Two-child policy?

Yesterday afternoon we met Professor Zhan Zhongle, the deputy director of the Center for Public Law Studies from Peking University, for a talk on the societal impacts of the one-child policy. We had already had a similar discussion with a Yale law school graduate the previous day, but whereas the previous one focused more on the economic and medical impacts of the policy, our discussion yesterday was more focused on human rights and freedom. Professor Zhan outlined the policy’s impacts according to familial context, Chinese traditions, individual growth, and government control, and concluded our discussion with a recommendation of a new two-child policy.

The very first request Professor Zhan made of us was that we should understand the context of families impacted by the policy. He explained that each family was subject to different enforcements and outcomes according to their region’s wealth and geographic location. For example, the fine for the second child can vary from 200,000 yuan to 600,000 yuan, the former applied more to rural, low-income families and the latter to urban, richer regions. In the rural regions, where there is less access to contraceptives and a greater need for larger families to tend to the household, enforcement is more lenient. In such cases, a second child is allowed in the event that the firstborn is a girl – a phenomenon we will discuss later in this post. In the urban regions, however, because of the high costs of maintaining children – Chinese parents continue to support their sons and daughters even after marriage – there is less need for a second child, and the law is more voluntarily obeyed.

Zhan Zhongle speaks about global law.

Zhan Zhongle speaks about global law.

Before I delve into how each case is separately judged under Chinese law, it is important to understand how tradition has been involved in the making and enforcement of the one-child policy. In the first place, there has been a recurring motif in our talks with Chinese adults and Chinese students at Yale that male children are more desirable. Although this paradigm has slowly shifted due to the gender imbalance in rural areas, making female children more coveted as future wives, men will still frequently be the chief of their household, the higher-earning gender, and more dedicated to their birth families after marriage. Especially in the countryside, married women become a part of their husband’s family, making it more difficult for them to care for their elderly, as they have to dedicate themselves to their new families. Understanding this concept of male desirability is necessary to analyze effectively how the one-child policy has led to human rights abuses.

Another aspect of Chinese tradition to keep in mind is the financial dedication of Chinese parents to their children even post-marriage. During our talk with Professor Zhan, one of his students made a comparison with American values in terms of parental affection. In a perhaps generalized and slightly exaggerated assumption, but nonetheless valid for her comparison, she told us that American parents cease to care for their children after age 18, and expect their children to work in college to help pay for school, as well as assume the debts incurred by any higher-education institution‘s tuition. In contrast, she explained that Chinese parents will work to earn income destined primarily for the benefit of their children, continuing to provide financial support even when their children already are income-earners, married, and with children. Their expectation of their children is that they will support them in turn when they become senior citizens. This aspect of Chinese culture shows why maintaining more than one child per family is very expensive.

The most illuminating aspect of our conversation, I felt, was how the one-child policy has impacted the foundations of Chinese society at the individual level. We tend to think of governmental policies as solely affecting society at a broader level (i.e., political, economic, social), yet the one-child policy has significant personal impacts on the development of each “one child.” Although not universally the case, single children in general have less exposure to competitive environments, are generally less prone to sharing, are lonely, do not work as well in teams, and, according to our speakers, are generally more selfish and less considerate of others. Although I’m not sure I agree with all of these assumptions (being an only child myself), I understand that if at least a majority of cases turn out this way, a society that is based on one-child families will itself become a reflection of these single-child values. I don’t know how much research has been done to support this conclusion, but I personally felt it was a striking analogy made by the professor and his students, and is something that I will try to analyze in my next week here.

Professor Zhan concluded the talk by advocating for a two-child policy. He believes that the paradigm of Chinese society has already shifted towards a one-child preference – both because of the implementation of the one-child policy and the previously explained economic implications of raising children under Chinese traditions – so it would still be the prevalent choice of families. An allowance for two children, however, would lift much pressure off rural and low-income families who need more than one child, both in the case of a daughter who is married off to another family and in the case of single children who die young before they can care for their parents. Both the professor and his students reinforced the idea that although single children are as academically able as children with siblings, they are psychologically much less adaptable to the pressures of Chinese society.

Jéssica Leão


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