and 40s but had since decreased, until the 1980s.

There is a myth that Chinese parents only wanted boys but it’s not so clear cut and it’s important to take into account cultural expectations for each gender.  Men are the ones who would be expected to support their aging parents and alongside the introduction of the one-child policy, what little health care and elder services there were for farmers, were slashed, making it even more important to have a boy.  Further if you only have so much food, you had to prioritise which children would get it.  Think about children as an investment in your future.

This seems horrific and brutal but reflects the traditions of the culture – men would carry out the heavy work on the farm, they were the ones who’d earn money and help to secure the family, they were the ones who carried on the family line and it is the men who make the offerings for the ancestors. 

Families did still want girls but it seems to be as well as a boy, rather than instead of.

Of course, for any policy such as this to be successful, enforcement is crucial.  As we’ve already noted, methods predating the policy were strongly coercive and methods once the policy was implemented were no gentler.  They varied locally but were often intrusive and brutal.

Birth planning enforcers would keep detailed records about the women of child bearing age in their area.  This included any previous children, details of their menstrual cycle and their use of contraception.  In some places, pregnancy tests had to be taken regularly and exams were carried out to check they weren’t pregnant.  All of this meant that they could identify illegal pregnancies in the early stages.  These birth planning enforcers oversaw villages, neighbourhoods and were even found in work places. 

Each region had their own pregnancy quota, as did some factories, and women had to apply for permission.  Village quotas were stopped in the 2000s but potential parents still had to apply for permission before getting pregnant.  If you wanted to apply to have a second child – ie if your first child was a girl or was disabled – you had to wait until your first child was at least 4.  Today, with the two child policy, there is no need to wait and permission is no longer required.  However, it is required that parents register online or with the local family planning office when a pregnancy begins.

If you managed to avoid the stern eye of the birth planning enforcer and had a child without permission or outside the policy, you could expect to be fined.  If you didn’t pay the fine (and in some cases, even if you did), the child would not be given a hakou, an official household registration record.  Without it, you essentially don’t exist.  You can’t go to school, work, get healthcare, get married or even get on a train.

As the fines are an important source of income for local government, it is obviously in their interest to enforce them.  In 2012, fines for unpermitted children amounted to the equivalent of 3 billion euros.

It is hard to know how many unpermitted children exist, but one estimate puts it as high as 25 million.  That’s 25 million people who have no rights and no access to basic services.  And any children those unpermitted people have, will also have no rights.

Manninen quotes 18 year old Zedong in her book Secrets and Siblings:

“I felt like I had no worth.  Even dogs have papers, but I had nothing.  Everyone looks down on me… It’s not my fault I don’t have hukou… Even foreigners were able to get official papers to live in China permanently while many Chinese couldn’t even get the basic hukou.”

As well as being fined, you would risk losing your job, having your home and property damaged, stolen or destroyed and in some cases you risk being illegally detained.

“Sometimes a family would lose their bicycle, or their radio.  They might have holes chopped in their roof.  Often the family pig would be confiscated.  In the worst cases, the disobedient family’s house would be razed to the ground.”
– Manninen

If you did get pregnant and it was discovered before birth, abortion was ‘encouraged’.  According to statistics, up to 13 million abortions are performed each year in China and the number will be higher if you take into account illegal abortions.  This works out at one abortion for every one hundred people in China.  Abortion is common in China and easy to get, further women are entitled to at least two weeks off work to have one. 

Regular harassment and pressure to get an abortion was not enough, and forced abortions could be carried out at any stage of pregnancy, with one woman reporting that she had been forced into one at 9 months.  The viability of the foetus was not relevant to the procedure.

This left millions of women facing the choice to have an abortion or face a fine and risk losing their job and more.  If a girl was born, they then faced another issue; should they let their child die so that they could have a boy?  Whilst it did occur, child abandonment became less common towards the end of the regime, with only seriously ill and disabled babies being left on the side of the road. 

As a disabled person this hits me hard, but in a world where you can only have one child, having a disabled child who isn’t going to be able to provide for you in your later years, has long term consequences.  As does the cost implication of meeting additional needs.  Further, in China it is often considered shameful to have a disabled child.

