What is China's one-child policy?


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Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark

Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. With me as always is Charles W Chuckers Bryant.

Chuck Bryant

You know, one day, I'm just not going to show up.

Josh Clark

I'll do both of our bits. I'll be like, "Hey, I'm Josh." "Hey, I'm Chuck." "Hey, I'm Josh." "Hey, I'm Chuck."

Chuck Bryant

So I'm a 12-year-old girl.

Josh Clark

Right, Chuck? Right, Josh. I think that's pretty accurate.

Chuck Bryant

Good luck with that show. Good luck.

Josh Clark

Although, I finally get to be shirtless the whole time.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, true.

Josh Clark

Are you ready for a little bit of irony this afternoon?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, let's hear it.

Josh Clark

Back in 1949, short little happy -

Chuck Bryant

Thirty-six years before Ghostbusters.

Josh Clark

Apple cheeked - no, 35. Short little happy, apple cheeked Chinese man named Mao Zedong, also known as Chairman Mao, established the peoples' republic of China.

Chuck Bryant

Huzzah.

Josh Clark

Yes. And one of the things that they were big on was reproduction, I guess, is the only way to put it. The communist's government under Chairman Mao, they opposed birth control. They banned the import of contraceptives, and in '49, he said, "Of all the things in the world, people are the most precious." Are you ready for the ironic twist?

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

Thirty years later, China catapulted itself to the forefront of state controlled reproduction, which what came to be known as its one-child policy. Discuss.

Chuck Bryant

You know, I got a little stat for you. Speaking of 1949, do you know what the life expectancy in China was then?

Josh Clark

Like seven.

Chuck Bryant

Thirty-five years old.

Josh Clark

Holy cow.

Chuck Bryant

And it's 73 years old now.

Josh Clark

Yeah, with the communist government came things like sanitation, a relative peace. War had beleaguered China for generations, had been killing people left and right, and as a result, the population just skyrocketed.

Chuck Bryant

Indeed. And the old image of China we have is probably like four or five kids, a couple parents, a couple grandparents, auntie anduncle like packed together, living in a house. Not true anymore.

Josh Clark

No, not anymore because of the one-child policy. So let's talk about this. This is something people might have heard of before, but first of all, why did it come about? It came about from the population skyrocketing. Right?

Chuck Bryant

Well, I've got some more info, actually. Are you ready for this?

Josh Clark

I am.

Chuck Bryant

Do you want to know how it really came about?

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

You didn't look at any of this?

Josh Clark

I -

Chuck Bryant

Song Jin.

Josh Clark

No.

Chuck Bryant

Okay, all right, we're all gonna learn here then.

Josh Clark

Let's hear it, Mr. Smart.

Chuck Bryant

Apparently, there was a systems control specialist in China in 1978. He decides to visit Europe, and back then, he was kind of isolated from the outside world like many of the people in China. The intellectuals in China!

Josh Clark

China is pretty known for isolation.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, so he goes to Europe, and he picks up a little book called The Limits to Growth. Have you ever heard of this?

Josh Clark

Uh uh.

Chuck Bryant

The Limits to Growth was a really controversial book. It was a study put out by a think tank called The Club of Rome, and basically, they said, in a nutshell, the world will end by 2070 because of population overrun. And they brought it out to big fanfare along with the blue print for survival, which was published in '72 in England, who basically said that people in Britain were reproducing too quick and they couldn't maintain. He goes back to China with these books, and he said, "It really made sense to me."And so he was connected, he formed a little group, and decided to take it to the government, and said, "Hey, we're going to -" You know, he started applying these studies and these statistics to China, and he said, "We're in big trouble." And so he took all this stuff, and basically, it was from there that it leapfrogged, that it catapulted, rather, into a reality. However, the ironic thing is that whole limits to growth, apparently, was a bunch of bunk. And it was based on bad statistics.The co-founder - I'm sorry, the founder of the book of Rome, who actually helped write the book, came out a couple years later, and they had a retraction that said they wanted to jolt people from the comfortable idea that present growth trends could continue indefinitely. So they basically said, "We were trying to scare people, and we cooked up a bunch of studies."

Josh Clark

Which led to China's one-child policy?

Chuck Bryant

Yep.

Josh Clark

That's nuts.

Chuck Bryant

Pretty cool. Thank you, Song Jin.

