China instituted its one-child policy in 1979. By 1982, it was locked into its constitution. The Chinese population had ballooned to a billion and officials knew that in order for the country to truly prosper, it would need to control its growing numbers. Western countries worried about China’s population for different reasons. Over here, population growth had slowly withered as our countries grew stronger economically. As families move away from agriculture, large families become less necessary. As health care improves, more children make it into adulthood, so having ‘spares’ feels less urgent. And in order to give children every economic advantage in this new world – each their own bedroom, perhaps, a swimming pool in the backyard, a ski vacation every winter, a college fund for everyone – families grew smaller. Here in Canada we rely on immigration to keep our population from shrinking. Sean and I both come from 4 kid families, big even in the 80s. But in each of our families, only half of the siblings chose to have children at all. Of the 4 siblings who do have kids, 3 families have 2 kids each and 1 family has 3. We aren’t even replacing ourselves. But there’s a big difference between choosing what feels right for your family considering all the pros and cons; it’s much different when your government had made a law about your uterus and what can be inside.
In 1982, ultrasounds were not sophisticated enough to discern gender but following centuries of tradition, most Chinese families still wanted and valued a son. It fell to village officials to enforce this impossible policy, taking possessions and destroying homes of people who refused to follow it, and forcing sterilization on women after their first child, sometimes even forcing abortion.
One village midwife has lost track of how many babies she’s birthed but knows she performed 40-50 000 sterilizations and abortions over 20 years. Women would be abducted from their homes by the government, tied up like pigs, and dragged onto her operating table. Now she’ll only treat infertility “to atone for my sins” she says, though it’s clear she was not exactly a willing participant, just one of many doing their jobs. And so many of them had suffered from starvation, had spent lives just struggling to survive, that this promise of a better life for their child had lots of appeal. But if anything, the one-child policy strengthened the Chinese preference for sons. Baby girls were abandoned in droves.
After leaving China for the U.S. and becoming a mother herself, Nanfu Wang wonders if her thoughts are truly her own, or the result of propaganda so finely ingrained in culture and daily life they were hardly noticed. It’s impossible to know how China would have fared without the policy and most citizens don’t want to broach the question honestly. They have sacrificed so much, but the values and ideas so deeply embedded they are impossible to separate. Nanfu Wang can’t help but ask herself why she has traded one country who seeks to legislate women’s wombs for another.
The one-child policy was finally repealed in 2015 (they can now have 2), China assuring us that the nation was stronger, the people more prosperous, and the world more peaceful. And that may be true. But there is a trail of heart break, human trafficking, and a heavy toll paid by broken families and exiled children.