Is a “two child policy” enough?

The end of population control in the form of what is popularly known as China’s “one child policy”, was announced in October 2015. Although the number of permitted births always varied by geography and ethnicity, “one child policy” entered the lexicon and stuck. In the west it became a synonym for invasive and inhumane interventions by the state—which were almost entirely borne by women.

At the time the policy was adopted in 1979, China was emerging from the economic and social disaster of the Cultural Revolution. China was poor and population growth was seen as both a correlate of poverty and an obstacle to Deng’s nascent economic reforms.

In this context, population control measures were framed as a rational, indeed noble, effort to facilitate economic development. The number of births per women declined from 3 to 1.5 between 1980 and 2000, where the figure has remained, well below the required replacement rate.

Officials have said that the policy succeeded in limiting the Chinese population by over 400 million, although others argue that rising levels of education, urbanisation, and economic independence would have led to declining birth rates even without coercive policies. It is also now recognized that population controls have had unintended consequences, notably an extreme gender imbalance, a dangerous dependency ratio and the social issues faced by the “one child” generation.

The announcement in October 2015 that limitations would be relaxed and all married couples allowed two children, signalled the realisation that China’s population is ageing rapidly, the labour pool is shrinking and the current fertility rate is insufficient to support the pensions, health care, and social security needs of the dependent population.

The ratio of retirees to working-age people is 13 percent and rising quickly as boomers from the 1950s and 60s age. By 2030, China will have the largest population of old people, with the implications that has for sustained economic growth, international competitiveness and social welfare.

Population growth, rather than control, is now advanced as needed for the good of the country’s continued economic development. Encouragement of multiple births has been issued in various formats, and exhortations to have a second child can even be seen on billboards in certain locales.

Although the new policy was not made on the basis of women’s wellbeing, the relaxation of population policy has been interpreted as a positive development for women. It is, but it should be noted that it will do little to stop forced sterilisations and abortions for those who contravene the new regulations.

Population control policies became a symbol of the, often brutal, control of women’s bodies, as dramatized by the writer Ma Jian in his novel The Dark Road, a book that is well read in the west.

The novel describes the odyssey of family-planning fugitives Meili, Kongzi and their One Child Policy-compliant daughter Nannan as they escape officials with their fines, forced abortions and sterilizations.

Agonizing over the gender of her unborn babies (girls won’t do) and the consequences of getting caught with an out of plan child, Meili muses how her body belongs to her husband and her womb to the state.

With a second baby almost at full term, Meili is captured by a family planning squad. The male foetus named Happiness is forcibly aborted in an indelible scene of shocking brutality juxtaposed with the transactional nonchalance of the physician offering a knock-down price for the operation.

When another baby is born, and it turns out to be a girl, Kongzi sells her to a child begging racket. The family finally reaches Heaven, a “cancer village” recycling electronic waste, where Meili becomes pregnant again. Traumatized by her experiences she refuses to relinquish the baby until many months beyond the usual gestation period, finally giving birth to an alien-like thing mutated by poisonous e-waste.

The Dark Road is an inversion, or perversion, of the ‘natural order’, where Happiness is a murdered baby, Heaven is a cancer village, pregnant women are criminals and babies are produced for mutilation and the begging trade.

It is a dramatization, but it highlights important issues about women and their reproductive rights that are often neglected in the “rational” discussion about demographics and population growth statistics.

The economic reform era has witnessed the retreat of the state from many aspects of people’s lives. The danwei (work unit) no longer has a say in who people marry or where they can live. Freedom of movement, despite ongoing issues with hukou (household registration) reform, was one of the engines powering economic growth.

Women’s reproductive rights have been subject to state interventions since the inception of the PRC in 1949, when Mao’s exhortations led to rapid population growth. And while the current government’s “two child policy” is less restrictive, it continues to exert control over women’s bodies.

The response to the relaxation, which started in stages in 2013, has not led to a “baby boom”. A mere 13% of eligible couples took advantage of their second child rights in 2013. Like Singapore, Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which have the lowest total fertility rates in the world, increasing affluence, education and economic pressures in China are disincentives to raising large families. Furthermore, without state provision of better childcare, subsidies for schooling and systematic health care, many families are unwilling or unable to consider raising multiple children.

More pertinently, the response to the relaxed restrictions demonstrates that people can be trusted to take “rational” personal decisions for themselves. At what point will the state decide to retreat from the most intimate social relations of all?

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China’s Dark Road

The Dark Road, by the exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian, is a dystopian road movie following family planning fugitives Meili, Kongzi and their One Child Policy-compliant daughter Nannan down the Yangtse. The plot begins with Meili pregnant for a second time as the family planning militia descends on rural Kong village. These shock troops are here to collect fines for violations of the state’s population policy, and to force abortions and sterilizations on women whose husbands can’t pay up. The family escapes, but this is just the start of the state’s pursuit of domination over Meili’s body.

Kongzi is a 76th generation heir of Confucius, and his raison d’être is to produce a 77th. Kongzi (a nickname that literally means Confucius) feels the pressure of his obligation to continue the illustrious family line. He pursues his mission to sire a son relentlessly throughout the families’ travels and travails. A village girl with traditional values, Meili accepts her part in this quest and despite the grubbiness and general peril of their surroundings there are moments of genuine shared intimacy. Unsurprisingly, Meili feels the pressure to produce an heir even more keenly than Kongzi; agonizing about the gender of her unborn babies (girls won’t do) and the consequences of getting caught with an out of plan child falls solely to her. Little wonder Meili feels her body isn’t her own, musing that a woman’s genitals belong to men and her womb to the state.

