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In China, the only child prevails

One-child policy relaxed, but population explosion unlikely

Posted: 12/12/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0


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CHENGDU, China -- The announcement that China was relaxing its one-child policy coincided with my arrival in Chengdu. That the draconian law, enacted in 1979 to slow population growth, was being reformed to allow two children was big news around the world, but it caused hardly a stir in Chengdu. Why was that?


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I couldn't help but notice toddlers in Chengdu, or pregnant women. Not because there were so many, but because I knew they likely were only-children, and the mothers' bumps were the only ones they were likely to have. It seemed like the premise of a dystopian science-fiction novel. But if that were the case, why did children and parents seem so happy?

Toddlers were always dressed smartly, tottering around on legs made stubby by insulating clothing, the seats of their pants gaping to reveal nappies.

Babies and small children were paraded in prams and strollers, but more common was to see them carried or encouraged to walk or climb.

There often seemed to be a cavalier attitude toward their safety, however. I once saw a toddler on a motorized scooter clinging with tiny fists to her mother's jacket. Often you would see two and three children on scooters with an adult. Once, a man pulled up beside me, not to talk but to allow two little boys and a poodle to relieve themselves on a nearby lawn.

Mostly, however, I saw that small children were adored, cooed at, kissed and hugged at every opportunity.

In pharmacies, there are scales on which parents religiously weigh their "little empresses" and measure their height with attached chrome rods.

Older children walk hand in hand with parents or grandparents. I never saw a child disciplined. I never heard a sharp reprimand. These things -- and far more serious abuses -- must occur, but I never saw them.

I couldn't help but wonder whether I was reading into these behaviours more than they deserved -- an upside of the one-child policy, perhaps?

I asked my translators, Yanjiao (Ivy) Zhang, 25, and Duandaun (DD) Liu, 27. They both are single and in no rush to marry or raise children.

Like 90 per cent of children in Chengdu, they grew up without siblings and lived their entire lives knowing nothing else, expecting cousins will be surrogate siblings.

At New Year, the big holiday in China, they expected to receive from extended family "red envelopes" containing money, the amounts growing as they grew older and their needs, in particular for education and training, grew larger.

"Did I wish I had brothers or sisters?" Ivy asked. "Maybe at one time, so that I would have someone to play with.

"But at the same time," she laughed, "I would worry that if I have a brother, my parents might not love me so much and I would have less pocket money. I never thought I was special because everyone was the same."

Ivy has friends with children -- one each, of course. And she expects that despite relaxed rules allowing two children, they won't have more.

"I talk to them and they complain that raising children isn't easy, and it is expensive... People prefer to give the very best to their babies. If they have more children, then maybe the school will not be as good for two as one."

A straw poll in a Chengdu newspaper indicated 60 per cent of young people would consider a second child.

But that doesn't mean they will have two -- the norm has been one child for as long as they can remember.

So I asked Ivy's parents, Hang Zhang and Long Li, both 57, what it had been like for them back in 1979.

Both had several siblings, but by the time they were considering marriage and family, the idea of large families had lost favour in urban China, as was happening across the globe.

As well, they had been conditioned to expect to have few children. Beginning in 1970, the Communist government had encouraged voluntary infertility with its "late, long, few" policy. It had been successful, lowering the birth rate between 1970 and 1979 to 2.9 from 5.9.

But it wasn't enough. Long, who was 23, said she would hear of women found pregnant for a third time being told at gunpoint to undergo sterilization, or of people being fined the equivalent of five years' income.

Anyone working for government was especially fearful because they automatically would lose their jobs and face destitution, Hang added.

Meanwhile, infanticide, particularly of female babies, and sex-selection policies were suspected of creating an imbalance of boys over girls. It has been claimed that 120 boys were being born for every 100 girls. But that has been changing. In Chengdu, for example, there are more women than men -- 51.35 per cent to 48.65 per cent.

The greatest injustice, however, was that the policy was not universally applied. In fact, it affected only about 40 per cent of Chinese, with 60 per cent exempted because they were elites, farmers, minorities or past child-bearing age, among other factors.

Had one-child been universal, the fertility rate in China would be 1.0, but it is 1.6, about the same as in Canada, and for roughly the same reasons -- increasing wealth and birth control.

"Thirty years ago, China was a poor country, a very poor country," said Hang, a businessman. "Thirty years ago, we could never imagine it would be like this... that we could have money to send our daughter to Canada to study."

Some 87 per cent of Chinese women practise birth control, more than double the rate in the United States.

That the Chinese have adopted a one-child outlook was reflected in a 2008 Pew Research survey that found 76 per cent support one-child policies.

That likely reflects the fact family culture has evolved into a one-child culture that revolves around improving the conditions and opportunities available to only-children. Producing more than one child would create a hardship relative to the norm.

"I'm not prepared for children right now," Duanduan said. "I heard on the radio that it costs three thousand yen to raise a child. Three thousand yen! I can buy a lot of clothes with that."

Duanduan was joking, but there is truth in what she said. Which is why relaxing the one-child law caused hardly a stir in Chengdu.

In fact, to make a difference, to close the gap between a burgeoning population of seniors and the working population needed to support it, the Communist Party would have had to announce a mandatory two-child policy.

Now that would have caused a stir.


Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2013 A13

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