All for One

One-child policy propaganda poster. Photo credit: Robert Schediwy
Robert Schediwy / CC BY-SA

My father is 96 years old, my mother is 81. My siblings and I are spread across the world. The closest one lives a 3 hour drive away. We worry about what to do and how we can help our parents in this phase of their lives. Lockdowns and closed borders only add to the complexity of long-distance care.

Imagine this same scenario but instead of 3 children, there’s only 1. That would have been the case if my parents had started their family in China while the one-child policy was still in place.

One-child policy

The goal was to limit population growth. The initial program in 1978 was a voluntary one. But by 1980, it became clear to the Chinese government that a nationwide compulsory approach was required. Enforcement took the form of carrots (widely available contraceptives and financial incentives) and sticks. Think of economic sanctions, forced abortions and, for women, sterilization. Exceptions were made for members of ethnic minorities or parents of a handicapped child.

If I had been born in the era of the one-child policy, I may not have lived to tell this tale. A traditional preference for a male heir led to the abortion, abandonment and infanticide of female offspring. It’s possible that my parents could have obtained dispensation to have a second child. In that case, only one of my brothers would have seen the light of day but not the other.

One-child statue Xintiandi. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen
A little emperor. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

The one-child survivor would have grown up to become a little emperor. He would have been the sole focus of his doting grandparents and parents. During a trip to Shanghai, my mother was horrified to see a child seated in a busy subway car while his grandmother stood at his side. This was filial piety turned upside down.

If and when the little emperor decides to marry, he’ll find a dearth of potential empresses. Women who survived the one-child policy are uninterested in marriage, children and all the work they imply. Birth rates in China have fallen steadily since implementation of the one-child policy. Not even the abandonment of the one-child policy in 2016 has managed to change the trajectory. From one-child, China threatens to become a country of no child.

4 —2 — 1

The pressure on that one-child is enormous. Parents are inclined to invest all they have into their sole offspring. The one-child must excel in kindergarten in order to gain admittance into the right sort of primary school. And so on and so forth. The ultimate form of success in Chinese society is a stable, well-paid job. For that, most young Chinese will need to leave the old folks at home and journey to the cities. The social divide between rural China and urban China grows ever wider.

Traditionally, the Chinese rely on family for help in times of need. That help can take many forms. When multiple generations lived under one roof, grandma looked after the grandchildren until she no longer could. Then her children and grandchildren took on the job of looking after her.

This reliance on family has led to the perverse result that hospice care in virtually non-existent in China. For one, there are deeply embedded taboos that prevent any discussion of death. The word itself must be avoided as must all its phonetic equivalents. Wills, medical treatment, end-of-life care and grief itself cannot, must not be discussed.

Thanks to the one-child policy, the sprawling Chinese family that could once be counted upon to take care of grandma has now been reduced to an inverted pyramid inhabited by the one-child. He alone is responsible for two parents and four grandparents.

Raise a child

When your one-child lives far away, say, in the city or even another country, there’s only so much that child can do. The recent nationwide lockdown in China meant that many grandparents were inaccessible to their anxious offspring. Even now, as travel restrictions lift, it’s no easy task to journey from one end of China to another.

For a long time, the Chinese countryside resisted the one-child policy. When the policy was finally lifted in 2016, families were still only allowed to have 2 children. Even now, the family my parents raised would not have been permitted.

Three kids 1966
The three of us 1966

When I was a kid, my two siblings were also my best friends. As I grew into an insufferable teenager, I found them embarrassing, repugnant and, well, boys. Today, I’m grateful to have them both. We may live at opposite ends of the world but we can still join forces to share the joys and burdens of family. An old Chinese proverb says: raise a child against old age; stockpile grain against famine.