Chairman Mao Zedong famously opposed suggestions that Beijing restrict population growth, saying, “The more people there are, the stronger we are.”
Three years after Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping—the man behind China's economic development—enacted the one-child policy against his predecessor's wishes. Today, more and more Chinese seem to agree with Mao.
Photos of a Chinese mother whom local officials forced to abort after seven months of pregnancy in June are still circulating widely on the Internet, fueling debate on the merits of the policy.
Feng Jianmei, age twenty-three, failed to pay a $6,300 fine to family-planning officials in northwestern Shaanxi province in order to have a second child. Gruesome images of Feng lying beside her aborted fetus are still circulating widely on Chinese social-media site Sina Weibo.
Chinese web users are saying Feng's case is a chilling illustration of how the one-child policy exploits income inequalities: Chinese with greater financial means who can afford to pay the fine Feng could not are able to reproduce more than lower-income families. Critics say this is legislation that promotes economic survival of the fittest.
“Chinese law is the law of the rich. The rich can have as many babies as they want, because they have the money to pay the penalty,” reads a comment posted to Sina Weibo in early August by user Felinsachen. Attached to the message are the infamous photographs.
The other traditional method of skirting the policy—going abroad to have another child—also involves a lot more money than many working-class Chinese families can afford.
Felinsachen offers a modest proposal to amend the policy, in light of the Feng incident, one of many instances of forced abortion.
“I think the only way to enforce family planning is to put the parents (who don't observe the policy) in jail, so that whether or not they are rich enough to pay the fine, they won't have more than one child,” she wrote.
Why are some Chinese keen to keep the one-child policy, in light of the draconian measures used to enforce it?
In some ways, Mao was right about strength in numbers.
“As the most populous country in the world, China currently still has its advantage in terms of population size. The large population will [continue] to do good for its labor supply and domestic consumption as the Chinese economy keeps growing,” said professor of social policy at Beijing's Peking University Yuegen Xiong in an interview for this article.
The number of young people eager for employment keeps salaries low—there are plenty of replacements for workers not willing to earn a pittance or comply with substandard working conditions at Chinese factories. Lower salaries mean lower production costs, which give China its competitive edge as the world's factory.
On the flip side, Chinese workers are forced to bear the brunt of a large population and its resulting labor supply, as the American public has seen in the past few years of high-profile suicides at southern China's Foxconn factories, where Apple's iPhones and iPads are assembled. “In an overpopulous society, individual workers will face more difficulties in job-seeking and other opportunities,” Xiong added.
Overpopulation essentially has kept China's impoverished factory workers poor and exacerbated economic disparities and competition, even with the estimated four hundred million births the policy has prevented since its inception three decades ago. For a population of over 1.3 billion, there are only around thirty thousand combined undergraduate and graduate spots at the country's leading institution for higher learning, Peking University. Competition is fierce. During my time studying at the university, several professors suggested that there is at least one suicide on campus a year that often does not make it into the media.
The pressure to beat out fellow students to get a coveted spot at a good school like Peking University is insurmountable for some Chinese high schoolers. In 2010 and in 2011, there were suicides related to the infamously tense college-entrance examinations, known as the Gao Kao. A 2007 study of 140,000 high-school students conducted by Peking University and reported in state-owned newspaper China Daily showed 20 percent had “considered committing suicide.” In the country as a whole, some 287,000 people commit suicide each year, according to the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center.
In a country where children struggle to succeed, the one-child policy helps parents focus their resources on a single child. Bo Wang, age twenty-five, a Shanghai native and recent graduate from the University of Michigan working in Washington, noted that the one-child policy has allowed his parents to put all their finances into sending him abroad for his education.
“From an economic stance, my parents' money isn't shared with siblings,” Wang said of the policy, explaining that his parents may not have otherwise been able to afford international students' tuition. “Most of the one-child generation has received a better education than their parents on average, which would certainly benefit economic development,” said Peking University's Yuegen Xiong, explaining the larger social implications of Wang's situation.
Gender and Age Imbalances
Not all Chinese children have the opportunities Wang had.
In 2008, I interviewed a waitress at a restaurant at Peking University. She was from a rural area in western Gansu province, not beholden to the policy, which targets urban residents. She told me she hoped she would become a doctor, but her family only had enough money to send her brother to school; as a man, he had a more likely chance of making money to support their family, she said.
Opponents of the policy—not just on the web but also in government-affiliated publications—point to growing gender imbalances as one of the law's more disastrous results.
“Due to the one-child policy, many Chinese families have an abortion in order to have a son, which causes a gender imbalance,” professor in urban sociology at Hong Kong University Jianhua Xu said.
There are reportedly 120 boys born for every one hundred girls in China, leading some analysts to worry that not every male will find a female mate. Several articles show how gender inequalities have acted to give women the upper hand in their relationships with Chinese men.
One-child-policy critics also characteristically note that the Chinese population is aging and that by 2050, the nation's workforce will have shrunk by an estimated 17.3 percent, according to the United Nations. A recent op-ed in China Daily suggested the government increase fertility rates to 2.3 children per woman in order to halve the prospective decline in working Chinese.
China has promised to move from a production-dependent to a more consumption-oriented, balanced economy. Will it need to maintain a huge workforce to produce the same low-quality, high-volume goods it produces today? Only time will tell if Mao or Deng was right. Meanwhile, the one-child policy will continue to be subject of much debate, both in China and abroad.
Massoud Hayoun is a North African American writer and speaker on Middle East, North African and Chinese affairs. He has written for The Atlantic, TIME Magazine and Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.