One and Only?By admin
They started out as just one part of China’s ambitious and controversial social experiment to modernize the country by reducing the population. As only children, they were to reap the rewards of a smaller nation and, in turn, smaller families, to become a super-educated, perfect generation.
Now grown and starting to have children of their own, China’s first generation under the state-mandated one-child policy that began in 1979 has become so much more. As Associate Professor Vanessa Fong reveals in her ongoing study of China’s singletons, as they are often called, this group of young people have unintentionally become the nation’s social safety net. On top of that already crushing burden, they have become their parents’ one and only hope.
This wasn’t the policy’s intended outcome. Initially, the decision during the late 1970s by the ruling Communist Party to set a baby quota for each couple was meant to counter the population boom that had occurred following the nation’s official independence as the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In the 1950s, the thinking was: more people = more production.
“A larger population means greater manpower,” said Hu Yaobang, an official of the Communist Youth League, at a national conference of youth worker representatives in 1958. “The force of 600 million liberated people is tens of thousands of times stronger than a nuclear explosion.”
However, before long, this force of liberated people started to put a strain on the growing country, particularly its dwindling food supply. In an effort to rapidly convert the country from a peasant agrarian society to a modern industrial one, Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward had pulled millions of people away from farms to build roads, canals, railroads, and steel plants. From about 1958 to 1961, an estimated 30 million people died from starvation. Fong says government officials have avoided saying that overpopulation caused the famine, which they actually refer to as the “Three Years of Natural Disasters,” but nevertheless, they reversed course and started pushing for a smaller population.
Part of this new push included promoting the idea that fewer people would lead to a better standard of living, and higher quality, or suzhi, for everyone. As Fong writes in her 2004 book, Only Hope, fewer people would give each person a larger share of national resources: jobs, housing, food, water, and land. It would also allow the country to continue moving toward a modern economy but without the heavy strain encountered earlier. Fong says that in order to achieve equality with dominant, capitalistic countries like the United States, officials also pushed the idea that the country needed to become a center of finance and technology — not just provide cheap labor, as it had been doing. This meant more highly educated professionals, not more farmers or factory workers.
In order to do this, families would need to devote everything to their singleton, which they could easily do, they were told, since they only had one to worry about.
“Singletons who had family resources all to themselves would be healthier, wealthier, and better educated than siblings who had to compete with each other for parental investment,” Fong says the theory went.
At first, fertility limitation was voluntary, with slogans like “Late, Long, and Few.” Families were allowed two children, Fong writes, and the policy was not rigorously enforced. Stricter enforcement began in 1979 when the government cut the number to one child for urban couples. (Exceptions were made in some areas for rural couples, ethnic minorities, and parents without siblings.) The government also set a total population goal of no more than 1.2 billion by the year 2000. At the time, China’s population was about 975 million. (In 2000 they came close: that year, population reached 1.27 billion. China’s population today is 1.33 billion with India not far behind at 1.17 billion. In third is the United States at 308 million.) After the policy was implemented, those who did not comply were fined, stripped of jobs, and denied rations for the prohibited baby. Those who signed a pledge and followed the one-child rule were rewarded with a longer maternity leave, a health care allowance, priority for nursery school, and preferential housing. Contraceptives, abortions, and sterilization procedures are subsidized in the country.