Mei Fong is the youngest of five daughters, conceived in hopes of a son who never materialized. "Be glad we're not in the old country,'' her relatives, who had immigrated from southern China to Malaysia, would tell her. "You'd never have been born." Fong grew up to be a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, which posted her first to Hong Kong, then, in 2003, to Beijing, where she gravitate toward writing about China's policy of limiting most families to one child. Her first book, "One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment," will be released on November 3rd. The publication date was hastily moved up from February last week, after the Chinese government announced that it was scrapping the thirty-five-year-old policy and would now allow all families to have two children. I conducted the following e-mail exchange with Fong during the weekend. It has been edited for length.
Did you know from the moment you moved to China that you would write about the one-child policy? Was there a particular experience that made you focus on this topic?
Not really. As a bookish child, I'd always been fascinated by the policy, and from a distance China had seemed like something out of Orwell or Huxley.
But the key really came in 2008 when I covered an earthquake in Sichuan, China's worst disaster in a generation. More than seventy thousand people were killed. I'd followed a group of construction workers who had travelled from Beijing back to their home village, in Sichuan, not knowing what had happened to their families back home. The trip was an arduous one, a distance something like that between New York and Chicago, and we did it all on trains, boats, and even motorcycles, because they were too poor to fly and the quake had severely damaged a lot of roads. It ended badly—many of these folks discovered that their children back home were killed in the quake. Not only that, many of these were only children, due to the fact that the area had actually been a pilot test project for the one-child policy before its nationwide launch, in 1980. Making things worse, many bereaved parents couldn't have any more children—they'd been sterilized as part of the policy requirements.
While I was covering this, I myself had a miscarriage, and that helped me understand to a greater degree what it means to lose the hope of a child.
This was the painful genesis of the book.
How has the one-child policy shaped the character of today's China?
When I first moved to China, I thought of the one-child policy mainly through its excesses—the forced abortions and female infanticide—but it actually has a strong effect on the everyday lives of ordinary Chinese. All these questions, like who you marry, what kind of job you have, how do you grow old comfortably, the answers are all shaped to some degree by the one-child policy.
If we imagine such as thing as an "average" person in China, that person would likely be male, since men outnumber women. (Today, some provinces in China have between twenty-six and thirty-eight per cent more males than females.) He'd likely be an only child, especially if he was born in a city. If he's a young bachelor living in a smaller city—not Beijing and Shanghai, which are outliers—he and his parents would probably be enormously anxious about his marriage prospects, and they might have hocked everything to buy an apartment beyond their means, to increase his eligibility. His parents would be particularly worried not just because he's their one-and-only, and therefore every decision he makes he makes is imbued with earth-shaking significance, but because the one-child policy has reduced the supply of potential daughters-in-law, who are the traditional caregivers of elderly people in China. If their precious only son suffers an untimely death, they'll become shidu—the name for parents whose only child has died. There are about a million shidu parents in China, with seventy-six thousand joining their ranks yearly, and they're really to be pitied, because they not only lose financial security with the death of a child they also have difficulty getting accepted into nursing homes, or buying a burial plot, and they fall far down the societal totem pole.
How about the character of Chinese individuals? You must have had many friends and colleagues who were only children as a result of the policy.
While I don't believe China's one-child generation is significantly more spoilt than other generations, I suspect they struggle with a weight of heavy parental expectations. Their horizon for experimentation is so much narrower than that of their Western counterparts.
One of my friends, Jenova Chen, is a famous game designer, named as one of the world's top young innovators by M.I.T. He told me that in traditional Chinese families, each sibling had a role to play, and being the single child meant "I had to do all of them. I can't fail because that's all my family is counting on." When Chen was fourteen, his father, sensing the coming Internet revolution, bought him a P.C. For mid-nineties China, this was a huge investment, like buying a Stradivarius for a kid just starting violin lessons. Chen's parents wanted to steer him to a safe, prosperous career working for a prestigious firm like Microsoft, so when he told them that he wanted to design computer games, "it was like saying I want to be a pornographer." Now Chen's a superstar in his industry, and has his works displayed in the Smithsonian, but he's unlikely to have more than one child himself, he says. "I don't feel like I dare to have more than one child. I feel I can barely take care of my parents," he said.
Some scholars have said suggested that the one-child policy was as big as catastrophe as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Do you agree?
In terms of long-term effect, yes. The Great Leap Forward lasted three years, the Cultural Revolution, a decade. What we call the one-child policy—a set of regulations governing childbirth in China—is now thirty-five years old and still going on. Even though Beijing's shifting to a nationwide two-child policy, the state is still regulating the womb. The side effects—a huge gender imbalance, a coming tsunami of old people with relatively few young to take care of them—are going to linger for at least a generation, if not longer.
Do you think China could have achieved its epic growth of the past thirty years without restrictions on population growth?
|Source - newyorker.com||Read Full Interview|