Mei Fong On The Unacknowledged Pain Of China’s One-Child Policy
Mei Fong’s book on China’s one-child policy, One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, speaks about the social experiment’s ramifications on the country. SheThePeople.TV spoke to the Pulitzer Prize winning writer about how the policy has affected Chinese culture when it comes to women, and the policy’s consequences for Chinese society in the years to come.
You interviewed scores of women from different walks of life for the book. What is the most glaring thing about patriarchy in Chinese society that stood out for them?
I think the biggest reactions differ between ages. Young urban women in China still have the sense of ‘the sky is the limit’. They are the beneficiaries of the one-child policy since, not having brothers to compete with, they get all their parental familial resources and go on to college and graduate studies in record numbers.
China’s now rolled back the one-child policy, and with plunging birth rates, there is huge pressure on college-educated women to have more children. This dawning understanding that, despite their learning and earning power, that their worth is still very much tied to their ovaries — it’s quite a rude shock
But this attitude dramatically changes with age, as they contend with huge societal and official pressure to marry and reproduce — to the point of dealing with derogatory terms like being called “leftovers”, hitting the bamboo ceiling and sex discrimination in the workforce. This situation is of course not unique to China, but I think for Chinese, the shock is more abrupt, because feminism’s gains from the one-child policy are so specific to a certain period, and possibly short-lived. This is especially true because China’s now rolled back the one-child policy, and with plunging birth rates, there is huge pressure on college-educated women to have more children. This dawning understanding that, despite their learning and earning power, that their worth is still very much tied to their ovaries—it’s quite a rude shock.
What was the most difficult part about finding relevant information in China? What kind of resistance did you face?
I was investigating effects of the one-child policy, which touched virtually everyone in China, so you’d think folks would be quite easy talking about it, especially since on paper a large majority of people supported population reduction. But probing deeper, there was a lot of unacknowledged pain—especially for women who’d had abortions, abandoned children or committed infanticide. I once tried to interview this woman who was a relative of a friend of mine. She had six children, and they were all living together in a 2nd tier city under middle-class circumstances, which is unusual. According to family lore, everyone whispered how she’d killed her first child, a girl, at birth, by drowning. I tried talking to the family, just about how unusual it was to be such a large family in a city—but even this was incredibly sensitive. Some siblings were OK with talking, but one daughter of the family strenuously objected, because she feared it would ruin her marriage chances if suitors knew she had such an unusually large—for China!– number of siblings.
Urban women were the beneficiaries of the one-child policy, but balanced against that are the rural women who bore the brunt of the most brutal aspects of the policy, such as forced abortions and sterilizations
Or, there was a family in America believed to have adopted a stolen child from China who adamantly refused to talk. In short, because this policy touched the most intimate details of people’s lives—in the bedroom, in the family—there is a lot of pain and conflict people are unwilling to acknowledge, let alone talk about.
How do you think the one child policy shaped Chinese culture when it comes to women? Were there positives? Are the effects irreversible?
Certainly any female born in a Chinese city after 1980 has a far better chance of being better fed and educated than women of any other time in modern Chinese history. Urban women were the beneficiaries of the one-child policy, but balanced against that are the rural women who bore the brunt of the most brutal aspects of the policy, such as forced abortions and sterilizations. Not to mention women in China’s border countries, who are now bearing the brunt of sex trafficking as China suffers from a female shortage.
One good effect of the one-child policy is that it looks like son-preference in cities is falling a lot. There are a lot of indicators that in time, daughters, at least in cities, will be as valued as sons.
For the moment, there are about 30 million more men than women in China, and there’s simply no way to erase this, even assuming that birth rates rise. Like it or not, there will be large parts of China which will be overly-male for years to come, with all the attendant social instabilities
What project are you working on next?
One of the best things about being a writer is being invited to literary festivals and meeting other writers. I’ve been inspired and energized by folks like Jeet Thayil, Tishani Doshi and Madeleine Thien. So I’m mulling working on writing fiction next, which will be a new challenge.
Who are your favourite writers?
As for favourite writers, I read a lot so it’s hard to pick one. Just presently I’ve been reading a lot of Indian writers after a trip to Mumbai—really enjoyed Suketu Mehta’s ‘Maximum City’, and not too long ago devoured Kishwar Desai’s ‘Witness the Night’. In general, I’m interested in writers of detective fiction who skillfully bend the genre to explore a whole range of issues —Dorothy Sayers, PD James, Natsuo Kirino, just to name a few.
Picture Credit: Anna Carson DeWitt