Josh Clark

That's not the only thing, though. I think China has never apologized for its policy, and one of the reasons why they instituted it was because the population was growing rapidly.

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

Which is fine? Right? The reason that Chairman Mao was like, "Reproduce, reproduce," was because his vision for China was this huge, booming economy based on tons and tons of labor.

Chuck Bryant

Right, kind of makes sense in a way.

Josh Clark

It does make sense. The problem is right now, China has a quarter of the world's population, but only 7 percent of the world's arable land.

Chuck Bryant

That's the rub.

Josh Clark

That is a rub right there. So one of the reasons in addition to this fake book that they instituted the one-child policy, it was to slow this population growth, and it worked tremendously. Right?

Chuck Bryant

It did. Well, it worked to the tune of about 400 million kids not born. Is that right?

Josh Clark

It depends on who you talk to. Four hundred million is the high end that I've seen. The lowest I've seen is 250 million. Even still, it's substantial since in the last 30 years.

Chuck Bryant

You know what they said in 1980 was the - what's it officially called? The National Population Family Planning Commission of China!

Josh Clark

That's the state agency that runs the reproduction control.

Chuck Bryant

They said in 1980 that we must have a cap by the year 2000 of 1.2 billion people.

Josh Clark

And it's projected that they hit 1.27. They weren't too far off, but that's Chinese figures. No one knows.

Chuck Bryant

But it continued to grow. Now there's 1.33, actually in more than that. Because that was 2008!

Josh Clark

Yeah, apparently, every year, China adds the population of Belgium to its own population. Ten million people!

Chuck Bryant

They literally bring over everyone from Belgium?

Josh Clark

Yeah, they're like, "Come on," and then Belgium has to start from scratch again. They get to ten million, and every January, "Come on, Belgium."

Chuck Bryant

Wow, I'm going to go to Belgium next January. Stake out a claim.

Josh Clark

So you can get a free trip to China.

Chuck Bryant

No, so I can stake my claim there in Belgium. Just move into some house.

Josh Clark

They'll move you to China eventually, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant

That's true.

Josh Clark

So we had this huge population explosion. It's still going just because if you have 1.3 billion people, even allowing them to have one kid is going to add and add and add up.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, what's the projection?

Josh Clark

I believe by 2050, they're expected to peak at 1.6 billion.

Chuck Bryant

That's a lot.

Josh Clark

That is a lot. But actually, that's nothing compared to what it would have been had they not instituted this policy, which at first was voluntary. And they saw a greater decline in fertility when this policy was voluntary. Right?

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

In 1970, they had a fertility rate of, I think, six.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, that means six births per woman, just so people understand what that means.

Josh Clark

That's the mean.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

And then by 1979, it was down to three. So they halfed their fertility rate!

Chuck Bryant

You know what it is now?

Josh Clark

What?

Chuck Bryant

In the urban areas, 1.7. Oh, I'm sorry. In the urban areas, 1.3! In the rural areas, 2.0 for about a 1.7 average!

Josh Clark

Right, but even still, if you look at the numbers, that's less of a decline than there was when it was voluntary.

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

What China started out with was a campaign called what, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant

Late, Long, Few.

Josh Clark

Late, long, and few. So you marry late in life, you wait a long time in between births, and you have few children. And couples who volunteer for this get a little certificate.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, what's that called? The Certificate of Honor for single child parents.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Must be nice.

Josh Clark

I guess. I imagine it's probably something that you'd frame.

Chuck Bryant

Is that enough to keep you from having a kid?

Josh Clark

It depends. I don't know. We should also say that the one-child policy that was instituted in 1979 - I don't know if we actually came out and said that yet.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, that was when it officially became a mandate.

Josh Clark

So the one-child policy, at least at first and generally in practice, has been - has restricted almost exclusively the Han ethnic majority. Those are the people who are really subject to one-child policies, and the people who are under the most restrictions are urban couples from the Han majority.

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

Ethnic minorities are allowed to have more kids. They've generally been excluded from the one-child policy.

Chuck Bryant

Well, you have to get permission. I think if you're in a rural area, you have to get legal permission to have a second child if your first-born is a girl. And if you're an ethnic minority, you can have three kids.

Josh Clark

Well, you bring up a really good point. That's one of the huge byproducts of this one-child policy is that China - the culture of China, not just the government, the culture has been accused of preferring boys over girls.

