While watching your two-year-old son play with his favorite blocks on the rug, you and your husband smile at each other, besotted with your prodigal offspring.
“Maybe we should try for another,” your husband says earnestly, taking your hand. “I loved growing up with a brother.” You nod and smile, your dreams of the picture-perfect family coming true already in your mind.
But instead of creating a baby the old-fashioned way by drinking a bottle of wine and locking the door, you head to the family planning department and put in an application for a “family planning service certificate.” After waiting months and acquiring stamps from over a dozen different agencies, you wait anxiously in line for your baby’s birth permit, only to be sorely disappointed when a cold-faced clerk stamps, “Denied” across your paperwork.
Sorry little brother or sister.
It’s hard to imagine a world in which our government could have any say in the amount of children we could have. But for Chinese couples, the one-child policy has been law for decades, since it was enacted in 1979. The policy, dreamed up by Communist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, to ensure that “the fruits of economic growth are not devoured by population growth,” was officially lifted today, allowing all couples to have two children, reports The New York Times.
Two years ago, China eventually made exceptions to its strict one-child per family rule for couples who had the great misfortune of giving birth to a child with disabilities or equally unfortunate, a girl. In those circumstances, the Chinese government allowed couples to have another go at child-bearing and bring a second child into the world.
The one-child policy, aside from being a literal way to control its people, has also been quite the profitable move for China. Couples who violated the policy were fined based on their income — anywhere from one-third of their annual income to six times their entire income. Reports state that in one year alone, China collected over $3.29 billion dollars in fines. (Just so that’s clear — I did write billions, like Bill Gates billions.)
And more infamously, the one-child policy has also led to one of the most horrific instances of gender-based discrimination in our modern world. Female fetuses are frequently aborted or even killed after birth in the quest to bring the all-important male into the Chinese family.
If a woman had the audacity to have more than one child in China, the government could seize her relatives and throw them in jail until she agreed to a forced sterilization. One bureau of government, called the “Iron Fist Campaign” sent 600 Chinese officials out into the countryside, seizing grandparents, friends, teenagers, and even infants until unruly mothers of two agreed to get sterilized.
“Family-planning officials camped out on every street corner and grabbed anyone who had children with them as they passed by,” said one woman.
“Officials arrested my 64-year-old mother and said they would keep her in jail until I underwent sterilization. But my mother told me she would rather die than let the government butcher me like an animal,” related another.
The one-child policy worked out splendidly for China, hasn’t it?
An extremely old population, no workforce to replace the current one, and tons of men without a single female around to darn their socks.
In 2014, The New York Times reported there were about 40 million more Chinese men than women, leaving 30 million males without any female prospects for marriage by 2020. And aside from the fact that Chinese men far outnumber the women, you have to also take into account the message that it sends to any living women in China to see families rushing to make their one beloved son “the chosen one.”
Although the ban has been lifted, experts aren’t expecting Chinese couples to run to the bedroom just yet. The ban — and more importantly, the social stigma against female infants — is so engrained in the highly competitive Chinese culture that it will be hard to reverse. If females already scorn their own daughters simply for being girls, one can imagine it’s going to take some time to overcome that way of thinking. And in general, a great majority of Chinese families aren’t rushing to have more kids.
In fact, a very small percentage of Chinese couples who were eligible to have a second child (criteria that included a child who was 4 years old already, a parent who was an only child, and a mother older than 28 years old), only about twelve percent, actually applied to have a second child.
“With some degree of new-found freedom, most eligible Chinese couples are not choosing to have more children,” wrote one Chinese mother, who elected to have only one child before the ban was placed in 1979. “Like my friends and I in the 1970s, the Chinese seem to be content with one child.”
But of course, some see the lift as more than just acknowledging that changing the policy is not necessarily about the exact number of children a couple has or doesn’t have — it’s about giving individual families the choice to decide what is best for them.
“It’s not just a problem of whether you permit ordinary people to have one or two kids. It’s about returning their reproductive rights to them,” one Chinese official adviser told the NYT. “In over 200 countries and regions around the world, which of them nowadays controls people’s reproduction like this?”
Which country, indeed.