Question and answers with the Mei Fong, author of “One Child: The Past and Future of China’s Most Radical Experiment.” (Order now, February 2016)

She won the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for The Wall Street Journal in 2007 for her stories on China’s economic growth and its consequences on modern society.

  1. What led you to write One Child?
  2. How do you find a good handle on telling the story?
  3. Were you worried about taking this narrative risk?
  4. Why do you think China’s one child policy is of such interest to mainstream, Western audiences?
  5. How do you hope your book will shape the debate on the one-child policy?
  6. How does the book break new ground?
  7. China’s Communist Party claims the policy prevented 400 million births— isn’t this a positive effect of the one-child policy that we should applaud?
  8. Who are the most memorable characters in the book?

Photo: Anna Carson DeWitt


1. What led you to write One Child?

I’ve always thought China’s one-child policy was one of the most fascinating things about the country, like something straight out of Orwell or Huxley, except it’s not science-fiction, it’s real life. Not only is it the world’s most radical social experiment, it’s still going on, and has been for thirty-plus years. It has irrevocably shaped how one sixth of the world live, love and die. The one child policy has created huge imbalances in China: too old, too male, and possibly, too few workers to service a massive group of retirees. (By 2050, 1 in 4 people in China will be a retiree.) And then you’ve got over 100 million families that have only one child—will this create an entitled, coddled generation unlike any other? What happens when these children grow up to shoulder support of ailing parents, in-laws, grandparents, in a nation that will hold more than half the world’s Alzheimer and Parkinson sufferers? And what is a Canadian-sized population of bachelors going to do for mates?

2. With such a massive topic, how do you find a good handle on telling the story?

In my years reporting on China for the Wall Street Journal I’d frequently come across stories that touched upon China’s population policy, it’s affected everything from manufacturing trends to real estate.

But the inspiration for this book happened in 2008 when I covered an earthquake in Sichuan, China’s worst disaster in a generation. Over 70,000 people were killed. The most pitiful victims, we thought at the time, were children, killed in the collapse of poorly-built schoolhouses. What I later discovered was an even more tragic group: their parents. I discovered the area, Shifang, had been testing ground for the one-child policy. Harsh population control measures had been implemented there years ago, with such success authorities were heartened enough to take the program nationwide in 1980. So when the earthquake struck decades later, many people in Shifang not only lost their only child, they couldn’t have more because they’d been sterilized, also a result of the policy.

While I was covering this, I myself had a miscarriage, and that helped me understand to a greater degree what it means to lose the hope of a child.

This was the genesis of the book.

3. You weave in the personal, such as your experiences with infertility, into the book. Were you worried about taking this narrative risk?

This is a story about a huge social experiment with global significance. But I thought- in judicious doses- my experiences lent the story additional power. Chronicling my struggles with infertility in the land with the most rigid fertility controls gave my reporting fresh perspectives. I really went down the rabbit hole myself. By undergoing IVF in Beijing, I discovered how the one-child policy had distorted the way people used third-party reproductive technologies in China. Because multiples are exempt from the normal fines imposed on those who have more than one child, everyone wanted twins–buy one, get one free, is the thinking. Also, the one-child policy mandates that fertility services be available only to married couples, hence stifling regulatory oversight and creating grey areas for things like surrogacy and egg donation. The result is a veritable Wild East of baby making. Some surrogate agencies in China guarantee a son, a process that involves making surrogate mothers abort female fetuses. One client provider said, “It’s quite embarrassing. Every time we find it’s a she, we have to change a surrogate mother.”

Another place where I felt my personal issues intersected with the themes in the book is my struggle with what being a mother would cost me. I worried about how it would affect my career. It had taken a long time to work my way up to one of the biggest newspapers in the world. Reporting in China as an ethnic Chinese woman meant I was always getting mistaken for some foreign correspondent’s girlfriend or translator. Despite having won a shared Pulitzer and other journalistic awards, I did not feel successful enough to downshift.

This is relevant because Beijing is on the road to ending the one-child policy amidst all these demographic pressures. They need more babies, but every indication suggests they won’t be able to turn on the baby tap with the same ease they turned it off. People all over China are making the same calculations I was making, and many are deciding that having one, or no children, is the best way forward. That intersection between personal desires and state policy—and the resulting friction—is one of the themes of the book.

