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The Unintended Consequences Of China's Birth Policy In 'One-Child'


Mei Fong wrote about the one-child policy as The Wall Street Journal's China correspondent, and she's now written a book about it that's about to be published. It's called "One Child," and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MEI FONG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: As you write, astonishingly, the one-child policy was the brainchild of rocket scientists, not of public health experts or demographers, but rocket scientists. How did this happen?

FONG: Well, this all came about in the '60s and '70s, and this was post-Cultural Revolution. A lot of social scientists, economists had all been devalued as a result. The only kind of branch of higher learning were - they were protected - were the military scientists. And so they had the resources and the tools and the political capital to bring forth these big ideas. And it didn't take into account all these social changes that would happen. It's sort of like trying to plan an itinerary, a tour itinerary, on the assumption that people still travel by steamship, you know?

It just wasn't - you know, there are so many social changes that happened in the '70s and '80s and '90s. You know, women went to college. There were changes in reproductive technologies, social changes. And those drastically changed the way people had families. And so one of the big arguments I have in the book is, did it - was the one-child policy even necessary in order to curb China's population. And my answer is, no, there were better ways to do it. And...

SIEGEL: And you would point to other neighboring countries where there also was great modernization and urbanization...

FONG: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...And birth rates came down.

FONG: They came down, and they - with none of these negative side effects that China is experiencing now.

SIEGEL: You write about, among other things, the pilot projects and the exceptions to the national policy by which some Chinese couples could have had two children. In fact, most did not. What does that say to you?

FONG: Well, it tells me that these latest changes that just happened are probably not going to result in a baby boom that the Chinese government hopes for and needs to keep the economy going and growing forth. It's so expensive right now to educate and raise a child.

SIEGEL: One concern about the one-child policy was what's sometimes called the Little Emperor phenomenon, that it would lead to the largest cohort of only children - the most cherished, spoiled children the planet had ever seen. Was that fear borne out?

FONG: I think that that's a very squishy one to talk about, right? You're talking about a whole generation, and to import all of these values into a whole entire generation is hard. And there's been a lot of studies done that go both ways. There's no difference; there's plenty of difference.

But I think the most telling on that I saw was this one by a group of Australian economists, where they did a series of psychological tests, and they found that only children were very different from non-only children cohort before them because they tended to be very risk-averse and less optimistic and also less entrepreneurial.

And I think that's very suggestive going forward because you wonder. Everything we're used to thinking about China - economic, dynamic, you know - that's all going to change very rapidly if not only is the makeup of the population is, you know, little emperors who are risk-adverse but also a hugely aging population as well, you know? These are not, you know, the kind of movers and shakers of tomorrow

SIEGEL: When you assess what this policy has meant for Chinese women - net positive, net negative - what do you say?

FONG: Well, it has benefit a certain segment of Chinese women, urban Chinese women who did not have to compete with siblings. And so you can be a modern Chinese woman and go to college in greater numbers than ever before and graduate school and not have to share with your brother in a way you would have in the past.

But if you balance that against, you know, what happened to women, particularly rural areas who are forced to have abortions or sterilizations, and also if you balance that against the women outside of China on the borders who are now being trafficked to fulfill this, you know, huge gap, I don't think you could say that, on balance, this has been good for women in China at all or women anywhere.

SIEGEL: The great gap you mentioned is the imbalance between men and women in China.

FONG: Exactly. I mean, we're talking - what? - 30 million men - more men than women in China of a certain age group. That's the population of Canada. That's the population of Saudi Arabia. There is no way they can fill that gap, not even with immigration. And so there's going to be a whole lot of men who are not going to be able to find wives, not going to be able to have families. And what's going to happen with a China like that?

SIEGEL: Mei Fong, thanks for talking with us.

FONG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mei Fong's book "One Child: The Story Of China's Most Radical Experiment" comes out next week as an ebook. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.