Waking up from China’s Living Nightmare

Xiaoming Gao’s second son was due in one week, but she was already in the hospital in Jinjiang, China. She was there to undergo induced labor, and a nurse was responsible for taking her son away after the birth. Xiaoming was not permitted by law to have a second son.

The nurse put Xiaoming’s baby into a bucket, but instead of taking him away, the nurse let Xiaoming’s brother, Terry Gao, take him. Terry ran as fast as he could out of the hospital, clutching the newborn baby.

It was 1990 when Xiaoming, 22 at the time, underwent induced labor as a result of China’s one-child policy, which was in place for almost 40 years as a population control policy in China.

“It was by the grace of God,” Terry Gao said in an interview. “A nurse who was responsible for my sister’s operation allowed me to take my nephew away. He is a rare lucky one among thousands of cases of induced labor and abortion that occurred every year in my hometown.”

In October 2015 the Chinese government announced it will ease its one-child policy, allowing families to have two children and putting a stop to the terrifying and inhumane situations the Gao family and so many others have faced.

Chairman Mao Zedong, Chinese Communist revolutionary and the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, once said, “The more people there are, the stronger we are.” Under his leadership, China’s population almost doubled, from 550 million to 990 million. After Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese government desperately needed to do something about its burgeoning numbers and reduce the strain on already scarce resources. In 1979, it introduced the one-child policy.

In 2007, 36 percent of China’s population was subject to the one-child restriction, with an additional 53 percent being allowed to have a second child if the first child was a girl. Exceptions were also made for some ethnic minorities. China’s decision to now ease the policy, to allow two children per couple, is expected to diversify the country’s aging, increasingly male population.

According to the UN and the Chinese Ministry of Health, there have been over 350 million abortions since the implementation of the one child policy. That’s more than 13 million a year– or 1,500 per hour.

According to the China Statistical Yearbook, National Bureau of Statistics website, the birth rate in China in 1970 was 33.43 (per thousand); in 1987 it was 23.33; and in 1998 it was 16.03.

Times Higher Education reports that a number of demographers have argued birthrates would have come down with rising prosperity – as they have in other countries regardless of state intervention.

According to The World Outline, a consequence of the policy is a steep decline in the average population growth rate alongside an aging population, with women only having 1.4 children instead of the 2.1 which is necessary for population stabilization. This means more pressure on a shrinking work population.

Another severe consequence of the policy is gender imbalance. There were more male babies than female babies being born. This is due to the strong cultural preference for boys who carry on the family name and are viewed as an investment. There were more boys than girls, resulting in a lack of brides. This, in turn, has fueled human trafficking in which brides are bought to China from Vietnam and Cambodia.

Chinese tradition dictates that sons will provide support and security for their parents later in life. Daughters, however, leave the family home after marriage. These traditional values, alongside the one-child policy, have meant that a large number of girls have been subject to sex-selective abortions. Many others have, after birth, been abandoned, killed, placed in orphanages or trafficked. The vast majority of children in orphanages in China are girls.

Cases like that of the Gao family have damaged China’s image irreparably. Furthermore, China has more incentive than ever to abolish this system as it faces an ever-shrinking working-age population, which can seriously endanger its economic future.

According to The Guardian, few expect a baby boom after the ending of the policy because of high cost of property, education and child care in urban areas. So far, a good number of Chinese families have been less than enthusiastic about the partial relaxation of the policy, choosing to stick with one child, often for practical and economic reasons, but also because decades of government propaganda have convinced them that one child really is best.

Eventually the two-child policy, implemented in January 2016, could help economic growth by lifting the birth rate well below replacement level. The question will be how much it does so. Global market research company Euromonitor International estimates China will lose its position as the world’s largest population by 2025.

At the same time, Euromonitor International predicts that China will overtake the USA as the world’s biggest economy in 2017, and account for 19.0 percent of global GDP in purchasing power parity terms by 2020.

The government in Beijing has long defended the one-child policy as being a vital step in preventing a rapid population expansion that could lead to food and resource shortages. The policy may have helped prevent those issues, but for many, as for the Gao family, it has been a living nightmare.


Carina Lindgren wrote this story for the Journalism for Social Change massive online open course.

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Journalism for Social Change (J4SC), a program of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), is a graduate-level training program for students of journalism, public policy and social work, which teaches them how to use journalism as an implement of social change.