Is one enough?

Will China's generation without siblings break away from the one-child rule?

By Vivienne Walt

Published November 11, 1998 10:37AM (EST)

Just as the Chinese New Year celebrations exploded across the country last February, Hong Yuanqing andXiong Jianrong threw a party to mark their wedding. They registered theirmarriage with the local Communist Party committee in this district north ofShanghai, and eight months later, on a brisk autumn day in October, sat ona hard bench in Langxia's "newlywed class," discussing the finer details of sex and love.

Slightly built, with big glasses and a blue V-neck sweater, Hong, a27-year-old hairdresser, doesn't look like the avant-garde of a country inthe midst of major social upheaval. His soft voice barely breaks throughthe echoing din in the crowded classroom, and he visibly blushes each timehe looks at his 25-year-old wife, whose hair, drawn back in a ponytail,frames a pale face and drops over a sedate maroon suit. But this couple isas good a mark as any of China's vast changes.

Inside the classroom, there are astonishingly few inhibitions: Thediscussion this day ranges from why some men ejaculate too soon to how theycan bring their women to orgasm before they ejaculate. The newlywedclasses are only for married or engaged couples, whose bosses release themfrom work one afternoon a month to participate. Still, the topics wouldhave been unthinkable nearly a decade ago, when the public newlywedclasses first began in many Chinese towns. The teacher, a young woman,stands in the front of the classroom wearing a plastic apron on which is printed, to scale, the female anatomy -- a walking instructional tool.

Yet for all this racy material, the talk among the couplesinevitably reverts to the one crucial question intruding inall their lives: the government's policy to persuade, cajole and oftencompel couples to have only one child.

"Here we learn about contraception," says Hong. "We're usingcondoms right now. But soon we'll plan to have a child." Then comes the zinger: "And if we're rich enough, we'll have two or three. We would like three."

When Americans consider whether to have another child, they weighfactors like paying for education or a bigger house. But having a second child can befar costlier than that in China. In Langxia the government levies huge fines on couples who transgress family-planning rules by givingbirth to more than one child. In a system that varies wildly across thecountry, here couples are fined about one-quarter of their annual income foreach of the first five years of this surplus human being's life.

And so, like much else in China's new freewheeling capitalism, youcan, for a price, purchase your privileges, including those in the mostintimate areas of your life.

Even with parts of Asia in economic crisis, Hong and Xiong each stillearn 10,000 yuan, or $1,250, a year, a handsome sum for a small-townChinese couple. At this rate, they will be able to buy their wayinto a bigger family. And that's a very unsettling thought for governmentofficials, charged with administering perhaps the most controversial andtightly controlled population program in history.

Last month, for the first time ever, China's State Family PlanningCommission, one of the country's most pervasive bureaucracies, invited agroup of foreign journalists to tour the country and see how the governmenthas dramatically eased the country's population problem -- or at least seeits version of the success story. In a trip the Rockefeller Foundation inNew York facilitated and financed, we received rare access to neighborhoodclinics, factory health posts and rural families, and met with top family-planning officials in Beijing and Shanghai.

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It's been nearly 20 years since China imposed a policy dictatingreproduction quotas. The policies are a labyrinth of regulations, varyinggreatly from district to district, and often resting on the quirky discretionof local officials. Still, some tough rules apply. No one in the big citiesis permitted to have more than one child without facing dire fines: In Shanghai, where about 16 million people are crammed within the city limits, couples who have a second child are fined three times their total annual earnings, a kind of "social-compensation tax," as one official interviewed put it. One-child parents also get rewarded when they retire, with 2,300 yuan (about $287); childless retirees receive double that.

In many places, women still need permission from their workunits or local party committees to conceive a second child, and if they go ahead without that permission, local officials "encourage" -- the word I heard several officials use -- them to have an abortion. If they fail to abort, the government can deny the new baby the free schooling and health care due its fellow citizens. In rural areas, couples are permitted to have a second child only if the first is a girl -- an unabashed disappointment for many -- and thenonly after waiting four years from their first child's birth. And in remoteareas, and among China's 55 ethnic minorities, there are no rules at all --partly because enforcing them would likely be a bureaucratic fiasco.

Ever since the party introduced its policies in 1979, Westerngovernments have howled about human-rights abuses. Between 1986 and 1993, U.S. funds earmarked for theUnited Nations Population Fund were frozen, and although President Clinton lifted thefreeze as one of his first acts as president, Congress continues to bar anyU.S. funding from being spent on population projects in China -- the world'smost populous country, with 1.24 billion people.

