‘China’s Worst Policy Mistake’?

Zhang Xiaogang: Family No. 2, 1993; from the book Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, by Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G. Xu, published last year by Phaidon
Zhang Xiaogang/Pace Beijing
Zhang Xiaogang: Family No. 2, 1993; from the book Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, by Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G. Xu, published last year by Phaidon

Perhaps no government policy anywhere in the world affected more people in a more intimate and brutal way than China’s one-child policy. In the West, there’s a tendency to approve of it as a necessary if overzealous effort to curb China’s population growth and overcome poverty. In fact, it was unnecessary and has led to a rapid aging of China’s population that may undermine the country’s economic prospects. The scholar Wang Feng has declared the one-child policy to be China’s worst policy mistake, worse even than the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward (which led to the worst famine in world history). The one-child policy broke up families and destroyed lives on an epic scale—and although it officially ended last fall, it continues to ripple through the lives of Chinese and the 120,000 Chinese babies who were adopted in America and other Western countries.

It has often been said, in China and abroad, that those adopted babies, mostly girls, were unwanted in a male chauvinist society and abandoned by their parents. Many of those children, some of them now young adults, should know that it’s far more complicated than that. They are the products not of unloving parents, not so much of a misogynist tradition, but of a government policy that sundered families.

If you’re a (precocious) Chinese-born twelve-year-old girl reading this essay in your adoptive American home, then you just might be the girl whose birth name was Shengshi, Victory, whose story is told in China’s Hidden Children, by Kay Ann Johnson of Hampshire College. Victory’s story lays bare how the one-child policy actually unfolded and how so many adopted children were not “abandoned” in any normal sense of the word.

Xu Guangwen and his wife, Jiang Lifeng, were villagers who had a son in 1994. The one-child policy—introduced by the central government of China in 1980—is something of a misnomer, because in some circumstances a second or even third child is permitted: if Xu and Jiang had had a daughter first, they might have been given permission after several years to bear another child. But because they had a son first, that was it. Still, both wanted another child, and Jiang in particular wanted a daughter. So they began to plot.

All fertile married women in their region were obliged to pee into a cup for a pregnancy test every three months; a positive result could lead to a mandatory abortion. Any couple that somehow evaded the controls risked a fine, the demolition of the family home, and forced sterilization. Yet when Jiang became…

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