As well as abortion pressure, there was also pressure to be sterilised or to have an IUD inserted.  In rural areas, once you had one child, you were required to get an IUD and there would be 6 monthly checks to ensure it was still in place.  After a second child, one of the parents would be sterilized.

In rural areas, sterilisations were brutal.  They were often performed without anaesthesia, with women laid side by side on the ground and the operation performed right there. 

Inevitably, all of these practices have had a long lasting impact on the country as well as the individual people who’s lives have been touched by the policy.

There is a regularly touted statistic from the Chinese government that the policy prevented 400 million births, fuelled the economy and improved wellbeing.  The birth rate figure used here is based on overly simplistic assumptions.  Further, given that “at least 70 per cent of the decline in fertility from 1970 up to the present was achieved prior to the launching of the one-child policy” (Whyte, Feng & Cai) and coercive birth control enforcement was already in place before the policy, it seems unlikely that the policy had much effect. 

When it was introduced in 1979, the one child policy was “based on politics and pseudo-science, rather than necessity, much less on good demography.  China could have achieved further progress in lowering fertility with some version of a two-child policy, a choice that would have sharply reduced the human suffering caused after 1980” (Whyte, Feng & Cai).

As well as aiming to reduce population growth, the policy was implemented to improve the economy and the quality of life for the residents, however:

“[The] economic reforms may have lifted 500 million above the poverty line, but that still leaves nearly a quarter of its 185 million retirees living on less than a dollar a day.”
– Mei Fong

But there is an upside to the policy, those girls who were the only child were the beneficiaries of the family’s resources and some have thus had the opportunity to receive a higher level of education and support than they otherwise might have.  In 2010, a quarter of Chinese women in cities had a university degree, double the number in 1990.

“The death rate of women and children has also fallen, and their health has improved due to fewer births and fewer mouths to feed.”
– Manninen

Of course, nothing is so simple and the increased education and career opportunities for women has led to a higher number of single adults.  So called ‘leftover men’ are found in rural areas and are less well off and less educated whereas ‘leftover women’ live in cities and are well educated.  This creates a disparity – the men who are available for marriage are not likely to want the kind of women who are and vice versa.

Men, for example, are stereotypically looking for young, beautiful women who haven’t been married before and parents often echo, or push, this thinking.  For example, there are wedding markets where parents come to advertise their unmarried sons and daughters, sometimes without their knowledge.  The continuation of the family line is important and parents see it as their duty to find their child a wife or husband.

The term ‘leftover women’ has been coined to pressure women to marry young and to deter them from being career orientated but the reality is that there are more unmarried men than women.  According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by now China should have 30 million more men of marrying age than women.  That’s the same as half the entire UK population.

It is this gender disparity that has resulted in women from China and surrounding countries being trafficked and sold to be wives.  One study estimated that, in a four year period, about 21,000 women and girls from northern Myanmar were forced into marriage in one Chinese province alone.

As well as the impact on the children who were born under the policy, there is the effect that it has had on the older generation.  By 2050 it’s estimated that more than a quarter of the population will be over 65 and that poses the question, who will support them?  If they had one child, that child will have grown up to become an adult facing the burden of supporting their elders alone.

“…because of the one-child policy, each young Chinese faces supporting four grandparents, two parents–plus however many children they bear. Shanghai recently passed a law requiring children to visit parents in nursing homes. This oppressive, upside-down pyramid–known as “4-2-1” in China–is another reason Chinese are reluctant to add to their burden by having more kids.”
Time

And then there are the families who were unable to have a child, or whose child died.  People look down on childless couples and in some places they face discrimination, finding it hard to get into a retirement home or get a burial plot.  The concern is that without children, there won’t be enough money for continued payment or maintenance fees.  There is also no one to support them with other needs as they age.

As the Time quote suggested, there seems little appetite for having more than one child, even though the policy changed in 2015.  Although there was an increase in births initially, there hasn’t been much lasting change. 

The government is now trying other initiatives to raise the rate; some areas offer longer parental leave, financial support and in some areas it’s now harder to get a divorce or abortion.  Lowering the age for marriage and offering free or subsidised pregnancy care are other ways that China is attempting to increase the birth rate.

