Widespread female infanticide and officials jailing pregnant women’s families to induce them to surrender to abortions—these are scenes not from a dystopian novel but from China’s family planning bureaucracy.
The country’s one-child policy, to be officially phased out in 2016, created more far-reaching social distortions than even its most vociferous critics realized, argues Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Fong in this timely exposé of a reproductive regime whose inner workings Chinese officials have tried hard to keep under wraps. The author, a longtime China correspondent, crisscrossed the country talking with peasants, bureaucrats, intellectuals, and dissidents, and she narrates her travels in a conversational, convivial tone, also discussing her own struggles to conceive. Given the degree to which family planning is embedded in the fabric of the country, it is difficult to predict how the abrupt reversal will play out. Fong describes “China’s birth-planning machinery” as “a bloated behemoth that goes from some 85 million part-time employees at the grass-roots level all the way up to half a million full-time employees at the National Population and Family Planning Commission.” The author uncovers vast regional differences in how the law has been enforced: while some provinces saw huge numbers of women forcibly sterilized, in others, “authorities actually encouraged” large families “so they could collect more fines.” Contemporary China’s gender imbalance is approaching unprecedented levels, and the massive surplus of boys presages problems for both men and women. Although they contribute financially nearly as much as their husbands, women are not traditionally named on house titles, and “given that much of the recent wealth creation in China has come from appreciating values in soaring property markets, Chinese women have therefore been left out of what is arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real estate wealth in history: some $27 trillion worth” by some estimates.
Finished just before the announcement of the policy’s demise, One Child is a touching and captivating anthropological investigation of one of the most invasive laws ever devised.