Chuck Bryant

Accused to the tune of encouraging abortions for females. Stuff like that. Who knows if that's true, but that's been floating out there?

Josh Clark

It's true.

Chuck Bryant

It is?

Josh Clark

Yeah. At the very least, there's been tons and tons of reports and allegations of it. There's state pressure if not state mandated abortions. Or at the very least, local mandated, local pressured abortions. But one of the ways China still has a low abortion rate, 25 percent of the female population report having an abortion where in the US, 43 percent.

Chuck Bryant

That was higher than I thought.

Josh Clark

That's apparently really low.

Chuck Bryant

Is it?

Josh Clark

Yeah. At the very least, low compared to anecdotal evidence!

Chuck Bryant

Okay.

Josh Clark

There's probably a lot of girls out there who aren't willing to say that they had an abortion and have.

Chuck Bryant

True.

Josh Clark

But still, let's say that those numbers are completely accurate. China has 25 percent abortion rate. US has 43 percent. One of the reasons that they've been able to maintain a low abortion rate comparatively is through open and universal access to contraception.

Chuck Bryant

Yes, IUDs and sterilization is what they prefer over there.

Josh Clark

Ninety percent of contraception is long-term. Right?

Chuck Bryant

They don't do the condom or the birth control pill that much.

Josh Clark

Not much.

Chuck Bryant

Or vasectomies, of course, in China. They put it all on the woman.

Josh Clark

Because again, they have been accused of preferring boys. It's a very patriarchal society.

Chuck Bryant

Right. You can't do that, though, in the long run. Because I've got another stat! In the end, they think - in the future, I would say 15 percent of the men in China won't have access to a wife. There aren't enough women. There won't be enough women.

Josh Clark

Right, which in and of itself is a problem, but it also gives rise to other problems. Apparently, there's been a huge rise in prostitution, which has led to a huge rise in the prevalence of HIV. There's been all sorts of social maladies, I guess, among men who can't find awife. I mean imagine there just not being a woman out there that you can find to marry and settle down with. Like it's just not an option for you!

Chuck Bryant

Fifteen percent.

Josh Clark

It's going to produce all manner of psychological and social problems.

Chuck Bryant

Absolutely.

Josh Clark

So yeah, there's all sorts of weird things that are kind of popping up from this one-child policy. Another one that I hesitate to use the word weird, more like horrific, is female infanticide. We said that China has been accused of preferring boys over girls. There are - I should say there are surveys out there. There are facts and figures that China puts out that contradict any criticism, but that there is two sides to this coin. But in the west, there's lots and lots of accusation of female infanticide. Apparently, it was traditional until the cultural revolution and it started to kind of pick back up again.There's no statistics or figures on how many girls might be killed at birth, but No. 1, apparently, abortion after ultrasound sex screening, sexing, was so prevalent that in 1994, China banned sex screening. Pre-natal sex screening so you couldn't tell whether you were having a boy or a girl. There's a private sector that's picked up that slack that will give you an ultrasound to let you know what you're having. And apparently, the female infanticide, if you view abortion as infanticide, has increased.But even infanticide under like the medical or sociological definition of killing a child when it's born or leaving it to die is still around. And those are reflected in the boy to girl ratio, which is pretty significant. It doesn't sound like a lot, but what are they, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant

In 2005, an estimated 118 boys were born for every 100 girls, and that peaked at 130 boys for every 100 girls. And just to compare that to the rest of the world or industrialized countries, I should say, roughly 104 to 107 boys for every 100 girls. So definitely a big diff!

Josh Clark

One of the reasons why boys would be preferred is they can earn more than a woman. Let's say a woman marries a man, she gets married off, she gets absorbed into the man's family. What happens to the parents? Here is part of the problem.

Chuck Bryant

What happen?

Josh Clark

Seventy percent of China's aging population doesn't have a pension. They don't have 401Ks over there. They don't save. The government is starting to encourage it.

Chuck Bryant

This is what I see as the biggest problem, maybe.

Josh Clark

This is a huge, huge problem.

Chuck Bryant

Who is going to take care of people when they're getting older?

Josh Clark

So here is what's resulted. A phenomenon called 421. Right? You have a couple, that's the two, and they're responsible for the care of one child.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And four parents. Four grandparents!

