One-Child Policy as History

I just finished teaching 20th century China, and the three biggest issues in the last section of the course were clearly economic growth, political liberalization and the one-child policy. All three of these are ongoing processes — some more potential than reality — so all I could really say, in the end, was “stay tuned.” It turns out that these processes may be more closely related than I thought, as pointed out in this review [registration required] of Vanessa L. Fong’s Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy (Stanford University Press, 2004).

Fong argues, if the review is correct, that the one-child policy was not just an attempt at gross demographic relief but also a plan for economic development through cultural, even psychological, engineering. “Her central claim is that the policy was designed ‘to create a generation of ambitious, well-educated children who would lead their country into the First World, [and it] succeeded, but at a price’ (pp. 2-3).” Fong argues that the one-child policy has raised the status of female children within the family: families are more willing to invest effort in girls when they have no boys as an alternative. Fong also points out that parents are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for their childrens’ education — the brief discussion of university entrance exams in the review was, of course, reminiscent of Japan’s “examination hell” of past decades — and upbringing when they have only one in whom to invest all their hopes and ambitions.

This is “the cultural model of modernization” in action, we’re told: channeling the aspirations of traditional families into education, which is seen as fundamentally modern, as a route economic success, which is seen as beneficial to society generally. It doesn’t matter, apparently, that Japan’s modernization was in the opposite direction: Japan’s de facto one-child policy families are a result of industrial economic growth which drove cultural change and, consequently, raised the status of education which, in turn, lowered birth rates, etc. It might be less of a process and more of a cluster of co-dependent variables, if Fong is correct and if the founder of the one-child policy really had this in mind.

A few thoughts come to mind: it may well be true that one-child raises the status of girls within the family, for families that have only one girl. This is plausible, but has to be mitigated by the obvious (and accelerating) gender gap in births which indicates the strong survival of patriarchal and patrilineal patterns. There’s also a significant question as to whether one-child policy is viable in a more mobile society — and mobility is so often both an engine and effect of modernity — where strict work-group monitoring is impossible. So it may turn out to be an episode rather than a pattern. And I’d like to hear from someone who is more familiar with the origins of China’s demographic intervention as to whether Fong’s impression of the policy as a component of a planned jump-start to modernization is indeed born out by the historical record.


  1. Absurd review! Vilma Seeberg actually writes a sentence that begins like this: “A brief look at only one page of the bibliography illustrates: Articles from…” A moderately-intelligent college senior would not be such a fool!

  2. Actually, in my experience, getting college students to look at and evaluate a bibliography is quite challenging. Without reading the book (or at least some other reviews) it’s hard to tell, but it seems like a reasonably faithful transmission of the book’s main points. Since the work is based primarily on field studies, the bibliography is somewhat tangential anyway. Or did you have other objections?

    I’d note that the publisher of the review is primarily interested in American educational issues, and only rarely tackles internationally focused works, but Seeberg is quite qualified to review this work.

  3. Having read your take on the book and the review I went and checked it out. As far as I can tell she has no evidence at all for her assertion that the policy was “designed ‘to create a generation of ambitious, well-educated children who would lead their country into the First World” She does not discuss high-level debates about the policy, and in the discussion of the state’s motivation for the plan (pp.70-75) she admits that the initial impulse behind the policy was “to conserve national resources and increase the efficiency of economic planning.” Later at least some people in the bureaucracy came to justify the policy on the grounds that it would lead to more resources being lavished on fewer children and thus a better quality of people. She does not really explain, or even discuss, how or if this shift in the justification of the policy came about. Fong talks about the policy as part of an attempt to move China from a Wallerstienian periphery to a core, which may or may not be a good way of looking at it, but I find it very hard to imagine Chinese policy-makers in the 70’s thinking like that. She makes it pretty clear that one-child was justified to her urban informants as a tool of modernization, however, and that they liked this explanation. Rural areas are apparently different, although she does not talk about them much.

    Although she does not really get into the politics of population policy there is a lot of nice ethnographic description in here. You would find the whole exam thing very Japanese. I also enjoyed the fact that she met up with informants by offering free English lessons.

  4. Thanks! Two thoughts: describing China in the 1970s as a “periphery” really stretches the categories, since it wasn’t a periphery of any particular metropole.

    And it sounds as though she’s making the leap from a pretty vague rhetoric of modernization to justify a somewhat crisis-driven policy to theoretical structures that makes sense to her in the context of the policy as she understands it.

  5. Yes, it is too bad, at least for me, that she does not deal with the politics of it, although that would involve getting into an entirely different set of sources and probably being a different scholar. I’m always a bit reluctant to take people to task for not doing the type of scholarship I would have done in their place.

    Still, if you are going to make broad statements about intention you should have something to back them up. I would particularly like to see how the politics plays out, since her informants clearly do accept her reading of the goals of the plan, partly because it is now justified that way in urban areas and in part, as you point out, because as in Japan one-childism is being driven by economic changes. One of the things that interests me most about one-child is that it is one of the last of the old coercive ‘Maoist’-type policies that is still around and still has considerable popular support. Can you think of many 1974 propagada posters that could be re-used today?

    Her arguement is that there is a de-facto two child policy in the countryside, where the promise that the policy will lead in short order to a First World life has little resonance. This would seem to indicate that that party is offering the policy as part of one social contract with urbanites and a somewhat different policy as part of a different contract with the rural areas

  6. I always ascribed the One Child Policy as a reaction to the famines of the 60’s – and projections that China wouldn’t be able to feed itself by 1990 if growth continued at previous rates. The enormous cost of education for 1/2 a billion children was also a factor – and while parents DO pay for part of it, the government covers the bulk.

  7. Pingback: Jack Brown
  8. I too wanted to impose my interests on Vanessa Fong. I was looking for research about synergy between politics, economics, education, custom, etc., intereacted in the first place in regard to this policy. What she actually decided to do is fascinating and valuable to me. I think her work is important in part because her field study is so personal. She’s not one of those researchers who believe that applying the scientific method to the study of society is exactly equivalent to working with test tubes and amoebas. It can’t be. Personal involvement and personal response is a necessity for cultural anthropology and she is acute and rigorous enough to create something I feel I can trust. What seemed to me to be an elementary mistake from the start of OCP was the assumption by planners that they could choose to re-organize just one area of Chinese life without taking into consideration its general effects on the body of the society. That’s the kind of thinking that emanates from dictatorships where there are no vocal interest groups to challenge or contribute to policy formation. While there may be an appearance of benefits now—greater investment in women’s education, a better educated populace—the great question is what happens to the minds, spirits, ethics, and morals of the people. Given the political structure, with OCP the planners created one more ideal setting for bribery, personal violence, intensifed destruction of privacy, and general corruption. Do the benefits of reduced population balance out those destructive social consequences? My speculative answer is not iimportant; that the government should have done such thinking to start with is.

  9. Some proofing was in order wasn’t it? Sorry.

    The end of sentence 1 should read: “synergy between politics, economics, education, custom, etc., in regard to this policy.”

    In sentence three: “..amoebae.”

    In the last sentence: “…is not important.”

  10. I largely agree, though I think we have to distinguish between the value of personal experience and the extent to which we can draw conclusions from them. Also the extent to which we can draw conclusions about intent from effect, and the tendency to assume that large-scale developments are foreseeable.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.