Lead book review

China’s brutal one-child policy will be catastrophic for us all

Mei Fong’s haunting One Child explains the very serious unforeseen consequences of ‘China’s most radical experiment’

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment Mei Fong

One World, pp.272, £12.99, ISBN: 9781780748450

Mei Fong tells the routine story of a girl who managed to conceal an illegal pregnancy until the baby was almost due, when family planning officials surrounded her hiding place at night. ‘She ran and ran and ran until she came to a pond. Then she ran in, until the water was at her neck. She stood there and began to cry.’

Through her tears she explained that she needed the baby to stop her husband and his parents abusing her for not producing a son. This was the mid 1990s, but the same thing could have happened in rural China at any point in the past 1,000 years, except for the dénouement. Officials dragged the girl from the water, and hauled her off to hospital where the baby was killed. Even if it had been a boy, the only way the family could have kept him would have been by paying a fine of between two and ten times their annual income.

If it was a girl, she would have been strangled at birth in the traditional way. Mei Fong herself was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents who already had four unwanted daughters. ‘Be glad you’re not in the old country,’ her family told her as a child: ‘You’d never have been born.’ Sons are essential to carry on the family name as well as to support ageing parents, and bury them when they die. Infanticide, always a standard solution to the problem of surplus girls, meant that the one-child policy was skewed by gender imbalance from the moment it became law in 1980.

It originated with military planners specialising in rocket science, the only body of government technical advisers to survive Mao’s purges intact. Their recommendation appealed precisely because its drastic simplicity took no account of human behaviour or feelings: ‘The country had been so beaten and demoralised, its intellectual capital so sapped by the Cultural Revolution, the idea of rationing children, in the same way as coal and grain were rationed, made sense.’

But a decision at the highest level that seemed scientifically incontrovertible caused havoc among ordinary people, most of them still living in the countryside. Wives like the girl in the pond, and husbands who saw sons as their prime source of self-esteem, found themselves caught between two opposed and implacable systems as the imperatives of China’s ancient family-based social structure were brutally dismantled by the new rules.


Legally prevented from marrying until they were 20, girls were traditionally considered too old for marriage by 25. The law further stipulated that no mother should give birth before the age of 24, not always easy to arrange, especially for those whose reproductive systems had already been damaged by multiple abortions. Women were subjected to regular pregnancy checks, sometimes as often as every other week, and forbidden to travel without a certificate guaranteeing they were not pregnant.

Birth control spies, one to every ten households in even the tiniest village, could call on teams of young men to enforce late-term abortions, oversee sterilisation and extort payment for illicit children by threats, raids, arrests, the imprisonment of relatives (usually elderly parents), and the confiscation of household goods. ‘Sometimes we would climb up the roofs,’ an administrator told Mei Fong, ‘and make a hole, to show we meant business.’ Wages depended on quotas being met.

The policy worked if anything too well. Rapid economic expansion owed much to a predominantly male workforce, but a corresponding shortage of women meant that a high proportion of men had no realistic prospect of finding a mate. Women imported to fill the gap were commonly kidnapped and trafficked from neighbouring Asian countries. Up to 100,000 North Korean refugees (who face death in their own country if they attempt to return) are thought to be mainly women, sold to sex-starved Chinese men for $1500 a head.

Factories making full-sized sex dolls provide an alternative. The costliest are life-like imitations of soft-porn stars with real human hair and eyelashes as well as virtually indestructible nipples. The author sees these dolls as both cause and symptom of an increasingly hostile objectification of women by lonely, alienated men brought up with little or no first-hand experience of the opposite sex.

Any hope of securing a bride, even supposing a prospective husband could find one, depends on how much he and his parents are able to pay for her, and whether or not he has managed to acquire a home for her to live in. One young man whose parents had bankrupted themselves to buy him a practically empty flat, with a mortgage currently swallowing 80 per cent of their combined monthly income, found it hard to visualise the kind of wife who might be induced to live in it. ‘She must obey my parents,’ was all he could say, adding after much thought, ‘and obey me.’

