The Chinese government announced late last year it was ending the infamous policy of allowing couples only one child, and now all Chinese couples will be allowed two children. But in a country of 30 million bachelors and a highly competitive academic environment for children, will the change in law make a difference?
The Chinese symbol for happiness is a boy and a girl. And for the first time in nearly three decades, that symbolic representation is possible for Chinese families.
Late last year, the government announced it was ending the infamous Communist Party policy of allowing couples only one child, imposed by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. Now, all Chinese couples will be allowed two children.
The rule, which led to the murder and abandonment of countless female babies, was first established to ensure that population growth would not impede economic development. Ironically, it’s a modern economic downturn that is driving the reversal.
“They were looking to enact economic reforms to help China grow its economy, but they were concerned that despite the reforms they were putting into place, the population growth would be such that it would wipe out the benefits of the economic reforms,” said Mike Chambers, professor of political science at Indiana State.
When forced to choose a gender, Chinese tradition prefers boys, as they are the ones who continue the family name and work in the fields. Now, in the wake of the reversal, the country is facing a future with 30 million bachelors.
“Naturally, it’s 105 girls born to every 100 boys. The result is, in China, it’s 120 boys to every 100 girls. So it flipped and went significantly the other way,” Chambers said. “In southern China, this lack of girls and young women and all these men who don’t have wives has led to an increase in human trafficking from Cambodia and Laos and even other parts of China. Their parents have been coerced into selling them or they are abducted.”
As officials noticed the population is aging and the workforce is shrinking, the government had relaxed the one-child rule, allowing parents who are only children to have more than one child. Still, it could take decades for demographics to correct their course — if they ever do.
“It’s not clear this change in policy will lead to any change in demographics any time soon,” he said. “It could take a while. So many people have gotten used to one child, it’s going to take some time to change that thinking and get people to think, two children — a boy and a girl.”
Many families, too, simply can’t afford to support more than one child in the highly competitive academic culture.
“You’re paying for a lot — all sorts of extracurriculars, whatever it is to give your child an edge academically. It’s very expensive for these families,” he said. “The other part of the issue is the change in policy doesn’t mean there will be a change in reality, because so many people have pushed back having their children until they’re in their 30s.”
Research has now determined the population controls were probably unnecessary, as birth rates tend to fall as wealth increases.
“They did studies, and sure enough where they didn’t have the one-child policy, population growth fell as people became wealthier and women became better educated after the cultural revolution,” Chambers said.
Although minority populations in China — Tibetans, Koreans, Miao, etc. — were exempt from the one-child measures, the Han first faced fines for exceeding the one-child limit.
“As the economic reforms started to kick in, people started getting wealthier, and they could afford to pay the fines,” Chambers said.
As a result, the population controls became much stricter in 1979.
“A lot of the policies were very draconian — ‘OK, we’re going to induce labor, you’re only seven months, so it’s going to be a stillbirth and then you’re going to be sterilized.’ This kind of stuff was happening on a fairly regular basis,” Chambers said.
“The government forced sterilizations, they forced abortions and if you had a pregnancy that was not planned, you might go into hiding. If it were a daughter, there was female infanticide. There are numerous stories of parents smothering them at birth or throwing them down a well. Eventually, the unwanted daughters were abandoned at orphanages or police stations or in public parks where the parents knew someone would find the baby soon and take her to an orphanage.”
By the early 1990s, reports of what was going on in China drew international attention — and concern.
“The Chinese people were used to this intrusive, invasive government control of their private lives,” Chamber said. “Americans grew to say, ‘This is horrific. How can this be?’ A lot of Chinese were upset, too, but they couldn’t say anything.”
Westerners — including Chambers and his wife, Dorothy — stepped in to adopt these unwanted little girls in the early 1900s.
The Chambers were planning to start a family and thought adoption would be a good route to go. “We knew there was this need to adopt girls in China, so we started looking into it,” he said.
Luckily, the Chambers would be living in China during his dissertation research.
“It was a lot easier because we were already in China. At this time in the mid-’90s, if you were under 35 years of age, you were entitled to what the Chinese considered a special needs child,” he said.
The definition of “special needs” was up for interpretation, to say the least. They heard of babies with a calcium deficiency or bad diaper rash being classified this way, he said.
They worked with officials for just under nine months, and “finally, after all sorts of paperwork and waiting, we got a phone call that said, ‘We’ve selected a daughter for you. Please come to the ministry.’”
Upon arrival, the Chambers were given a wallet-size photo and her health certificate, which said she had a cleft lip and palate. They later learned, however, that information was not correct.
“They had doctored the medical certificate. We got the original certificate and she was fine. She had a cold — that was it,” Chambers said.
They traveled from Beijing to Hunan to pick up baby Allison, who was 3 months old at the time. But local officials — intent on making money from the well-intentioned adoptive parents — posed a problem. They insisted new rules had just been passed down the week prior, and the Chambers should make a donation to them, not the orphanage.
“Fortunately, the woman in Beijing who was in charge of all the adoptions said, ‘Here’s my name card. If you have any problems, you give me a call.’ Finally, we had to pull out our trump card and say, ‘Do we have to call Madam Liu?’ After that, it all worked out,” he said.
This month, Allison turns 21 and is sister to Harry, 18.
“In the end, we got our daughter. We were very fortunate. The folks in Beijing took really good care of us.”