This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Continuing Concern About China's One-Child Policy

In the history of family planning, there has never been anything like the One-Child Policy in China--a state-controlled regulation of reproduction that has featured, by all accounts, a great deal of brutality toward pregnant women. There is nothing good about this policy from a human rights perspective, and history has suggested very clearly that it was not necessary. Fertility was already declining in China in 1979 when the policy went into effect and all the evidence suggests that it would have continued its downward trend without state intervention, as happened in Taiwan, for example. One of the people trying to raise a continuing level of concern about this is Ma Jian, a Chinese novelist living in London, who has just published a book called "The Dark Road," which is about rural Chinese couples on the run from population enforcers, and is reviewed in today's New York Times. I have not yet read the book because it won't be released until tomorrow, but Ma Jian published an article in the Guardian last month that lays out the kinds of information he gathered in his wanderings through China in search of the stories that went into the novel.
Dressed in scruffy jeans and a frayed shirt, I posed variously as a migrant worker, a tramp, or a traveller in search of adventure, and lived among family-planning fugitives in their dilapidated barges on the Yangtze. Most of the families had three or four daughters born "out of quota". They live abnormal lives on the margins of an even more abnormal society, picking up menial jobs in the river towns, raising ducks, scavenging refuse sites, hoping to produce a longed-for son who will carry on the family name; all the while nervously scanning the banks, ready, at the first sight of a police van or family-planning squad, to pull anchor and set sail.
The saddest thing about this is that the tragedy has two prongs: (1) local officials who choose to administer the policy in grotesque ways (enforcement is decentralized, so not every place is as bad as every other place); and (2) the unequal status of males and females that encourages parents to put their lives at risk having a third or higher-order birth in order to have a son (in rural areas, a couple can have a second child if the first is a girl). There is thus more than one change that China really needs to implement.


  1. I find myself torn on the whole "One Child" policy in China. First, as a parent of an adopted girl from China - I do understand the heartache that these families went through. And I have to tell you that adopting one of these little girls who was "rejected" from that society has not been a cakewalk. But she is growing up to be a terrific person! Hopefully China will seek healing to mend the damage done by the policies.

    On the other hand ... China is about the only country I can think of that has reacted in a strong & serious way to the concerns of overpopulation. Other programs for fertility control in the world today are simply not having significant effects to avoid a long-term disaster. Some people may complain that no-one "did anything" about the Limits To rowth study. Well ... in their own way China did do something(!). It caused trauma at the level of families and individuals - but it was also a powerful step to TRY to change the future. So is China more "to blame", or is the rest of the world more "to blame" for failing to do anything significant? That's a really thorny issue to decide, don't you think?

    Dr P., Los Angeles

    1. I think that the problem in China is that the government made the decision without consulting the people who were being affected. That's where the human rights issues come into play. If we all (or even a majority of us) agree that this is the right strategy to deal with the population-environment ratio, then that's OK. But when it is forced on you from the top down, people may think that the cure is worse than the disease.