The current situation seems at any rate in theory an almost fairytale reversal; ‘poetic justice’ as Mei Fong points out — ‘payback for hundreds of years of systemic discrimination.’ Anyone who has talked to the current generation of educated, independent young urban women in China will know that, for them, the one-child policy represents liberation and unbridled opportunity. Freed for the first time in history from the repetitive drudgery of child-bearing and rearing, they see the future as theirs.

But confidence, autonomy and earning power are not necessarily plus points when it comes to marriage. ‘You don’t want a wife who is smarter than you, and earning more than you,’ said Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister of Singapore, explaining what went wrong when his country experimented in the 1990s with equal education and jobs for women. In the past decade Confucian workshops, set up to teach women how to boost male egos by practising deference and obedience, have become increasingly popular all over China.

The Chinese government has already made tentative, not entirely successful attempts to modify a policy beginning to produce unforeseen consequences. A steep, artificially induced decline in the birth-rate coincided with the increased longevity brought about by modern medical advances. By 2020 there will be 30 to 40 million superfluous Chinese men — as many as the entire population of Canada.

The possibility of disturbing side effects was publicly raised at the time by only one man, an insignificant economics instructor called Liang Zhongtang, who pointed out that, where China currently has five working adults to every pensioner, the ratio would inevitably shift to something more like two adults struggling to support one child and four elderly parents. Ten million more people will retire each year while the workforce shrinks annually by seven million.

The kind of transition that occurred over half a century in the West will overtake China quite suddenly in about 15 years, when one in four of the population will be an unskilled worker with no future, no children and little or no pension provision. The response of those involved is hard to foresee. All that can be said for sure is that, as Mei Fong makes clear in her gripping, balanced and well-documented book, this unprecedented demographic explosion will produce a powerful impact not only on China, but on the rest of the world.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £10.99, Tel: 08430 600033. Hilary Spurling’s many books include Pearl Buck in China and Matisse: The Life.

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Show comments
  • Richard

    With Europe out of the running – our future is a sort of Egyptian-level Afro/Islamic continent – and America set for a Mexican-level future, all progress and development for humanity will depend on South-East Asia. China, Japan, and South Korea are the only hopes left. They will need to ensure they have enough children to keep the rest of us in food and medicine.

    • Sue Smith

      Your demographic scenario is frightening indeed. The Chinese are busy securing their food going into the future by buying up prime agricultural land and resources in Australia and are being greeted with open arms.

      Those open arms might be signalling another less desirable need in the not-so-distant future.

      • Mary Ann

        His demographic scenario is rubbish, although white people will become extinct, not because of African and Arab invasions, but because we are choosing not to have enough babies ourselves.

        • Richard

          Sorry I can’t quite match your verbal sophistication, but two things are happening: we are not having enough babies, and those of lesser intelligence are moving in. We will eventually settle somewhere in the region of 85 IQ, or a couple of standard deviations below China. 85 is the average for mixed-race white/black offspring, which is about the same as Egypt and Syria. One can already see that encroaching into areas of that demographic in London and other major cities, unless Leftie ideology blinds one to reality.

      • Richard

        Yes, we are irrevocably weakening ourselves by mass immigration. Although the Left has forbidden conversation on the topic, IQ is not evenly distributed across the planet. The two highest regions are Europe/North America, and South East Asia. Europe/North America are heading downward, whilst South East Asia is stable, and potentially increasing. When China is able to project itself more effectively, we will be sitting ducks for expansionism. All we can do is try to manage our demise as best we can.

    • Mary Ann

      What planet are you living on?

  • AraucaniaPatagonia

    What this article fails to provide is the background: which was the state-encouraged, unsustainable population growth that Mao thought could be used to overwhelm the rest of the world, but which would have just resulted in mass starvation instead if he hadn’t died. The imbalance in boys and girls is the result of innate cultural prejudices, which are clearly far from being overcome.

    • Mary Ann

      When they grow up, there will be a shortage of women, hopefully the value of women will increase.

