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Book Review: The story of China’s most radical experiment

Diana Yeong

The Star/Asia News Network

 /  Thu, April 7, 2016  /  03:37 pm
Book Review: The story of China’s most radical experiment

The policy, in place since 1979, was amended in October last year to allow couples to have two children. (shutterstock.com/Fotokon)

Most of us assume we have a basic immutable right to reproduce. That’s why even those who know very little about the world’s most populous country know that its citizens were allowed a maximum of one child per couple.

The policy, in place since 1979, was amended in October last year to allow couples to have two children.

Today, commercialism seems to be the dominant characteristic of China’s people, so much so that it is easy to forget that the country is still ruled by a communist regime and that it is not a democratic society. The one-child policy is a painful reminder of the draconian power the government wields over the population of this vast nation.

As a person of Chinese ancestry, it’s hard for me to reconcile the one-child policy with what I know of the traditional Chinese love of large families, where children are counted as an even greater asset than the already highly revered duo of wealth and health.

Conceived during the years of nationalistic fervour by idealistic rocket scientists, China’s one-child policy has had untold far-reaching ramifications that are only now becoming manifest. Reading Mei Fong’s One Child is reading about the worst nightmares of our grandparents come true.

A Malaysia-born Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Fong lived in China for a number of years, covering the country and Hong Kong for The Wall Street Journal. She has used that experience to painstakingly cover many different angles of the one child story.

A Malaysia-born Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Fong lived in China for a number of years, covering the country and Hong Kong for The Wall Street Journal. She has used that experience to painstakingly cover many different angles of the one child story.(The Star/Asia News Network/-)

She explores the way the authorities applied the policy, and the inhumane power that enforcement officers exerted over people, especially women: Some women were forcibly sterilised after the birth of their allocated child; foetuses from as late as seven months into a pregnancy were ruthlessly aborted; and “illegal” or out-of-plan children were routinely taken away by the authorities, never to be seen again.

The social impacts that Fong depicts are manifold: A dire gender imbalance may still give rise to social ills still not clearly understood; the financial and familial pressures on the single child are almost insurmountable; and children become spoiled, pampered little “emperors”.

Fong begins her moving account in 2008, when she followed a group of construction workers back to their hometown in Sichuan province, in the wake of a great earthquake that rocked that part of the country.

In one devastating disaster, hundreds of only children were killed, and their parents became shidu, bereft and childless in a society where elder care is the responsibility of offspring and not the state. With the loss of their child, many couples also lost friends, status, their pension, hospital and burial access, and hope for the future.

Fong recounts those events with a sensitivity that comes out of personal experience: during the trip to Sichuan, Fong lost her baby due to miscarriage. It caused her to begin her exploration of the effects of this political ideology upon individual lives, and the unexpected, radical changes that the 37-year-old law has had on the Chinese psyche.

Later, she undergoes fertility treatments in Beijing, her hope for children a poignant counterpoint to the Chinese Government’s aversion to the traditional fecundity of its population.

In the three decades since its implementation, the one-child policy has succeeded in changing the face of China’s population – it is now ageing at an astounding rate, there are 30 million men who are struggling to find wives, and China’s greatest asset, its huge labour force, is rapidly dwindling.

In 2015, the Chinese government announced that the one-child policy would be relaxed for certain eligible couples, but the greatest effects of the one-child policy may have already left their marks on the Chinese psyche.

Response to the two-child announcement has been lukewarm, which isn’t surprising, coming after years of campaigning to convince people that more than one child is undesirable.

Fong eloquently and affectingly paints a devastating picture of political dogma and social experimentation gone wrong; an Orwellian and Atwoodian dystopia brought to life.

One Child: The Story Of China’s Most Radical Experiment

 

Author: Mei Fong
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, non-fiction

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