Western attacks certainly found rich fodder in the grueling stories offorced abortions and sterilization, and of overzealous localofficials, given extra funds for keeping population figures down, seizingthe houses and furniture of families after the birth of a second child.Baby girls abandoned in orphanages have become poster children for theinternational furor over China's one-child policy, as well as a gold minefor American adoptive parents. By the late '80s, there was analarming disparity between the number of boys and girls counted in theofficial Chinese census, apparently because many couples simply aborted girlfetuses, or gave birth to them secretly.

But that, say Chinese officials, was then. "We were nevercoercive," Li Hong-Gui, vice minister of family planning, told us inBeijing. "Some parts of China did this, but central government didn't support it," he said, before adding this frosty comment: "The West has its own opinions about our policies. Maybe some Western journalists are just not friendly to China."

In fact, despite their anxieties about what we journalists mightunearth, the Chinese officials had impressive successes to tout. With aneconomic boom in recent years, they have flooded many parts of the countrywith free contraceptive services, rather than, as in the early one-child years,routinely fitting every woman with an often hazardous intrauterine deviceand then invariably sterilizing her after she gave birth.

On a rainy afternoon in Shanghai, I watched a worker at aprinting house upstairs from the factory discuss with a nurse how to choose from an array of contraceptives. Across the city, one local committee seemed toencourage couples to linger in the little fluorescent-lit family-planning clinic by displaying a cabinet filled with some tempting extras for sale: condom rings, vibrators and porno videos to spice up the sex lives of their quiet, one-child families.

Such user-friendly services would be envied by most American women. Butalmost every official interviewed boasted of something far less tangible: adramatic change in the mind-set of Chinese youth, most of whom, they say, havelost any desire they might once have had to have more than one child.

Few scenes could capture so well what's happened within onegeneration as observing a class at a vocational college in Luwan, a Shanghai district of about 800,000 people. When asked who had a brother or sister, the 16 teenagers glanced around confusedly and shook their heads, as if they had been asked which family had a Great Dane at home. Finally, after a pause, one girl in jeans and sneakers raised her hand and said: "I do, my sister and I were born before the policy." All heads swung around in curiosity.

When asked whether they wanted more than one child, no one in theclass said yes, or perhaps none had the nerve to say so. In a country desperatelyshort of housing, most of them are squeezed into decrepit apartments withextended families, and finding more space is a daunting prospect under any circumstances. And besides, an entire generation has simply lost the experience of having siblings; so effective has the party's social engineering been that few of them contemplate the possibility. "It is good for our country to have just one child," said one boy in class, echoing many other such statements.

During their parents' generation, Mao Zedong was still preaching tocouples to have big families as a way of beefing up the Communist ranksduring the Cold War. China's population soared during Mao's rule. By the mid-'70s, shortly before these students were born, China was facing a population powder keg. Between 1970 and 1975, Chinese women had an average of 4.9 children; today it's 1.8. Demographers now think the world's population will hit its peak in 2050, at around 9.4 billion people, about 500 million fewer than earlier predictions. And in some part, we have the Chinese Communist Party to thank.

But can the sentiments of those Shanghai students win out? Thegovernment has good reason to worry, since in 1979, it included one crucialloophole to its one-child policies: that if two only-children marry, theywould be permitted to have a second child. As the country gears up for nextyear's 50-year celebration of Communist rule, China's first only-childgeneration is beginning to think about marriage, and that loophole is cominghome to roost.

The one-child party line is ubiquitous. But you needn't dig verydeep to find the same lingering doubts about one-child families that Americansargue over so passionately: that only children are overindulged, that they aresocially backward.

"Perhaps she's lonely," one Beijing journalist said to me overlunch, about her daughter. "I worry a little. I try to see she has otherchildren to play with." In the Shanghai neighborhood of Hongchu, only six out of the 999 households have two children, and, said one official, "They are all twins." "Are the parents treated badly? Are the children scorned?" I asked. "No," she said. "We all celebrate! We think they are very lucky."

Even with its one-child policies, China still adds about 20 millionpeople a year -- about three New York Cities, or more than one Australia. Andthere's good reason to wonder whether second children might one day become a status symbol among the nouveau riche -- living proof of a comfortable life, but one that could severely throw off the country's population growth. China's new generation is beginning to like its experiments with individualism, and asyet, there's no knowing whether childbearing might become another way of distinguishing oneself.

Back in Langxia, Hong and Xiong, at least, have already broken with theofficial line. How many more there are like them will emerge during the nextdecade or so, as Chinese couples weigh their country's health against theirchildren's. "We each have one brother," says Hong. "We want our children tohave siblings, too."

Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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