No more babies for you!

China plans to stick to its one-child policy for at least one more decade.

By Catherine Price
March 11, 2008 5:30PM (UTC)
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Speaking of moral dilemmas (see our recent post on womb rental in India), Tuesday's New York Times reports that China is sticking with its controversial one-child policy.

China's top population official, Zhang Weiqing, said the policy wouldn't change for at least one more decade, since China is expecting a surge in births that's not supposed to end for at least 10 years, during which time an estimated 200 million people will "enter childbearing age."


As things stand right now in China, which has enforced the one-child policy for nearly three decades, urban families are allowed to have only one child, farmers two. Some members of ethnic minority groups are sometimes allowed two or more. (Of course, even among urban dwellers, people with enough money and connections are able to get away with having more than one child.)

Where's the dilemma? On the one hand, no one can argue that the one-child policy has not helped keep China's population in check -- estimates of the number of births it has prevented range from the Chinese government's 400 million to other, more independent sources' 250 million. With a current population of 1.3 billion people, China is still expanding by 17 million people a year even with the policy in place, so the policy is definitely addressing a potential population problem.

But the downside -- besides, you know, the whole idea of the government being able to control your reproductive life -- is that restricting families to only one child makes them a lot more picky about, for example, the gender of their offspring. Since male babies are often more highly valued than female ones, the policy "is considered a contributing factor to a gender imbalance that has raised concerns that there may be too few women in the future," as the Times puts it.


But one of the most interesting interpretations of the one-child policy that I've read was published 12 years ago in Jan Wong's excellent book "Red China Blues," in which she suggests a completely different problem the one-child policy might cause the government. To quote:

"In rural areas, where three out of four Chinese lived, many families had several children. But in the cities, where the one-child policy was strictly enforced, millions of onlies were growing up sibling-free, doted on by two parents and grandparents. I saw six-year-olds still spoon-fed, ten-year-olds who couldn't dress themselves ... Many parents of the nineties were part of the Lost Generation of the Cultural Revolution. After suffering so much themselves, they were determined not to deprive their only child ...

"Many people thought that a country populated with Little Emperors [the Chinese nickname for only children] was headed for disaster. I disagreed. Granted, it might be unpleasant to live in a nation of me-first onlies, yet I saw a social revolution in the making. For generations, Chinese society had emphasized the family, the clan, the collective over the individual. Now, for the first time in four thousand years of history, the relationship was reversed. Pampered onlies were growing up to be self-centered, strong-willed ... individualists like, well, Americans. Where the Mao generation failed, the Me generation just might succeed. 'It's China's salvation,' said Michael Crook ... 'If you have a population of Little Emperors, you can't have little slaves. Everyone will want to tell everyone else what to do. You'll have democracy."



Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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