In today’s New Yorker, Jiayang Fan offers a family memoir that highlights the degradation of China’s One-Child Policy and hints at the demographic issues that we are facing globally.
Fan recalls, at the age of seven, meeting an aunt for the first time. It was widely-known in the family that this aunt had been sold for two bushels of rice, as she was the result of an unplanned pregnancy. She was adopted by a childless couple, and then grew up to work for the government as a family planner; that is, she helped implement the government’s One-Child Policy.
Steven Mosher, of the Population Research Institute, explains the history of this Chinese policy:
The one-child policy, first adumbrated by Deng Xiaoping in a 1979 speech, was in place nationwide by 1981. The “technical policy on family planning” followed two years later. Still in force today, the technical policy requires IUDs for women of childbearing age with one child, sterilization for couples with two children (usually performed on the woman), and abortions for women pregnant without authorization. By the mid-eighties, according to Chinese government statistics, birth control surgeries—abortions, sterilizations, and IUD insertions—were averaging more than thirty million a year. Many, if not most, of these procedures were performed on women who submitted only under duress.
Fan’s aunt was actually lucky; given the propensity in China for male heirs, girls are overwhelming aborted. Of course, Chinese girls are not the only ones to suffer this fate; it happens in India, South Korea, and other places. In 2009, the New York Times acknowledged the problem:
[I]n India and China the situation is dire: in those countries, more than 1.5 million fewer girls are born each year than demographics would predict, and more girls die before they turn 5 than would be expected. (In China in 2007, there were 17.3 million births — and a million missing girls.) Millions more grow up stunted, physically and intellectually, because they are denied the health care and the education that their brothers receive.
In What to Expect When No One Is Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, Jonathan V. Last writes that America is suffering from a self-imposed one-child policy of sorts and we are in not much better shape than China when it comes to demographics. Not only does this type of social re-engineering change economies, it changes entire social institutions like marriage. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has spent considerable time studying the changes China is facing.
From 2000 to 2030, the percentage of men in their late 30s who have never been married is projected to quintuple. Eberstadt doesn’t believe that having an “army of unmarriageable young men” will improve the country’s economy or social cohesion. He thinks demographic change will pose two problems specific to China. Its society has relied heavily on trust relationships within extended-family networks. In a country where fewer and fewer people will have uncles, those networks will rapidly atrophy.
Even now, China is seeing dramatic changes to marriage customs and rituals. Chinese women are demanding more and more from the men seeking marriage. NPR recently highlighted this in a story focusing on one couple where the groom had to pay a “bride price” of approximately $11,000 to satisfy his bride. Xiaobo Zhang, a professor of economics at Peking University, sees other changes as well:
Zhang has found families with sons in areas with higher gender imbalances are more likely to be unhappy, and to have to work harder in order to be able to afford that all-important wedding gift — the apartment.
“In order to save more, families with sons must work harder. They are more likely to become entrepreneurs, more likely to take risky jobs — like working in the construction sector — more likely to work longer hours.
This type of social change has also led to an increase in human trafficking in places like China and India. Both boys and girls are vulnerable. Boys are desired as sons for childless couples and as workers, girls as sex workers and as brides forced into marriages.
And what of Jiayang Fan’s family and the aunt who was sold for rice? Fan recounts:
As the story goes, my grandfather held his youngest daughter in one arm and his eldest with the crook of the other. When he handed over the baby, swathed in threadbare hand-me-downs, in exchange for the grain, his other daughter asked, “When is it my turn to be sold?” My grandfather, more leathery and grayed than he should have been at fortysomething, looked down at her, and at the twin bushels of grain in his other arm, and laughed. And then he wept.