Whatever happens next, I suspect the burden will once again fall disproportionately on women, whether through forced marriages, through trafficking or through forced childbearing.

Resources:

Secrets and Siblings, Mari Manninen

Challenging Myths About China’s One-Child Policy, Martin King Whyte, Wang Feng and Yong Cai

Reinventing China’s Abortion Police, Lucy Ash

One Child Policy, Last Week Tonight

China’s Unmarried ‘Leftover’ Women, Vice Asia

One Child Policy, BBC

Disability and abortion

Have I already written about this? I know I touched on it in the post around sterilisation…  Hmm… maybe I haven’t… I think maybe I was avoiding it because it is such a huge and complex area…

Firstly, I am pro choice.  I believe that women have the right to chose what happens to their body.  For me, this is not a case of not valuing a fetus, it is a case of valuing the woman’s life more.  I do not believe making abortion difficult will stop abortion.  Making abortion illegal will just make abortion more dangerous.  It will not stop abortion.

Secondly, language around this issue is full of emotion and controversy and I have done the best I can.

Thirdly, this is not a discussion about the morals and ethics surrounding abortion itself.  It is about abortion and disabled or potentially disabled fetuses.  I am making an assumption, for this post, that the society in which this debate is taking place allows women access to abortion.

Ok, now we’ve clarified that, what does abortion have to do with disability?

Here I am considering the right to abort a fetus which has a disability.  The argument against screening for disability and then acting on the information is that it is a form of eugenics. As we’ve already seen on this blog, the eugenics movement in the early 1900s had a profound effect on disabled people and their rights and their lives.  Here we are not sterilising or killing people who have a disability but instead are stepping in earlier and preventing a potential disabled person from being born.  Society is allowing the reproduction of people with “undesirable attributes” to be stopped.  This underlines the idea that all disability is bad and that everyone is better off not being disabled.

Adrienne Asch is one writer who finds abortion for “fetal indications” profoundly troubling. This is not because she regards fetuses as persons and abortion as seriously morally wrong. Her view is that abortion is morally acceptable if the woman does not want to become a mother. However, she distinguishes between abortion to prevent having a child (any child) and abortion to prevent having
this child. Why, Asch asks, would someone who wants to be a mother reject this pregnancy and this (future) child because of one thing about that child: that is, that he or she will have, or is likely to have, a disability? She believes that such rejection is likely to stem from inaccurate and prejudiced ideas about what it is like to have a disability or to parent a child with a disability.

Bonnie Steinbock

It is important to know a bit about prenatal screening and the information available to parents who are going through this process.  There are two parts to prenatal diagnosis; the first is screening which gives parents and idea of how likely it is their child would have a particular health problem, the second is then a definitive test.  The first is non invasive, consisting of scans and/or blood tests and looks for things like infectious diseases, Down’s syndrome, or physical abnormalities.  The second is invasive and carries certain risks but gives a more certain yes or no about whether the fetus has a particular condition.

One really important thing to keep in mind here is that these prenatal tests do not tell a parent that their child will be born healthy or without disability.  There are many many many conditions or illnesses which cannot be screened for.  This then creates a potential for people with certain disabilities being considered less worthy of life.  There is a question of who decides what disabilities are screened for and what are the consequences of that (obviously science and technology plays a part but this is still all guided by people).  For example if most fetuses with Downs Syndrome are aborted, we end up in a situation where there are fewer people with Downs and those that are alive may feel they are being told by society that they shouldn’t be.

Another consideration is the severity of a disability, just because someone tests positive for a condition does not mean they will be disabled by it.  Take my condition, you can be severely disabled by it or you can go through life without too much impact.  This approach is saying that anyone with x is inevitably going to have a difficult life rather than considering the severity of the condition and the society around that potential person.  A millionaire with x will have a very different experience than someone who is unemployed – money buys support and equipment and such things.

The language used in the debate also assumes both that all disabilities are equal and the same and that there is no good life available for a person with a disability:

Disability in the context of a termination decision for a wanted pregnancy has been described as a “tragedy” and a “defect”— using the language of pain, suffering, and devastation. The focus is on the potential suffering a child with a disability will allegedly experience and inevitably bring on parents and other siblings. The fetus with a disability that is survivable post- partum is often considered damaged.

