How China's One-Child Policy Led To Forced Abortions, 30 Million Bachelors Journalist Mei Fong tells Fresh Air that China's one-child policy drastically reshaped the country's demographic make-up. "China has 30 million more men than women," she says. Her book is One Child.
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How China's One-Child Policy Led To Forced Abortions, 30 Million Bachelors

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How China's One-Child Policy Led To Forced Abortions, 30 Million Bachelors

How China's One-Child Policy Led To Forced Abortions, 30 Million Bachelors

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The world's most radical social experiment - that's how China's one-child policy is described in the new book "One Child" by my guest, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mei Fong. The policy was created in 1980 by the Chinese government to limit population growth by regulating how many children married couples could have. Although there were exceptions written into the one child limit, the rules were strictly enforced. Last fall, the government announced the policy would be updated to allow couples to have two children. Fong's book is about how the policy has left China with a disproportionate number of old people and males and has changed family life. Fong traveled to a bachelor village in rural China with no women of marriageable age. She talked to people who had been pressured to be sterilized after the birth of one child, but then that one child died. She learned about forced abortions, unlicensed children who are confiscated by the authorities and what it's like for adult children who don't have siblings to help share the responsibilities of caring for older parents in failing health. Fong started writing the book when she was a Wall Street Journal correspondent based in China. She's now a fellow at New America. Mei Fong, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you decided to focus on the single-child policy when you were covering the earthquake in Sichuan that killed 70,000 people. You were a reporter for The Wall Street Journal at the time. And you were with a couple when they found out that their daughter was one of the children killed during the earthquake when the roof of the school collapsed. So this was a couple that had the one child that they were allowed, and now that child was dead. So obviously, they were emotionally devastated, but you know, beyond just the loss - beyond just, like, the emotional loss, the devastating loss of this child, there are consequences that they knew would kind of have ripple effects for the rest of their lives. What were some of those consequences?

MEI FONG: Well, it means a lot, economically speaking, because a lot of families still don't have any kind of a financial security, so losing one child is basically a pension pen-in (ph), so that's one thing. And for the Chinese, culturally speaking, the continuance of the family life is very important. So when you die without any issue, you are basically violating all sorts of, you know, your duties to your ancestors, which is very important. And certainly because, you know, Chinese society is still very family-centric, even if it's just a smaller family size. You're not considered fully an adult until you are married, and you are not considered complete until you have a child. And when you lose that child, you fall quite far down the societal totem pole. So for example, this family that I covered that had lost their only child, they lost a lot of status in their village. They said that their neighbors were avoiding them and shunning them basically, that they were worried that these - childless couple would now be hangers-on, clinging onto them, borrowing money, not having any sort of protection. So that's what losing your one child means. And then today in Chinese context, there's a name for these people who've lost their only child, shidu. And it means, you know, parents who've lost their only child. And for parents who are shidu, some of them find it hard to get admitted into nursing homes. Some nursing homes won't take them. They say you have no progeny to authorize treatments or payments or anything, so we prefer not to admit you. They also have difficulty buying funeral plots for the same reason. You know, who's going to service the maintenance costs of your cemetery down the line? So these are very sad issues.

GROSS: And it's not like this couple could have had a second child because at the time, if you came under the one-child policy and you had that one child, you were expected to be sterilized.

FONG: Be sterilized.

GROSS: And so the husband in this couple had had a vasectomy, so they didn't have the option of having another child. He tried to reverse it, but that failed.

FONG: He tried to reverse it, and it was actually an operation that succeeded, they said. The doctors told me that it was technically a success, but he was 50. His wife was 45. So the chances of them conceiving were quite low.

GROSS: So the one-child policy in China was not as straightforward as it might seem. So could you explain what the policy was and who was affected by it?

