The Chinese people felt an immediate sense of relief last Thursday when their government stated that it will permit married couples now to have two children. The government’s one-child policy has created “a demographic nightmare,” and its leaders now must address the glaring side-effects of that policy: a diminished work force, an aging population, and a shortage of marriageable women.
It was on September 25, 1980, thirty-five years ago, that China’s leaders tried to rein in China’s galloping population of one billion people by a social engineering project, and that was to deny couples more than one child. A government sign read, “All citizens must observe the law; a single child is glorious.” Although enforced more in the city than in the country, officials expected all to obey.
Mao Tse-Tung, the Chinese Communist Party’s leader, had encouraged families to produce children, as many as four per family, but because of his failed-economic plan, called the Great Leap Forward, there was a famine in 1959-1961, that caused an estimated thirty million Chinese to starve to death.
The Chinese government remembers that worst of human catastrophes, and ever since its leaders have worried about how they will feed its massive population, which stands now at 1.4 billion people.
The one-child policy has resulted in carnage, slaughter, massacre, and suffering. Because the Chinese people prefer sons over daughters, pregnant mothers request an ultra-sound, and if the procedure determines the fetus is a girl, the mothers will abort. Those women who conceive a second child are then subjected to forced abortions, and those women who already have their allotted single child must undergo sterilization.
The husbands are not exempt from ill-treatment. Officials will beat, jail, fine, and even terminate the employment of men who disobey the policy and produce a second child.
The single child suffers also. He or she grows up alone, without siblings, without playmates, surrounded by his or her parents and two sets of grandparents who dote upon him or her. The boys are pampered, spoiled, and nicknamed “Little Emperors.”
Of course, many couples will produce a second or even a third child, more so in the country than the city, but the parents keep the child’s identity secret. Over the past thirty-five years, an estimated 6.5 million Chinese boys and girls have grown up hiding in their rooms, without residence permits, without citizenship documents, unable to attend school, and without any potential to find meaningful employment, living as a cast-off in political and social isolation.
Out of fear of job loss, financial ruin, and social exclusion, some couples will end a second baby’s life after it is delivered, especially if it is a girl. Infanticide is the most horrific consequence of the one-child policy, a program reminiscent of Herod the Great. Some mothers will abandon their second child, give him or her to an orphanage, or place them in an adoption agency. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, adoption agencies placed thousands of Chinese girls in homes across the United States.
Because China’s birthrate stands at almost 120 boys for every 100 girls, millions of young men will never marry because of the short supply of young women. The Chinese call these solitary young men “guanggun” or “bare branches,” because they will never bear fruit. By 2020, China will have an estimated 30 million bachelors, frustrated and angry, ready to rebel, poised to march in the streets.
The Chinese government observes their disappointment and is wary of their potential for social and political unrest, but the “bare branches” have few options? They could drive off, or even murder, another man and take his wife, or they could migrate alone to another country.
In recent days, an economics professor at Zhejiang University named Xie Zuoshi suggested polyandry, or “one wife, many husbands.” In other words, a wife would receive permission to marry two husbands. It is incredible to think that such a social experiment would ever work. “Much of the response to the professor’s suggestion has been outrage,” and is most deserved. For a wife to have one husband at a time in this life is sufficient.
Xie Zuoshi responded to the outcry. The thing to remember, he said, is that “behind the imbalanced sex ratio of 30 million bachelors lie 30 million baby girls who died due to sex discrimination. But somehow everyone is still crying that some men cannot find a wife.”
Famine, starvation, infanticide, revolts, polygamy, and even polyandry have at times appeared in China’s vast history. Read Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. It is “unsparing in its depiction of the oppression of women and the horrors of peasant life.” A flood and then a famine forces a family—Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and their children—to flee their home and live in the city. One character says it best, “Hunger makes a thief of any man.”
Governments make plans, but Mother Nature has other ideas.