The Chinese government discontinued the one-child policy from 2016 but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mei Fong, author of the book One Child, says it will continue to have pervasive effects on China’s economy and society that policymakers don’t anticipate.
Speaking to an audience at the Powerhouse Museum this week, hosted by the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI), Mei Fong explored the one-child policy’s role in China’s gender imbalance, ageing population and diminishing workforce, saying the policy had made China “too [male], too old and too few”.
In conversation with former ABC Asia editor and former chief political correspondent of SBS Television Catherine McGrath, Ms Fong noted that the one-child policy was initially devised to increase China’s economic capacity, but is in fact having the opposite effect.
“By and large it was forged as a way for China to get ahead economically. China is very populous. There was a sense that they would not have enough resources. Even as early as 2003 … factory owners would tell me that ‘you know, we have difficulty hiring workers. We can’t find enough workers’.”
Ms Fong said she was surprised by this: most people perceive China to be the most populous nation and the labour powerhouse of the world.
Humans are also an economic resource. They are what makes a country grow, especially if you’re a properly educated workforce.
China also faces the challenge of an ageing population, which if not addressed will put significant strain on society.
“By 2050 one in four Chinese people will be a retiree. In terms of absolute numbers, that’s more than Europe … if all the senior retirees were to form their own nation, they would be the world’s third most populous nation. You would have China, India and senior China,” Ms Fong said.
The one-child policy has additionally created a large gender imbalance, exacerbated by China’s traditional preference for male children. “Currently there is an estimation of over 30 million surplus males in China, so to put that in perspective that’s more than the population of Australia.”
Ms Fong argued that the coercive methods employed under the one-child policy were unnecessary, citing Japan and South Korea as examples of Asian nations that have prospered economically while simultaneously reducing their population growth rates.
Further, “China already had a population planning policy in place well before the one-child policy … the ‘later, longer, fewer’ policy … people went from having about six kids per family to three.”
Ms Fong said the thinkers behind the one-child policy overlooked the fact that a successful economy requires healthy population growth in tandem with access to education and rising living standards.
“Humans are also an economic resource. They are what makes a country grow, especially if you’re a properly educated workforce. And now you see … in almost every developed nation, the trend is smaller-sized families, shrinking populations below replacement levels. And they are having issues with economic growth.”
Ms Fong remarked that declining birth rates are extremely difficult to reverse.
“Part of the one-child policy was designed by rocket scientists … the chief architect actually thought ‘we may have a problem with falling birth rates in the future, but we can just dial it up’.
“Fertility rates, women’s desires to have children: it’s not just a switch you can flip up or flip down.”
Fong reflected on her personal journey throughout the process of writing One Child, which begins in 2008 when she was a Wall Street Journal correspondent covering the devastating Sichuan earthquake. At the time, unbeknown to her, Fong was pregnant and would later suffer a miscarriage.
“You are trained as a journalist to be very impartial,” Ms Fong said. She said at first she hesitated to include her personal story in the book, as some of her colleagues had cautioned against it. But ultimately she decided the story needed a “spirit guide … to lead [the readers] through the whole story.”
Members of the audience also shared their personal stories and experiences of the one-child policy, which continues to deeply affect their families and friends.
Click here to listen to an episode of the ACRI Podcast featuring Mei Fong discussing the one-child policy with ACRI researcher Elena Collinson.
Full audio of the conversation with Catherine McGrath at the Powerhouse Museum will be available on ACRI’s website soon.