When I travel, I look for features about the country or culture that inspire a story which could only happen in that particular location or under those circumstances. In China, the government's one-child policy triggered my imagination.
Travelers in foreign lands are always exposed to one or more of the world’s pressing social issues. Issues that are easy for tourists to simply ignore, and many travelers do just that. They come home with photos of elephants, temples, and monuments, with souvenirs, dirty clothes, weary bones, tales of adventure, and a myriad of other things. I do that, too.
But, also, I return--gratefully--to the United States with concerns regarding population growth, environmental degradation, loss of historical and cultural heritage, poverty, hunger, racial and religious discrimination, poor living conditions, inadequate medical treatment, economics, social inequities, and violence, including wars. Everywhere I’ve been, at least one or two of those raise their ugly heads. Fortunately not all of them on every trip, or I’d quit traveling. But being an urban planner who spent more than thirty-seven years dealing with planning for future generations, one of my interests is population growth and how it’s being handled.
What the Family Planning Law Covers
I came back from my trip to China in 2002 impressed with the way the Chinese government had addressed the previously-uncontrolled population growth.
Say what? No, you read that correctly. Thirty plus years ago, China faced a huge population problem. They couldn’t house, feed, or educate the growing population. They couldn't provide adequate jobs or medical treatment. Overpopulation and a high birth rate created enormous economic, social, and educational problems. In 1978, the PRC (People’s Republic of China) under the direction of then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, bit the bullet and adopted a population control policy.
The law restricts the number of children of married urban couples (essentially Han Chinese living in urban areas) to one child, although it allows exemptions for rural couples, ethnic minorities (there are fifty-five), and parents without siblings. About 36% of the population is subject to the control. The policy has been credited with reducing the population growth (in a country with 1.3 billion people) by an estimated 300 million people since its implementation.
Granted, this would be an irresolvable political issue in the United States, but as a result of the policy, overall conditions improved significantly for the most of the Chinese people, putting the PRC in a better position to address the critical issues, along with the environment and human rights.
Continuation In The Near Future
However, by 2005, Chinese demographers were predicting that in the future there would be a shrinking workforce in China and not enough young workers to support an aging population, which has been the case in much of Europe for quite a while. The PRC was seriously is considering rescinding the policy (which has always been considered a temporary measure), but in 2008, the government announced the policy would continue through 2015. In March, 2011 there were modifications to allow couples to have two children under certain circumstances.
Social Implications of the Policy
There has been some very controversial press regarding the policy, but the people I talked to in China indicated the law does not "punish" anyone for having more than one child. Those "additional" children are not entitled to any of the benefits afforded the first child, like free education, health care, etc. Some Internet sources indicated that the government imposes fines.
Most of the people I spoke with seemed to favor the policy, primarily for economic reasons. Some of those people we talked to were tour guides who work for the government and definitely recite the party line--so anything they told us had to be taken with a large grain of salt--but some of the folks were guests at the hotels and people we meet on the street and in restaurants (including grandparents caring for their grandchildren) and other folks who seemed to be average denizens.
On the other hand, some sources claim that this law has caused a disdain for female infants: abortion, neglect, abandonment, and even infanticide has been known to occur to female infants. There are plenty of “horror stories” circulating, and I've heard some of them from friends with relatives in China. How true they are, I can't say.
One verified result is the disparate ratio of 114 males for every 100 females among babies from birth through children four years of age. Normally, 105 males are naturally born for every 100 females. Another is the reduction in China's fertility rate (number of births per woman) to 1.7, lower than the U.S. rate of 2.1, which is the replacement level representing a stable population, exclusive of migration.
Now that millions of sibling-less people in China are now young adults in or nearing their child-bearing years, a special provision allows millions of couples to have two children legally. If a couple is composed of two people without siblings, then they may have two children of their own, thus preventing too dramatic of a population decrease. It's hard to imagine this level of intervention in private lives. Who knows what the future may hold for China.
Implications for Novels
I can think of a number of intriguing story lines that could result from a culture (real or imaginary) with this kind of growth policy. It would make a great science fiction story. I’d love to hear comments on what you know about this, the stories you've heard, and/or ideas that this situation evokes for stories. Hope to hear from you.