FONG: Well, what we call the one-child policy for simplicity is actually a basket of rules governing family size in China. And the basic idea was to encourage everybody, by coercion, if necessary, to keep to, if possible, one child. And that was for a majority of urban household, so about a third of all Chinese households in total. And for other parts of the region, they would have some certain exceptions because they found that they could not make everybody keep to that one-child rule without allowing for certain exceptions. So you could technically have a second child if you had a certain job that was hazardous, like if you were a coal miner or a fisherman. But you could also have a second child maybe if you were one of China's minority tribes or if you lived in a rural area and your first child was a girl. And, you know, they recognized that, you know, a lot of people want to try for sons. But the end result was that with all these exceptions coming down the line, a lot of people didn't really necessarily know what the rules were. And so it was very easy to contravene them and be fined for them, so that was a hard part.

GROSS: So what was the rationale behind these restrictions on children?

FONG: China, at the time, you know, when this whole population-planning policy was formulated, was very concerned about the fact that their population was growing at a hugely exponential rate. There was a baby boom in the '60s and '70s, so - you know, and Mao encouraged it, you know, during the communist planning times. You know, he believed that increasing productivity was a strength, so - in that time period, so a lot of people had more children. This was coming after, you know, a turbulent time. So - but the problem was they wanted China to advance, and there was a sense that, you know, if you had too many people straining your resources, then that would be a big issue going down the line. But China was actually already embarking on a sort of a population-planning policy before the one-child, and that was in the 1970s. They had something in place already called the later, longer and fewer campaign, and it was much less coercive than a one-child policy. What it did was it encouraged people to get married later, have fewer children and space a longer period between their children. And during a time period in the '70s to the '80s - in a 10-year period where they had that policy in place, the average family size in China went from six children per family to three. So it's quite conceivable they would have, you know, continued in that trajectory, and their population would have fallen without having to go to this very drastic one-child solution.

GROSS: You call the one-child policy the world's most radical social experiment. I get the impression from your book that the Chinese government had no idea exactly how radical it would turn out to be and how - what an extreme effect it would have on the demographics of the country. Like, give us an example of, say, the ratio of older people to younger people now.

FONG: Well, the one-child policy drastically reshaped the composition on China's - their people. So now, they have a population that's basically too old and too male and down the line, maybe too few. So the too old issue is - you know, right now China has a dependency ratio of about five working adults to support one retiree. That's pretty good. That's a very healthy ratio. In about 20 years, that's going to jump to about 1.6 working adults to support one retiree. And that's because, you know, China - you know, that big population boom that we talked about, that big cohort of people are all living longer and getting older and, therefore, hitting their 70s, 80s and 90s. So by the time 2050 comes around, 1 in 4 Chinese people will be a retiree. You know, that entire population of retirees in China would be the third largest nation in this world if they were to form their own country. So that has nothing to do with the one-child policy, that's just a function of, you know, people living longer and growing older. But the problem is then you have this very small working cohort to support them. And that has everything to do with the one-child policy. You just, you know, drastically shrank the number of working adults to support this huge, aging tsunami, and that's the problem going ahead.

GROSS: And what about the gender imbalance in China? Boys have been prized over girls. Were a lot of female fetuses aborted because parents wanted to hold out for a son instead of a daughter?

FONG: You know, that's the thing. You know, and China, for a very long time, has been a culture that prized sons. And it's not the only one, obviously. You know, even England for example, when we look back at things like Jane Austen, that was what it was all about. Sons mattered more. Sons inherited. The problem is when you created a system where you would shrink the size of a family, and people would have to choose. Then people would, you know, evermore choose sons. And so the problem then became, down the line, now China has 30 million more men than women, 30 million bachelors who cannot find brides. Numerically, there are just not enough women going around. And these are men, you know, farmers, who will not be able to get married. They call them guang guan, broken branches, that's the name in Chinese. They are the biological dead ends of their family. Now, 30 million men, that's about the population of Canada, so that's huge. You know, there's just no way you can import enough women in to meet that huge demand.

GROSS: So is there an estimate of how many female fetuses were aborted that ended up in this kind of imbalance? Because, you know, you write that there was a policy that the health care worker couldn't tell the woman who was having a sonogram or whatever what the gender of the baby was, but that a lot of health care workers managed to give a clue anyway. So did women have ways of finding out and then choose to abort the females?

