“Why do Americans think our one-child policy is a human rights issue?” is a question I am asked every year I go to China and this time it was the Dean of Science at a university. “Don’t they know how crowded we are?”
“Difang hen xiao. Ren hen duo.”—space too small, people too many.
This overpopulation, nearly five times that of the U.S. but with less farmland...dominates everything about China. Everywhere you see one person in the U.S., imagine five.
Emporia State University occupies a three-block by five-block area...add all of the students from the University of Kansas to the ESU campus, but don’t expand those borders. Try to keep the bathrooms from smelling with five times more usage. Put 8 to 12 students in a dormitory room, all bunk beds and no desks. Students have to study in the empty classrooms at night. Every hallway and every sidewalk crowded with people, shoulder to shoulder.
And until the 1980s, just enough food to go around...usually. Throughout the half of China that is developed, the question has always been “why didn’t Mao move to a 2-child and then one-child policy sooner, as his advisors recommended?” Without the one-child policy, China’s population today would be 300 million more, an increase equal to the total population of the United States! That would have guaranteed starvation. Unmanageable pollution. Misery and instability. There would be no developed China where 400 million people have recently moved into a middle or upper class standard of living.
“Once in a while, we have some local officials who are overly-aggressive in enforcing abortion when birth control doesn’t work. That is wrong. But it would be a disaster to grow at a faster rate,” the Dean tells me.
China has been very careful not to appear genocidal. Their one-child policy was implemented only for the Han Chinese, and not for the many tribal minorities. It also was difficult to oversee in the rural areas, where there was less education. Farmers not only wanted bigger families to work the fields, but preferred boys. So yes, there are unwanted girls in orphanages. But no one can fault the Communists who from the beginning ended arranged marriages and foot binding, and championed equal rights for women. They call this preference for boys “feudal thinking” but for over 50 years, Communist re-education has failed to change the old rural ways.
Divorce, once rare, is now more common, and many regions now allow a person who had a child in a first marriage to have a second child in the second marriage.
As much as China envies our Social Security system, they have not been able to get an equivalent system off the ground. So, the burden of supporting parents and grandparents remains a responsibility of each only child. Therefore, if the only child of an only child, marries the only child of an only child, that couple may have two children to split the burden of supporting their parents and grandparents.
In the late 1990s, Chinese students coming to my university reported that some places, a girl was preferred to a boy. That was a surprise to me. So when I returned to lecture, I used every opportunity to ask students whether they would prefer to have a boy or girl when they get married. In Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing and the other big cities, sure enough girls were preferred. Boys were seen as likely to quit school and go south to Guangdong to work in the hot economy and buy a car and apartment. Girls were likely to stay in school remain near home where they could take care of their parents. Sure enough, the ratio of boy-to-girl births in Shanghai is the same as in the United States. But if I asked a student from rural China, the student would hang his head and admit...I would prefer a boy.
At the end of my lecture tour this year, in Beijing, I asked the graduate students around the banquet table whether they preferred to have a girl or a boy. To my surprise, I got new answers: “Perhaps I will not get married,” and “I will get married but my boyfriend is working on his PhD and we have much to accomplish in life and a child is so expensive.”
To decide not to have a child at all is a major shift in a Chinese culture that has long centered around family.
If this “no child” attitude becomes widespread among the new generation of highly trained students, China will have more resources with which to bring the other half of its population out of poverty...with education, and with a one-child policy or no-child attitude that comes with education.
Every time I return to the States, I again appreciate the source of American success: Difang hen duo, ren hen xiao....So much space and natural resources, so few people.