  • abhishek

    Stupid article by stupid freedom muslim lovers, 1 child policy is best, and pls, for gods sake, dont send ur pseudo intellectual journalists in china, I got one reported out of china recenttly, next time i`ll get them shot dead, thank you

  • Mongo

    global over population is the greatest threat humanity faces.

    Most third world nations should implement a one-child policy, or even a no-child policy.

    in the West, the ‘babies for benefits’ culture needs to be curtailed, thereby encouraging people only to have children if they are in a position to look after them financially

    • Mary Ann

      We can’t afford to cut the babies for benefits culture unless of course you want to see White Europeans becoming extinct, we aren’t having enough babies to replace ourselves as it is.

    • Todd Unctious

      No. Not really. Population growth has been in retreat since 1972. We are due to peak at about 9.2 billion around 2060 then it will tail off rapidly.

  • King Kibbutz

    Thirty million young men, unable to find a woman, destined never to marry and be a father.
    That’s a lot of anger and frustration looking for a vent.

    • Sue Smith

      Spot on. And the biggest threat will be to the “regime” in China, first.

    • Christopher C

      why? almost 45% of Chinese ‘women’ ARE HOOKERS…. SOOOO…. ummm…. yeah, they’ll be fine… hookers world wide = small wonder it’s the world’s oldest profession, eh? LQQK around – it’s ‘what they do’…

      • King Kibbutz

        Shouldn’t you be getting your Eng’ Lit’ assignment done? Mum won’t let you have the Xbox out until she’s happy.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          More wild accusations based on projection I see.

  • Passos Dias Aguiar Mota

    Anti-China bla bla bla super long article, with a bombastic title that cannot be explained in the text that follows. Why is “China’s brutal one-child policy will be catastrophic for us all” WHY?

    Global over population is the threat! One-child policy was a corageous policy!

    And then you read this:
    “The current situation seems at any rate in theory an almost fairytale reversal; ‘poetic justice’ as Mei Fong points out — ‘payback for hundreds of years of systemic discrimination.’ Anyone who has talked to the current generation of educated, independent young urban women in China will know that, for them, the one-child policy represents liberation and unbridled opportunity. Freed for the first time in history from the repetitive drudgery of child-bearing and rearing, they see the future as theirs.”

    So it was good policy for women!

  • Astrid

    Allow women to marry more than one man, problem solved.

    • Sue Smith

      I think you’re onto something there!!

    • Christopher C

      why, so they can guilt trip and steal more and hide behind udder bs…?

  • kevin

    Having worked in China many times in the past 10 yrs,I have noticed a lot of Chinese girls travelling to London to avail themselves of free NHS to give birth and avoidiing any penalty for disobeying the 1 child policy back home.The child is a UK citizen and the whole family can come to the UK.I have to jump thru’ hoops to get a Chinese work visa and the cost!…..£hundreds.Of course baby girls are thought less of just as in India and the Middle-East.

    • Richard

      You’re not supposed to become a citizen here unless your parents are legally resident or citizens themselves. But the human rights brigade have more-or-less neutered that law.

      • Christopher C

        they don’t care about anything, but what they WANT… like life long children, NICE SPACE SHUTTLE, MEN… men…

    • 1FrancisofAssissi1

      Not true.

      No child born in the UK can become a British citizen unless he has a British-born UK citizens.

      This isn’t America, where every baby born in the USA automatically becomes a US citizen (e.g. Boris Johnson, who is being chased by the US authorities for taxes because, having been born in the USA, he is liable to pay American taxes on his worldwide earnings and capital gains.

  • Toy Pupanbai

    For a good prelude to the current situation:
    ‘Wild Swans, 3 Daughters of China’. How Mao’s nation tore at itself!

  • Zalacain

    This is a good recipe for an aggressive China looking to find women, and resources in other countries.

  • Christopher C

    … another article about what a girl WANTS… amazing, females have no foresight what so ever and just WANT. Ummm, if ya can’t feed ’em THEN YA DON’T BREED EM… no logic behind anything, just WANT… fkn retarded.

  • Sipu

    Throughout history the ability/right to procreate has been limited to very few males. What is happening in China is not new.

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