FONG: Yeah. In the beginning, right - when the policy came around in 1980, at that time, they did not have scanning machines that could determine the gender of the fetus at an early stage. So people who delivered girls, for example, and wanted to keep their quota for that one boy, because if you used up your quota for a girl and then you gave birth to another girl, then you would lose that. So people would either abandon your daughters, or there would be infanticide, or they would give them away, which is part of the reason why we saw so many adoptions of China's babies, mostly girls, in the West. But later on, in the 1990s, technology made it easier for people to do all these scans. Companies like General Electric, you know, made these scanning machines that were portable and small enough that you could go from village to village. And you could determine the sex or the gender of your fetus for as little as $10 or $20. So people would just have an abortion instead of carrying their child to full term. So as a result of that, I think the Nobel economist Amartya Sen estimated there were about 100 million missing women - women that were never born or killed or aborted across Asia. Later, estimates kind of bore fruit that those figures were roughly about 100, 120 million. And out of that, about 50 or 60 million would have been women in China, so that's what's missing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Mei Fong. Her new book is called "One Child", and it's about the one-child policy in China, which was the policy from 1980 until the end of last year. Mei, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about the one-child policy in China and what it's meant for men and women, for families and for the country as a whole. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mei Fong. She's the author of the new book, "One Child," and it's the story of China's one-child policy, which applied to many but not all of Chinese families. As she says, it was a basket of rules regulating how many children families were allowed to have and in what circumstances. The policy lasted from 1980 to 2015. Now there's a two-child policy, which means there's still a lot of regulations determining who's aloud to have children and how many. Her new book is called "One Child." She's a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter - former reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Let's talk about how the one-child policy was enforced. So if a couple had one child and was not supposed to have a second, say the woman got pregnant - then what?

FONG: Well, if she lived in a small village, for example, she would probably be scrutinized by a group. She would probably be grouped together with a set of households and come under what they call a cluster leader, somebody who sort of monitors the progress and fertility rights of a certain set of households. So, I met one cluster leader, for example, who used to keep a board where she would write down, you know, when women in her 10 households would have their periods, what kind of contraceptives they use, how many children they had - so on and so forth - she would have to track. So if this woman, for example, fell pregnant, then most likely this cluster leader would know about it very quickly. And then she would report to higher-up, and then the screws would come in, you know. Probably at first, a village leader would show on her doorstep and say look, you know, you know very well you shouldn't have this. You could have all sorts of problems with this. You might have to pay a fine. I've met enforcers who have gone to these houses and say, well, we used to take away something valuable to show that we mean business. If the couple...

GROSS: Take away something valuable to show we mean - what does that mean?

FONG: Well, like a television set, for example - or a pig. Or sometimes, if the household was a very poor household, they would take away homespun cloth or grain or something - you know, something that had to made it hurt, basically. And that was in a village setting, of course. In a city setting, it could maybe - if you worked for a civil servant - you know, service-linked job, they might, you know, threaten to fire you.

GROSS: And this was for having a child or for just being pregnant?

FONG: This was having a child. If you went for a termination, all this would go away. But of course, then there were people who really wanted the child. And then they would try and evade the whole process of being taken away for a forced abortion because here's the thing. Between your conception and delivery date, you know, all bets are off. They can make you - you know, remove the impediment.

GROSS: Yeah, that's what I was wondering. Do they come and threaten you and take your TV and say, you'll only get this back if you have an abortion? Or do they just, like, take you to the abortion clinic and give you the abortion?

FONG: I think it starts at sort of a level of persuasion. So they say, think about it. We'll come back tomorrow. Or, you know, we've got this tractor taking everybody to the - or this truck that will be taking everybody to the clinic on this date. You show up on this date, and you'll be fine. And if you miss that date, they'd come back again and threaten. And then, you know, and then so on and so forth. And so it becomes a matter of a hide-and-seek process for some people who desperately want to keep their child. So - and they hope to carry it to full term and then deliver it as a complee (ph). And then, of course, even though they are are still hit with fines, the child's living. It's born. It's there. But the problem becomes when it's still in the mother's stomach because then it's still - then it's still considered fair game for a lot of family planning officials. Theoretically speaking, forced abortions are illegal after the sixth month. But in practice, it happened. It happened as late as 2012, where there was a case of a woman, Feng Jianmei, who was - she was a rural (ph) woman. And she believed, and she wanted very much to have a second child. And they told her she couldn't. And they kept coming at her and saying, all right, if you're going to have the second child, you're going to have to pay something like 6,000 U.S. dollars. She and her husband worked in factories. They couldn't afford it. They tried to sort of see if they could pay less. And it went back and forth until she was in her seventh month, when they took her away to the hospital with a pillow case over her head and injected her with something that caused her to abort the 7-month fetus.