In many ways, One Child is a meditation on the costs of parenthood.

4. Why do you think China’s one child policy is of such interest to mainstream, Western audiences?

The question of what it means to be a parent is something that concerns people beyond China. But the one-child policy really has global impact in many ways, and one I delve into in great detail is the introduction of over 120,000 China children—mostly girls– adopted into Western homes that resulted from the policy. It has significantly shaped global attitudes towards race, family and the ethics of transnational adoption. One of the questions I raise in the book is whether the wave of Chinese adoptions is baby buying on an international scale.

For a long time, the one-child policy imbued the China adoption process with virtue: the outside world believed these children to be genuinely unwanted and voluntarily abandoned. (Which wasn’t entirely true.) Adoptive parents believed China was the most ethical choice among an array of suspect options. But this supply of healthy adoptable infants was not infinite—especially once the technology for early sex determination became widespread. Starting in 2005 there was a series of media stories on orphanages in China buying children to service the demand of the global adoptive community. How widespread is it? Nobody knows for sure, because there is so little transparency in the system, but the book documents those dealing with the aftermath, from the farmers who had their children stolen, to Western adoptive parents who struggle with questions on their children’s origins, to the adoptees themselves, some of whom are young adults embarking on a search for their roots. These are fascinating stories: a small outfit in Utah, for example, is using a US-based service to bank DNA from those in China who’ve had their kids seized and put up for adoption overseas. It’s a long shot, but they hope someday, some American adoptees will locate their birth parents that way.

Another way in which the one-child policy has changed things beyond its shores is how it’s actually creating more American babies now, through birth tourism. On one end there are Chinese nationals, without fertility problems, who are simply headed to American shores to ensure their U.S. born children citizenship rights. On the other end of the spectrum are wealthy Chinese drawn to U.S for its advanced fertility services and the legal protections that simply isn’t available in China, thanks in part to the one-child policy. They are spending significant amounts for services ranging from IVF to surrogates to egg donors, and their numbers and economic clout is shaping this developing market. For example, China clients have so driven up the demand for Asian egg donors in U.S., providers are reduced to a bizarre circularity: flying egg donors from Taiwan and China to help make babies in America, who are then brought back to China.

5. How do you hope your book will shape the debate on the one-child policy?

I think people are divided roughly into two groups in terms of how they view the policy: those with strict religious or moral beliefs, for whom all abortion is anathema. My book’s really aimed at the other group, people who are generally in sync with the aims of planned parenthood and contraception, who are concerned about planet overcapacity and environmental pressures. I consider myself part of this group. Such people tend to view the policy with grudging respect, crediting it with helping lift millions out of poverty. After all, the one-child policy has been going on for thirty plus years, in tandem with China’s soaring economic growth. They must be connected, right? What we fail to understand is that China’s rapid economic growth has had little to do with its population-planning curbs. More people, not less, was one of the reasons for China’s boom. The country’s rise as a manufacturing powerhouse could not have happened without abundant cheap labor from workers born during the 1960s–70s baby boom, before the one-child policy was conceived. China’s economic rise had more to do with Beijing’s moves to encourage foreign investment and loosen barriers to private entrepreneurship, than a quota on babies.

In the 1970s China already had in place a highly effective and less coercive family-planning policy, called “Later, Longer, Fewer,”—that halved average family size, from six children to three. It’s very likely this pattern of falling fertility would have continued without the one-child policy. After all, many of China’s neighbors managed to slow population growth—and turbocharge their economies in the bargain — without resorting to such traumatic measures.

It may seem frivolous to liken the one-child policy to crash dieting, but like crash dieting, Beijing’s rush to shrink China’s population has resulted in all sorts of negative repercussions. Take aging. Currently China has a five-to-one worker-to-retiree ratio. In a little over two decades, this will shift to an alarming 1.6 -1 ratio. Of course, we are all living longer and having fewer children– but this transition took over 50 years to happen in the West. In China, it’s going to hit in just one generation. Who’s prepared?

6. Demographics is a slow-moving phenomenon, so there has been building awareness about quite a few of these side-effects, such as the rising number of China’s bachelors. How does One Child break new ground?