The Chinese title陰之道gives a sense of the book’s complexities. The character yin 陰is the yin in “yin and yang” 陰陽, the contrasting but complementary sides of nature fundamental to Chinese conceptions of the world. Yin is the side representing darkness, hence the English title. Darkness can be sinister, but it also represents the feminine side of nature (to yang’s male), so the book could equally be titled ‘a woman’s road’. 之is a particle with no substantive meaning here, but Dao 道is another word with complex potentialities. It can mean a literal or figurative road or path. It can also indicate a doctrine. Dao is the character that forms the word Daoism or Taoism 道教, a philosophical system where the focus is on the ‘way of nature’ 天道. Dao is also the central component of Confucianism, where it is usually translated as ‘the Way’, and focuses on the ‘way of man’人道. Much of the Analects is about extolling the virtues and prescribing how to attain the Way. Thus Ma’s Chinese title is full of potential meanings; invoking the perniciousness of Confucianism; the sinister one child doctrine; a literally dark pathway in the form of the polluted Yangtse; a figurative dark path to the margins of society symbolising the families’ exile; the trauma of a woman’s path in China confined and compelled by the twin demands of Confucianism and Communist (family) planning; the path of China’s development that has mutilated the land and people’s values. Removing the 之particle produces the noun vagina 陰道the part of Meili’s body that is contested throughout.

Determined to give birth in hope it’ll be the anticipated male heir, Meili and Kongzi flee Kong village for a life in exile. They seek refuge on the Yangtse, living on boats with other family planning fugitives. It is a squalid and precarious existence, but left alone the family manages a homely tenderness. Kongzi is a teacher turned demolition worker (Jia Zhangke’s Still Life provides a perfect visualization for this part of the story). He affirms his intellectual status and noble lineage by quoting pompously from the classics, and providing a pious rationale for his libido. The family make do raising ducks, growing vegetables and repurposing bits and pieces. Their daily lives are a mix of shivering cold, duck shit and river stench, but they get by. But one day, with her baby almost at full term, Meili is captured by a family planning squad. The male foetus they named Happiness, is forcibly aborted in an indelible scene of shocking brutality juxtaposed with shocking transactional nonchalance (the physician calmly offers a knockdown price for the operation). Meili and Kongzi take Happiness away in a plastic bag and give him a water burial in the Yangtse.

The family continues on its way again downriver, slowly making towards a town called Heaven, where rumour has it you can have as many kids as you like. Despite the horrors inflicted on his wife, Kongzi doesn’t take long to resume his mission, and soon enough Meili is pregnant again. It is a period where Meili finds some minor economic success selling vegetables in a market, and she starts to dream of a materially better future and vows that this will be her last child. But when the baby is born, it’s a girl. The tenderness that Meili lavishes on her second daughter, who appears to suffer from a mental disability, is to no avail, and one day she returns to the family’s boat to find that Kongzi has gone off to sell her to a mutilated child begging racket. So much for Kongzi’s moral piety. Setting off in anger into the nearby town, Meili is detained and sent to an ad hoc labour camp for not having the proper documents. At the labour camp she shares a dormitory with an urban sex worker, who provides another view of the woman’s body, as an economic instrument. Meili rejects such a possibility, only to be let out of the camp into forced labour in a brothel. A nasty rape scene with the brothel owner ensues, but Meili escapes by burning the place down (an improbable twist, but at this point the reader is so desperate for a respite that it doesn’t matter), and is soon reunited with Kongzi.

The family finally reaches Heaven, which turns out to be a Guangdong cancer village recycling electronic waste. The melancholy cycle repeats again: the indefatigable Kongzi carries on and sure enough Meili becomes pregnant again. Traumatized by her experiences she is determined to protect her baby inside her womb. Meili refuses to relinquish the baby until many months beyond the usual gestation period. Finally she gives birth to a green alien-like thing mutated by the poisonous e-waste—Heaven’s kicker is that you can have as many kids as you like but none will be healthy. Finally released from her duty Meili lets herself sink into the river to reunite with the spirits of her babies. Her passage down the ‘dark road’ is over.

Set amid the uncomfortable realism that characterises Ma’s narrative, this surreal last twist is disconcerting, until you realise that the entire reality that Ma has constructed is an inversion or perversion of the ‘natural order’, that it is all “unreal”; Happiness is a murdered baby; Heaven is a cancer village; pregnant women are criminals; aborted foetuses are sold to restaurants; babies are produced for mutilation and the begging trade. This is a very grim book, an unrelentingly negative portrait of contemporary China. If you only read this book you would imagine that the fate of Chinese women is unimaginably horrific. This is an exaggeration—there are positives about China’s development and there is a more balanced tale to tell about the opportunities and challenges for Chinese women. But if it makes people think more carefully about why China has such an extreme gender imbalance, or a prevalence of female suicide, or why women are useless and “leftover” if they don’t marry in their 20s, then it is worth the discomfort. It is therefore all the more regrettable that Ma’s books are banned in China.