GROSS: You talked with some of the people who had to enforce the one-child policy and either lead people to abortions or fine them for becoming pregnant after already having had a child. Tell us one of the stories you were told by one of the enforcers, or the population police, as you call them.

FONG: There was a woman, and I tracked her down. Her name was Gao Xiaoduan (ph). And she's now living in America. She had been responsible for something like 1,500 abortions, out of which about a third were late-term abortions. And she had testified before Congress that she had worked as a mid-level family planning official in the southern China. And she gave a whole wealth of detail, basically, about, you know, what was the whole - how the business was conducted and how coercion was employed. You know, and one of the things she talked about was, you know, jails - you know, black (ph) jails that they would have. Basically, one of the ways in which you would persuade people to show up for an abortion would be to put a relative of theirs - you know, typically a mother, she would say - into the jail. I've seen these pictures of these cells, by the way. They just look like steel-bar cells. And she would say, OK, your mother's in jail. And she's going to stay there until you show up and come for an abortion. And so - you know, this is kind of the pressure or tactic employed too. And by the way, that period where they put, you know, that relative in jail, they would also charge that relative every day for, you know, a certain amount for food and so on. So, you know, a lot of people who would feel, you know, at some point bound to show up. And it wasn't necessarily just for abortions. It would also be for sterilizations too. You know, you say, OK, you know, your mother's going to be in jail until you show up for that sterilization operation.

GROSS: Let's talk about how this policy, the one-child policy, has affected women in China. On the one hand, a lot of female fetuses were aborted because if you're only allowed to have one child, in China you're more likely to want that child to be a boy rather than a girl. But on the opposite side, you write that women in China, after the one-child policy, were more likely to get adequate food, education, jobs, opportunities than ever before in Chinese history. Why is that?

FONG: Well, let's say you were born after 1980 in a big city. Chances are, you probably don't have a sibling. And if you're a girl and you don't have a sibling, then you don't have to fight with your sibling for resources. So, you know, your parents will want to send you to college. They won't be able to - they won't be debating a question of whether they should spend the money on your brother or yourself. It's all for you. So, you know - so imagine this scenario replicated, you know, a million times over. And the end result is, you know, women born - especially urban women - born after 1980 achieved way more than any other generation before them.

GROSS: Are you saying, too, that your parents wouldn't automatically be favoring the brother over the daughter if there was no brother - if there was only a daughter?

FONG: Yeah, no brother, nothing, right? Only a daughter - and not only that. I mean, if you're living in a city environment, then a daughter can just as equally earn money in a white-collar job as a son. You know, it's not a question of, you know, physical strength the way it is when you're on a farm, where boys count for more than girls because boys can lift and do more heavy farm work. So women, as a result, prospered. At least urban women did, a certain subsection of urban women.

GROSS: My guest is Mei Fong, author of the new book, "One Child: The Story Of China's Most Radical Experiment." After we take a short break, we'll talk about her personal connection to the story. Also, John Powers will review the new FX miniseries about the O.J. Simpson trial, and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will play some of the earliest jazz recordings. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mei Fong. We're talking about her new book, "One Child," which is about China's one child policy, which limited the number of children a married couple was allowed to have. The policy began in 1980. At the end of last year, it was revised to allow couples to have two children. As a result of the one child policy, China is now disproportionately old and male. Fong started the book when she was a Wall Street Journal reporter based in China. As part of her research, she spoke to parents and children whose lives were shaped by the one child policy. You spoke to a girl who wasn't, quote, "registered" because once you're born you have to be registered so that they know this couple, this family, has had their child. And the authorities know if somebody has to be sterilized, if they want to advise an abortion if there was another pregnancy. So this was a girl who wasn't registered. Why wasn't she registered? And what did it mean to not be registered?