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

So that's like the new family structure as far as financial support goes.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And as you keep having just one child, one child, that 421 structure keeps going on.

Chuck Bryant

And then it's one in six. Well, you know what I mean. That one child will have to be responsible for the care of ultimately six. Right? If everyone is still alive! His two parents and the four grandparents.

Josh Clark

Well, then you just start killing the grandparents. That's just too much of a burden. No one expects that. No because that - well, yeah. I guess if it's a boy and he has no one to marry, and if he's unlucky enough - no, that wouldn't work out. If it were just a boy and he never married, he'd just be responsible for his own parents.

Chuck Bryant

But what about the grandparents?

Josh Clark

Again.

Chuck Bryant

I think that was one of the points they made, though, was as your parents old and the grandparents are hanging in there, all the sudden, your parents are in their 70s. Your grandparents are in their 90s. And you're the sole child. So that's a problem.

Josh Clark

If you are lucky enough to marry and there are no - if your grandparents are dead, you still are saddled with two sets of grandparents and a child. And that's what you're responsible for providing for. Right?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

That's a big problem. Part of that has been alleviated by a revision in the policy to where urban couples who are only children themselves can have more than one child. So that leaves two siblings to take care of them.

Chuck Bryant

But you have to apply to do that still. Right? It's still very much under the thumb.

Josh Clark

Unless you're an ethnic minority. I don't think you have to apply for a child if you're an ethnic minority.

Chuck Bryant

Okay.

Josh Clark

Another revision that they had, Chuck, was they stripped local birth quotas.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, they did? Is this the birth permits?

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Okay, yeah, they stripped the requirement to obtain these birth permits in a lot of the provinces. Recently, right?

Josh Clark

Yeah, which basically, they did it by taking away the requirement to get a birth permit for a first birth. So what happened before was any locality had a quota of how many births could occur say in a year or a month or something like that. And if that quota was filled already, then some couple applying for a permit to have a birth would be denied until the next cycle.

Chuck Bryant

This is nuts.

Josh Clark

It is nuts.

Chuck Bryant

I'm all for family planning, but this is turbo family planning.

Josh Clark

What's nuts is that aside from the social problems, it actually has led China to become a burgeoning economy. I mean it's actually worked in an economic sense, but in a socio economic sense, it's exacting these huge tolls.

Chuck Bryant

I do have a couple of stats to back that up. Before they instituted this policy, the population and poverty was 250 million. That's been reduced to 40 million. And education of the average 15 year old went from 4.5 years to 8.5 years. So these are the stats that China is going to point to, clearly, to say, "Hey, its working."

Josh Clark

And you can - I think it's so easy to vilify China for this. Like the Christian, pro-life groups are hugely against this one-child policy because it does suborn abortion very clearly. So there's a lot of people opposed to it, but if you're an economist and maybe an economist with -

Chuck Bryant

No heart.

Josh Clark

A damage to your pre-frontal cortex, then yeah, it makes a lot of sense, and it worked.

Chuck Bryant

They've also started the girl care program. Have you heard of that one? And that's basically, in a nutshell, kind of trying to encourage the fact that girls have value and worth and are not second-class citizens.

Josh Clark

You like that billboard. Don't you?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, the billboard. They have a billboard in China that says - in the Hebai province, it says, "There's no difference between having a girl or a boy. Girls can also continue the family line."

Josh Clark

Yes, genetically speaking.

Chuck Bryant

So they're trying to do what they can there.

Josh Clark

I guess probably the biggest rub of China's one-child policy is that reproduction is a basic human right. The government is not supposed to tell you how many kids or -

Chuck Bryant

No.

Josh Clark

Or do anything to interfere with your reproduction, and it's also contrary to the will of the people. In a 2003 Chinese study, there were some people who said they preferred one-child. About 35 percent of the population surveyed. But 57 percent said they preferred two.

Chuck Bryant

Right, so it directly flies in the face of them.

Josh Clark

Exactly. What's interesting, though, is that there is a huge decrease in preference of three children or more. Like 5.5 percent of the population surveyed said that they would want three kids. So it seems to have peaked around two, and one of the reasons why China announced recently that it would be another decade before it repealed its one-child policy is because they're afraid of another baby boom. And what they're trying to do is create a small family culture in the country. But surveys like these suggest that they've been successful in doing that.

Chuck Bryant

Right, I think it's up for review next year. Isn't it?

