Tea Leaf Nation
‘This Country Should Compensate Me’
With China's one-child policy finally ending, those who suffered under the old rules are lashing out in anger.
On Oct. 29, in the wake of the Fifth Plenum, a meeting of top leaders, the Chinese government announced that its controversial, decades-long policy of limiting most couples to a single child was to come to an end. While some Western observers are cheering at the end of the repressive (and sometimes brutally-enforced) policy, one group within China is already speaking up in dissatisfaction: China’s only children themselves.
According to a vaguely worded communiqué released on Oct. 29, all Chinese couples will now be allowed to have two children, a right that has thus far only been extended to some. Policy supporters have long argued that in a country like China, with an already huge population and limited resources, unchecked population growth would keep millions mired in poverty and place unbearable strain on natural resources. But the “planned birth policy,” as it is known in Chinese, has not only caused heartache for countless families prevented from having more than one child through massive fines, sterilization, and in some cases forced abortions — it has also wildly distorted the country’s demographics. At the end of 2014, Chinese men outnumbered Chinese women by 33 million, due to a traditional preference for sons and the gender-selective abortions that many have opted for in order to guarantee that their single child is male. Additionally, low birth rates mean that China’s population is aging swiftly. And as the country’s once-explosive economic growth slows, the move to prevent a double economic and demographic decline is unsurprising.
That would suggest a shift from the current 35 year-old policy is in order. Yet on Chinese social media, a place where criticism of government can sometimes take root and one populated in large part by young Chinese who grew up under the current planned-birth regime, the primary reaction was anger, not joy. The implementation of the rule, critics argue, has became a kind of social contract within China, based on an often explicit promise that the government would repay the sacrifices of its citizens with generous social services. As one common government slogan in the 1980s went: “Have just one child; the government will take care of the elderly.”
But many Chinese feel they never received those promised benefits. “When mom gave birth to me, we had to pay our entire family savings as a fine,” went the most up-voted comment on one Oct. 29 post announcing the news on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, written by a user who identified himself as a young single male in China’s southwestern Sichuan province. “The country should compensate me.” After China began its long process of economic reform after 1978, the social services that had guaranteed at least a minimal standard of living in the previously poor communist country were systematically dismantled. Though reform brought spectacular economic growth, lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, China still lacks a strong social safety net, such as universal healthcare or reliable unemployment insurance. Along with dramatic GDP growth has come an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, meaning that those not fortunate enough to maintain a comfortable nest egg may all too easily fall through the cracks. This was not the bargain the government struck with its citizens, some argue. Jake Lin, a young Chinese professional from Shanghai now working in Washington, DC, echoed the point. He told Foreign Policy that he believes only children and their families should be compensated for the sacrifices they made. “If we think the one-child policy caused damage to all the only children and their families, then we should compensate them,” said Lin. “On the other hand, if we think the one-child policy [created] some social benefit for the entire country, we should reward the only children and their families. But no one is talking about the reward.” Lin, who is himself an only child, believes that his own family, and especially his mother, made sacrifices. “We followed the rule and regulations set by the government,” said Lin. “By having only one child, my family saved social resources for others. The cost is giving up the opportunity to have a second child.”
Some Chinese web users seemed to believe that the change in policy reflected not a more compassionate government, but rather a cold economic calculus by a greedy few. One user posted a short parable on Oct. 29 about a wolf that controlled all the real estate, and would only give mortgages to the sheep at sky-high rates. The sheep were so deeply in debt that they could no longer afford to raise children, and so the number of sheep declined. “But the wolf realized that if it stayed like this, his family would have no more sheep to eat,” the parable concluded, “so he announced that the sheep could all be allotted one more birth.” The post quickly garnered thousands of likes. “Those who want to have a child — those who dare to have a child — what kind of dog-fart policy tries to manage that? ” wrote another user on Oct. 29. “It doesn’t matter how the economy is doing. People who don’t want to give birth have many different considerations. They don’t need your ubiquitous propaganda.” Lin also held to this view. “In the long run,” he told FP, “the government needs more cows to milk.”
Underlying the dark humor on social media is a widespread suspicion that the policy change is based not on compassion or an expansion of human rights, but rather on what the government has deemed necessary for continued economic development. Many netizens quipped, only half-jokingly, that the so-called “two-child policy” might soon become mandatory. “The old policy measures used to be heavy fines, forced sterilization, and vaginal rings,” wrote one Weibo user. “Now with the ‘two-child’ policy, the government will offer cash incentives and prizes, and send installments of Viagra and sexy underwear.” Another wrote in a popular comment, “The next step: Fines for those who don’t have two children!”
The plenum marked the second major about-face in Chinese birth policies, one that’s straining the credibility of government propaganda. Under late Communist strongman Mao Zedong, ubiquitous posters encouraged citizens to make the country strong by having as many children as they could. But with the advent of the one-child policy, intended partly as a corrective to the mismatch between population and available resources that Mao’s exhortations had created, the government made moral arguments in the other direction. Many contemporary youth grew up surrounded by government slogans painted on walls, or on signs draped across boulevards, reminding them of the virtues of having only one child — it’s “good for the country, good for the people” — or the consequences of not obeying the law, such as, “If you don’t get sterilized, your house will be demolished.” The latest turn suggests the moral arguments were never really the point. One web user, in a popular comment in response to the news, reworked earlier slogans to reflect the new policy, reflecting cynicism at government caprice. “I’ve come up with the slogans that will be used in villages from now on,” wrote the user. “Forced birth is good for the country and good for the people” went one; another, “If you are supposed to give birth but don’t, there will be no one to take care of the elderly.”
To be sure, not all have been critical of the move. Some believe the one-child policy, despite its sometimes-draconian measures, has benefitted the country. As one web user wrote, “I don’t even dare to think about what China would be like now without the planned-birth policy.” Others saw the change to the policy as a positive measure, arguing that it made little sense to criticize a step in the right direction. “You can have a second child without being fined, but you don’t have to have a second child,” wrote one web user. “What’s wrong with that?” One user, who identified herself as a 21 year-old woman from the underdeveloped southwestern province of Guizhou, took exception to the wolf-sheep parable. “Before it allowed two children, you denounced the government as inhumane,” she wrote. “Now that it’s letting us have two children, you’re saying it’s because the government lacks slaves! What can the government do?”
China’s unprecedented experiment in population control, now largely at an end, will continue to have long-reaching and likely unforeseen implications for generations to come. For now, though, many in China are simply trying to adjust to the sudden new reality, one in which the structure of Chinese families is being overturned yet again. “For those born in the 80s and 90s, will they be the only generation in the entire history of Chinese civilization to be without brothers and sisters?” asked one user. “My heart hurts.”
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