The paradox of disability in abortion debates: bringing the pro-choice and disability rights communities together

A key argument against abortion of disabled fetuses is that if society changed, there wouldn’t be a problem for that disabled person.  As such, abortion is removing the need for society to change how it sees and supports people with disabilities.

But, what if the parents are in a situation themselves where they cannot cope with the additional things that come with having a disabled child.  Is it then fair to insist they have that child and suffer the detrimental impact on their lives as well as the child’s?  Here I’m thinking about additional financial burdens, especially in cultures where health costs are extortionate and parental leave non-existent.  Whilst it is nice to consider what would be ethical in an ideal world, we do not live in an ideal world.

For Lippman, the rhetoric of choice is meaningless; to knowingly carry to term a baby with Down syndrome “cannot be a real option when society does not truly accept children with disabilities or provide assistance for their nurturance”

Keeping the backdoor to eugenics ajar

A further consideration is those parents who know there is a chance of an inherited condition who want to get prenatal screening not so that they can have an abortion, but so that they can mentally and physically prepare.  Prenatal testing and finding out the child may have a disability does not mean that parents will inevitably chose to terminate the pregnancy.

Whilst it’s easy to talk in examples, it is unfair in some ways.  We all find ourselves in situations where there is no good answer and stigmatising parents who have made incredibly tough decisions, whatever they decide, is not helpful to this debate.

“All decisions about screening and termination are difficult and can only be made by those people who have to live with the consequences”

-Tom Shakespeare

Shakespeare distinguishes between population level eugenics (such as that during world war 2 and forced sterilisation) and individual level eugenics (those decisions made by individuals and families).  I find this an incredibly helpful way of thinking about things.  I am absolutely against population level eugenics but I know that if I got pregnant, I would want to have access to abortion.  This is because there is such a high chance that any child of mine would have my genetic condition and whilst I do have a high quality of life, I don’t want someone else to suffer through some of the painful and difficult things I’ve been through.

Shakespeare also points out that whilst screening and access to abortion is not the same as historic practices, the culture and context in which decisions are made can promote the same outcomes.  That is, if you are making a decision to have a disabled child in a society which does not value disabled people and which is not set up for or accomodating of disabled people then that free choice is very different to a free choice made in an inclusive society.  Similarly, whilst parents have the choice about whether they get prenatal screening, there has become something routine about doing so, it is considered part of the normal path of pregnancy.

This complicated issue becomes even more so when you try and bring in political views and feminism.  I am not even going to attempt to tackle that paradox here but if you are interested check out The Paradox of Disability in Abortion Debates who explain more coherently than me how “disability rights and reproductive rights can conflict and intertwine, particularly on the issue of later abortion.”  Jenny Morris and Tom Shakespeare both write articulately on the subject as well.

The over simplification of the debate and the nature of the situation has led to a lot of misunderstanding and conflict, in particular in my bubble world between feminism and disabled people who would often agree on many other issues.  This has the potential to become divisive and that often wipes out the opportunity for nuanced discussion and sensitive conversations.  And these interactions should focus on society, not individuals.  Disabled people, or fetuses, are not the problem here.  The society in which we live is.  If parents knew that their child would grow up in a welcoming, supportive, accepting and accessible world then their reaction to screening results or their interest in knowing at all could look very different.

I’m going to wrap up this intensely difficult issue with a couple of quotes for you to think about:

“Very few forms of impairment involve so much suffering that non-existence would be preferable… Prenatal diagnosis can be justified in terms of the effect on parents and other siblings, but cannot be justified in terms of the benefits to the lief which is prevented from coming into existence as a result, except in the most severe cases of impairment”

Tom Shakespeare

“If the responsibility is placed on the individual woman to exercise the choice whether or not to give birth to a disabled child then the responsibility for choosing to bring up such a child also rests on her”

Jenny Morris (discussing the arguments, not sharing her view)

If you want to find out more about Tom’s views and the future of prenatal screening and testing then his lecture at Harvard Law School is worth a watch.