Josh Clark

No, 2000 - is it?

Chuck Bryant

It's up for review next year, but I don't know that that means anything is going to change.

Josh Clark

I think they said this summer in July that it's going to be another decade before they repealed it. And there were a lot of people after - remember the earthquake in Sichuan Province.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, it killed, what, like 10,000 kids and a lot of peoples' only child.

Josh Clark

Yeah, if that's your only child, so long, kid. And what happens if you were 50 when your child died because you wait a long time to get married, and -

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, you're SOL. Thank you, government. You know, I know plenty of Americans, though, who think it's the responsible thing to do to only have one child. I've heard people say that. As a human, it's like irresponsible to have two and three kids these days.

Josh Clark

Well, yeah, the toll we exact on the environment are adding to the strain on the caring capacity of agriculture. Supposedly, the agricultural techniques we have now can support a global population of 10 billion. So we have a little ways to go, but who knows what will happen before then? How much technology will advance? We may turn to Soylent Green. Who knows? Do you know there's two women out there walking the planet, at least two, who were sterilized before they ever had kids because they wanted to save the environment?

Chuck Bryant

No. Who are they?

Josh Clark

They're both English, as far as I know.

Chuck Bryant

Really?

Josh Clark

Uh huh.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, I remember reading about that. I think you pointed that out to me.

Josh Clark

It has nothing to do with China's one-child policy, but yeah. So Chuck, it doesn't look like they're repealing it. They did make some - for those people who are still in reproductive age following the earthquake who lost kids, they were making exceptions.

Chuck Bryant

Did they?

Josh Clark

But ultimately, it looks like steady the course with the one-child policy. So okay, if you want to read anything more on China's one-child policy, we've got an article on the site appropriately titled, "What is China's one-child policy?" I'm pretty sure if you just type in one-child, it will come up in the handy search bar at HowStuffWorks.com. And let's do listener mail.

Chuck Bryant

Josh, its listener mail time, and I'm just going to call this from Austin our young fan who had a dream about us.

Josh Clark

Sweet.

Chuck Bryant

I try not to read dream e-mails because then that encourages people to send in their dreams, and we've gotten a lot of, "I had this weird dream," but this one was about us, so of course, I'm going to read it. "My name is Austin. I'm 14, and I'm your fan, and I live in Atlanta, and it makes the show so much better because you are located in Atlanta."

Josh Clark

True dat.

Chuck Bryant

So he feels at home with us. He's been listening for a while. He loves us, and he's just starting high school this year. And his podcast has been a lifesaver in AP biology. Anyways, I finally had my first dream about you.

Josh Clark

What - his first dream. He anticipates more.

Chuck Bryant

This is a good one, though. He awakes from bed, and he notices that he's fallen asleep while listening to the podcast. Sounds like reality so far.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

He walks outside, and there's a small, red plane with a huge banner that reads, "All hail Chuck and Josh." I'm a little -

Josh Clark

That was no dream, Austin.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, we sent that plane over your house, buddy. "I'm a little confused about it, and even more so when I arrive at school and see that there is a bronze statue in your honor because you guys saved the economy."

Josh Clark

With our audio book?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, how about that? However, it takes a gloomy turn from here. After a day of many questions and much confusion, I finally put together the clues. After saving the economy, you both take charge and become dual dictators of America.

Josh Clark

That sounds about right.

Chuck Bryant

You require everyone to be educated by your podcast and only your podcast, as made the Stuff Amendment. We actually amended the constitution.

Josh Clark

And we institute a half child policy.

Chuck Bryant

Sure, a half child policy. "And we all must obey your command. Immediately, China declares war on us because you try to expand your podcast to their country." We had a guy that wrote in, by the way, that says it was not banned.

Josh Clark

No, the blog is banned. Not the podcast.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, okay. Good to know. "The rest of the dream is a bit foggy, and I wish I could remember more. However, it seems to be a theme that the dreams that people write in end up being true. In the unlikely chance that this does happen, please remember me as a fan." That's from Austin in Atlanta. And Austin, we will definitely remember you.

Josh Clark

We will. We will remember you when we take power and crush you. If you have a super cool dream about me and Chuck, or if you want to comment on China's one-child policy or you have more than ten children, more than ten, send us an e-mail about it to Stuff Podcast at HowStuffWorks.com.

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