There are a lot of people in China. The government has been concerned for a long time about overpopulation. And it’s taken action. Not as draconian as you might have initially feared, but yeah, it’s still pretty bad. It wouldn’t affect me personally were I Chinese, but the point about caring about people’s rights is you have to care about everyone’s rights, not just your own, or they’re not really meaningful at all.
A Chinese couple is allowed to have only one baby. If a couple has more than one baby, it must pay a “social maintenance fee” which we would call a “baby tax.” The fines are adjusted annually and at the provincial level, and adjust upward depending on the number of siblings that a new baby has. The “fee” is quite steep, usually amounting to the entire amount of disposable income of an average two-income couple in an urban area or the entire cash product of a rural couple’s annual labor.
As with all laws and policies that are implemented and enforced at a local level, there is variance from place to place in how things happen. Some areas are lax in enforcement — these tend to be rural, agricultural parts of China, where the new children are seen as providing agricultural labor for the future and are therefore welcomed. But in urban areas, this policy is more rigorously enforced, and that’s probably where the policy is “needed” most — urban dwellers consume food, rather than produce it. Different provinces have different policies about children from families that have split up due to divorce or widowed parents who remarry.
It does not seem to be the case that second and third children are denied social services, education, health care, or the other kinds of benefits provided to other children in China. Many rumors to that effect float around the internet but I have not found any substantiation of them.
Although the “one child” policy was implemented nationally in 1979, there had been efforts by the government to discourage fertility from the latter days of the Cultural Revolution in the 1950’s. A common slogan many older Chinese can repeat to you is “One is good, two is okay, three is too many.” (Apparently it rhymes or otherwise sounds cool when you say it in Mandarin.) The slogan was bombarded on people all over, from radio and TV to newspapers and posters around town. I get the impression that this family planning slogan is the Chinese equivalent of “Tastes great! Less filling!“
Along with the fees, the government also overtly encourages the use of various kinds of contraceptives, including birth control pills (which are available at a dramatically subsidized rate), condoms, IUDs, and contraceptive abortions. This pastiche of population-control policies has been more or less successful, as negative population growth is noted in many areas of China. Overall, the population of China continues to rise, but much less slowly than in many other industrialized areas of the world. 10% population growth will take China twenty years to realize; other nations can expect a rate of growth two to three times faster than that.
Adoption is one way out of the problem for some parents. All over the world, people who cannot afford to raise children offer them for adoption, and all over the world, other people who for one reason or another step in and adopt them. The Chinese government encourages this to a significant degree, both within China and to make Chinese babies available for adoption to foreign nationals. However, no tax breaks are given to the parents of children who offer their babies for adoption; that birth still counts for later potential liability for the baby tax.
If you are the sort of person who thinks abortion is bad, then this policy is something you will rush to condemn. (If you are the sort of person who thinks contraception is bad, then you will be beside yourself with rage.) I am not the sort of person who thinks abortion is bad (most of the time) but nevertheless, I also think that as a basic human right, you should be able to have children if you want to have them. A lot of people find that reproduction is an urge, a need, and they feel compelled to go out and make babies. This is a good thing in that it helps provide for the future, of course — and I say, you get to decide when and how many babies you make, not the government. It’s hard to imagine a much more personal sort of choice to make, and it’s obnoxious that the government of China arrogates to itself the role of making such decisions for its people. Encouragement to a desired policy? Sure, that would be okay in my book. But the use of direct and powerful economic incentives is something else entirely.
I think that everyone, whether pro-choice or pro-life, can agree that forcing a woman to have an abortion is very, very morally offensive. This has not been unheard-of and happens to a small but appreciable extent even today. One suspects that the women forced to undergo abortions (a few of which have taken place during labor or even after birth has been given, which should probably be labeled “infanticide” at that point) at the hands of oppressive and intrusive police (and Party minders) are the ones who are otherwise branded “troublemakers” for political dissent or non-standard lifestyle choices. Artists, for instance.
There is also a phenomenon that China is only now starting to understand — it has been called the “4-2-1 problem” by some and the “little emperor” syndrome by others. “4-2-1” is easy to understand — a family now means four grandparents, two parents, one child. Children grow up without brothers and sisters to compete for family resources, so when they are young and the parents and grandparents are all working and earning income and other state support, a tremendous amount of resources can be put into a child by the family. But as the grandparents retire or die, and the parents age and need care from their children, there are fewer people to spread the burden around to. And if negative population growth is realized and sustained, China will confront a generational issue familiar to Americans today — what happens when the larger, older generation starts to retire and the economic burdens of sustaining the country fall on smaller numbers of people? We don’t know how to maintain our old age pension system (Social Security) in the face of baby boomers retiring and baby busters now being the focus of the workforce. China will face a similar problem in the future; indeed, its baby bust problem will likely be more dramatic than ours.
Parents are also subject to various kinds of genetic screening; those who are considered likely to pass along problems to their children — from schizophrenia to serious genetic diseases like Huntington’s, are given much heavier “fees” to pay if they have any children at all. The list of “imperfections” rendering parents susceptible to the enhanced baby tax is expanding and now includes dyslexia — nearsightedness and crooked teeth surely cannot be far behind.
And finally, China’s social structure is such that males are valued more highly than females. The pride of a traditional Chinese family is its eldest son. This is not so different from traditional societies around the world. But it can create something of a disappointment if the one “free” child a couple gets turns out to be a girl. And statistically speaking, about half of them are girls. More than three-quarters of all babies adopted by foreign parents out of China are girls. The result is that the next generation of Chinese is going to be overwhelmingly male. There are many stories of gender-selection abortions and exposure of girl-children to the elements so they die; it’s hard to say to what extent that sort of thing actually happens. Lots of girl-children go missing in China; many fewer boy-children do.
“Overwhelming” doesn’t sound like much at first glance — in 2000, the sex ratio for live-born babies was 117 boys for every 100 girls. The trend preceding that benchmark in 2000 was increasing dramatically and it is currently thought that the ratio is about 125:100, which reduces down to 5:4. Again, 5:4 doesn’t sound so awful, until you realize that we’re talking about a nation of 1.2 billion people. One-ninth of 1.2 billion is more than 133 million “surplus” men. And what does a society do with its surplus men? It makes them into soldiers.