FONG: So a lot of things in China are tied to what you call your household registration. They call it the Hukou. So - what kind of jobs you can get, what kind of schooling you have, it's all tied to your Hukou, and where you get your Hukou begins right with the birth permit that your parents got when they were pregnant with you. So it all comes to that. So if you don't have a birth permit, it's very hard to get the Hukou. If you don't get the Hukou, it's very hard to get schooling, medical care. This girl that I spoke to, her name was Leesha (ph), she couldn't so much as get a library card or buy a train ticket because she didn't have a Hukou. And at the time when I spoke to her, she was in her 20s, she had never gone to school at all and she was living in Beijing. She wasn't living in some small town in the middle of nowhere. She was living in a very crowded metro city and she had never, ever been to school because she didn't have that. So they call this kind of an unregistered child a heihaizi, a black child, literally translated. And there are about thirteen million of these heihaizi, unregistered children, and some of them not necessarily children who are sort of nonentities. You know, you might call them undocumented migrant workers, you know, the context of what Westerners might understand because they don't have any rights.

GROSS: In the social structure in China the way you describe it, parents as they age really rely on their children to help support them in old age. There isn't a social safety net in China. But now that there's been a one child policy in place since 1980, there's a lot of families where there's, like, one person, like, one child who has to support his or her aging parents who, you know, may be in failing health. And in most families now, there's not siblings to help a child support their parents, and so there's a lot of pressure on children now. How did you see that being manifested?

FONG: When I was in China, starting from the mid-2000s, we used to have this thing they called the Little Emperors, right? This is a very common sight you would see in parks and restaurants - one cute little kid surrounded by a gaggle of adults, usually the parents, the two sets of grandparents, you know, all hustling around this one little kid. So that was what they called the xiao huangdi, the Little Emperor. But if you fast-forward, the first generation from the one child is now in their mid-30s so - and you have parents in the 50s or 60s, grandparents are 80s and 90s. So that balance is shifting so, you know, that child is now an adult, and an adult has to return back that care and love to a set of ailing adults, and without the benefit of any siblings to share that. I somehow think that sometimes having brothers or sisters is something probably we only really appreciate when we're much older, probably not when we're children. And, you know, if you'd at least look at the numbers alone, right, I mean, China has something like a quarter of the world's Parkinson's sufferers right now already, just by the sheer number of old people they have. In a matter of 20-something years, that percentage is actually going to jump up to something like 60-something percent, and, you know, all the numbers will be the same for Alzheimer's and dementia and all sorts of things like that. So it's a huge strain not necessarily just financially but emotionally as well.

GROSS: So if you stand back and look at, like, you know, China as having had this, like, amazing economic boom, how much of that do you think is attributable to the population control that resulted from the one child policy?

FONG: Two words for that - very little. I know that it's very hard for us to think that way because the one child policy basically happened at the same time when China opened up economically, and China for the last 30-something years has had double-digit GDP growth, therefore, ergo it must be connected, right? That is the line of thinking that's very popular. But here's the thing. I mean, basically when China opened up economically, what it did was it dropped all these socialist-planned economy stuff which wasn't working. They moved people from the country to the cities, they encouraged foreign investment and they did all these things which are so much more the reason why China's had this double-digit GDP growth, and it has really nothing to do with the one child policy. I mean, one of the main reasons why China grew so fast economically is because of this manufacturing boom they had, and a manufacturing boom is because of the cheap labor they had, and cheap labor is because of a lot of people, not fewer people. It's a result of the cohort that were born in the '60s and '70s before before the one child policy and were grown up and old enough to work in the factories at the time when China opened its doors. So really, you know, if you - I talked to a couple - quite a lot of economists about this, and, you know - many reasons for China's blistering economic growth, and very little of it has to do with the one child policy.