There’s quite a lot about the one-child policy that’s misunderstood or unknown, even within China. It’s by no means as monolithic as outsiders think it; all sorts of exceptions are allowed. In China, you can possibly have more than one child if you are a farmer, or Tibetan, or a fisherman, coal miner, or handicapped. Or if you can pay the fine, which can range from nugatory to wildly exorbitant depending on who you know and where you live. Local officials have a lot of discretion in determining the magnitude of fines imposed on vilators—it can range anywhere from two to ten times annual household income. Two sets of violators, under roughly similar circumstances, might pay vastly different sums. And fines weren’t just for people who had out-of-plan children; you could be fined for living out of wedlock or for not using contraception, even if you didn’t get pregnant.

There’s a sense today that perhaps in modern China the one-child policy isn’t as relevant, especially not in cities where high costs of living and tight quarters means people don’t want large families anyway. But even if we move beyond extreme issues like forced abortions, the one-child policy has enormous impact on everyday issues. For example, it has vastly intensified marriage anxieties: parents of one child are of course enormously invested in their children’s decisions, including who they marry, and then of course the policy has also resulted in fewer brides. Major companies like Microsoft and Baidu have Danshen Julebu—Singles Clubs—to help young staffers find mate, to help them draw and retain talent. A colony of bachelors has buoyed China’s real estate, as families invest in getting their sons apartments to make them more eligible on the marriage market. Some economists estimate China’s gender imbalance accounted for an increase of almost 50 per cent in housing prices. The one-child policy’s even impacted hiring decisions: some companies explicitly advertise a preference for applicants with siblings, saying single children have less staying power, and also their parents are quick to object when the job requires travel or relocation.

A lot of Americans worry about China’s rise, but the demographic problems it faces suggest this rise is not as assured or inevitable as feared.

7. China’s Communist Party claims the policy prevented 400 million births—more people than in America. Given rising concerns about climate change, isn’t this a positive effect of the one-child policy that we should applaud?

That 300-400 million number is based on faulty math and wishful thinking—I go into it in more detail in the book. Some scholars thinking the real number of births averted is closer to 100-200 million. That’s still a considerable number, of course, but while sheer numbers contribute to carbon emissions, that’s hardly the whole story. China may have drastically curbed its population, but it’s still the world’s top polluter, and the real culprit of this is not the number of babies born, but the leadership’s growth-at-any-cost thinking. This mindset not only led to the imposition of the one-child policy, it led authorities to impose the flimsiest environmental protection curbs, poisoning much of the country’s waterways and creating pea-soup level air pollution in Beijing and Shanghai.

I’ve talked to a lot of environmentalists and population planners who admire China’s measures. Some even think there should be a global version of the one-child policy. But this system is one that authorizes forced abortions and sterilizations. It raises the question, What are we saving the planet for? Not humanity.

It is possible to support population control without embracing anything so brutal as a one-child policy.

8. You’ve obviously talked to a lot of people for One Child. Who are the most memorable characters?

Where do I start? I met a retired family planning official, now living in a West Coast suburb. This woman, who by her own reckoning is responsible for over 1,500 forced abortions, had just finished dispensing Halloween candy to the local kids. The contrast was so bizarre. Or, there was a young man I’d been keeping up with for years, one of China’s most well known “Little Emperors,” so to speak. The authorities made a national hero of him because he took his sick mother to college. He had awards, plays, comic books, a free apartment, even a statue. Years later, this moral hero declares he’s transgender, sort of like the Caitlyn Jenner of China. Then there is Liang Zhongtang, an obscure economist who had the courage to speak out publicly against the one-child policy when it was first launched. He was also instrumental for secret experimental zones in China were people were allowed to have two children with few restrictions. These secret two-child zones have gender ratios closer to global norms, and below-average birth rates. It’s what the rest of China could have been like. I call Liang the Cassandra of the one-child policy, because so many of the things he’s predicted have come to pass, and yet Beijing won’t heed his warnings. Or there was a retired official I met, who described a chilling scene, his first nighttime raid to capture a woman with an unauthorized pregnancy. He described how he chased a heavily pregnant woman into a pond, where she stood, neck-deep, keening in the darkness. The way he described the scene—the sobbing woman in the dark, officials circling like predators at a watering hole—I’ll never forget it.

There are many, many stories like that in the book, some thumbnail sketches, some more full-blown. This is a book about people, not numbers.

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