ZHENG: Stop the one-child policy

As it currently stands, China’s one-child policy is in fact a misnomer. There are numerous exceptions to the rule. Most significantly, rural couples whose first child is a girl may give birth to a second, and parents who are both only children themselves may have two kids. According to one official estimate, only a little more than a third of the Chinese population is still subject to the strict one-child restriction. However, despite its gradual relaxation, China’s family-planning policy remains a subject of bitter derision.

A recent example that exposes its dark side is the case of Feng Jianmei, a 22-year-old woman from Shanxi province who was forced by local officials to go through an abortion when she was already seven months pregnant. When a photograph of Feng lying on a hospital bed with her dead baby went viral on Weibo, China’s Twitter, it sparked a new wave of public outcry over the callous implementation of the one-child policy.

In my family, the most well-known victim of the policy was my father’s cousin, who lived in a relatively affluent rural area in the southern province of Zhejiang. After giving birth to a beautiful daughter, she and her husband decided to have a second child — legal since they lived in the countryside. However, when an ultrasonic scan revealed that the second baby would also be female, her in-laws pressured her into an abortion. To her in-laws’ delight, they got the grandson that they had been praying for on the third try.

Despite horrifying stories like that of Feng Jianmei, today’s implementation of the one-child policy isn’t nearly as stringent as it was years ago. My father recalls the early ’90s, when I was born, and recounts hospitals creating separate rooms to house stillborn babies from forced abortions. Such practices were allegedly commonplace.

As much as I despise the inhumane practice of coercive abortion, I once believed that the one-child policy was a necessary evil and should not be abolished. Perhaps influenced by my Chinese public school education, I was convinced that much, if not all, of China’s current social, economic and environmental woes were due to its oversized population.

After all, it makes sense. If China had the population of the United States — a healthy 300 million instead of a massive 1.3 billion — then its citizens would be able to live in comfortable houses instead of cramped apartment complexes. China’s insatiable thirst for energy would be eliminated. Scarce resources such as health care and higher education would become easily accessible.

The problem with such wishful thinking is that it essentially treats the lives of Chinese citizens as though they have negative value. It also ignores the historical and modern-day realities of China’s demographic landscape. Although China’s population increased by a whooping 400 million from 1949 to 1979 (the year the one-child policy was first implemented), the population growth rate during this period was actually comparable with that of other developing countries in the world.

According to World Bank statistics, in the decade between 1970 and 1979, even before the advent of the one-child policy, China’s total fertility rate had already dropped from 5.51 to 2.84 children per female. This was a remarkable achievement, attributable to advancements in education, public health and female empowerment. The one-child policy further lowered the fertility rate to around 1.5, well below the replacement value of 2.1. As a result, China faces a shrinking labor force and a rapidly aging society.

The critical flaws in China’s family-planning policy lie in its format and execution, not in its underlying philosophy of population control. The one-child policy, as currently constructed, should either be abolished altogether or made far more lenient. With the costs of child-rearing skyrocketing, especially in urban areas, it is unlikely that a new baby boom will occur, as many supporters of the policy suggest.

Meanwhile, make no mistake: loosening the one-child policy does not equal promoting population growth unconditionally. The state must continue to broadcast the benefits of smart family planning, make contraceptives readily available and explore other indirect means of bringing about sustainable population growth, such as providing more social security options to the elderly in rural areas.

There’s nothing wrong with striving for a healthy population model. The simple fact of the matter is that the societal costs associated with China’s one-child policy today have become much too high, and its efficacy much too dubious to justify its continuation.

Xiuyi Zheng is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at xiuyi.zheng@yale.edu .

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