GROSS: When you started writing your book, "One Child," you were pregnant. And so here you were writing about all these, like, fertility issues and restrictions on, you know, families' rights to have more children, and you were trying to start a family of your own, but also while writing this book, you had a miscarriage. And also while writing this book, you had fertility issues because you have a hormonal disorder that affected your fertility. And so that gave you great insight, I think, into how really difficult it is for, you know, for a government to regulate a woman's fertility - because a woman's fertility, you know, you can prevent your body from conceiving, you can try to help it but some women will never conceive no matter matter how hard they try. You can't control biology that easily.

FONG: Well, yeah, that's the whole point. I mean...

GROSS: Oh, and then you can't turn it back on. You can't say, OK, women, now we need you to conceive because there's not enough young people so start conceiving. You know, biology doesn't always work that way.

FONG: Yeah, you're right, write Terry. I mean, biology can be controlled only to a certain extent, fertility can only be controlled to a certain extent. Family life, the regulation of it, can only be controlled to a certain extent. At some point, we have to allow this space for personal choice and decision into that matter, and I think when we don't, these are the tragedies that occur and that's what I try to explore in the book with the stories of individual people.

GROSS: Now, another interesting story related to your "One Child" book is your extended family's story. Your paternal grandfather had 18 sons. I'll say that again - 18 sons. And your father was the 16th of those sons. Then your father married your mother, she had five daughters, one of whom was you.

FONG: Yes, I was the last one, the fifth one - the last hope for the son.

GROSS: And your mother was considered kind of deficient by your father's family because all she had was daughters. They wanted sons. So what do you see when you look at your family history of sons and daughters and the favoring of sons over daughters?

FONG: Well, I see the microcosm of what Chinese culture has brought forth. You know, I should make clear at this point, I'm ethnically Chinese but I'm not nationally Chinese. I am third-generation Chinese. My grandparents were from China. They migrated to Malaysia. So we're what you call Huaquiao, overseas Chinese, who are actually considered very traditional. We cling to the old ways a lot. So my family was very son-loving.

GROSS: How did your father, coming from a culture and from a family that preferred sons over daughters, how did your father deal with having five daughters and no sons?

FONG: He was a very disappointed man. You know, my father was not a farmer. He was - he worked in the civil service. He had been trained as an accountant, but you know, he still had all these notions in his head that his sons were really necessary and that they were important, to, you know - they made you a man, they made you somehow more relevant. And he used to rail at us all the time and say that you are nothing but liabilities, you are not assets, you are liabilities. And so we grew up, you know, very much feeling like second-class citizens as daughters, as Chinese daughters.

GROSS: He didn't say that ironically, he really meant it?

FONG: No, he really meant that, he really did. And then he had a stroke at 57 so, you know, he was very angry and very disappointed.

GROSS: Was your mother disappointed by having five daughters?

FONG: I mean, she loved us, but you know, you could feel it. And I was too young at the time to sort of see it, but, you know, at clan gatherings and stuff, there was always these slights, these things - and my grandmother was really nasty, too. My grandmother really loved boy cousins so every time we'd play, we learned to avoid her because she would always pinch us - the girls, you know, she really didn't like us. And this all sounds so feudalistic and something that would happen maybe a hundred years ago, but it wasn't that long ago at all.

GROSS: So you are now the mother of twins. They're both boys (laughter).

FONG: Yeah. I didn't do anything with the choosing of that, but I really wanted a girl. (Laughter).

GROSS: Were you surprised to have twins?

FONG: I wasn't because it was IVF, and here's the thing, right? The fertility issue - I was having trouble, and, you know, multiples are, you know, a very common result of IVF. And one of the things I discovered when I was having IVF in China were that there were quite a lot of women in the clinic I was going to who weren't going there necessarily because they were infertile but because they wanted multiples because this is one way to get around the one child policy. Twins or triplets are counted as a single birth so you will not have to pay the fines, you will not lose your job. And so it was kind of like a buy one, get one free kind of a concept.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us, I really appreciate it.

FONG: Thanks Terry.

GROSS: Mei Fong is the author of, "One Child: The Story Of China's Most Radical Experiment." After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new FX miniseries about the O.J. Simpson trial with Cuba Gooding Jr. as O. J. This is FRESH AIR.

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