Girls and families pay for one-child policy

China's Longest Campaign
March 16, 2007

China introduced its mandatory one-child family policy early in the post-Mao era. This unprecedented intervention in one of the most private areas of life coincided with the relaxation of state control over other parts of the economy and society. Much has already been written on the policy's human, demographic and political impacts. As a political scientist, Tyrene White is strong on its political origins and on the mobilisation style of its implementation. She also gives a useful update on recent reforms in the birth-planning campaign.

Her account begins in the 1940s and 1950s, when Communist leaders tended to be pro-natalist. Eventually economic factors persuaded even Mao Zedong that population growth had to be restricted. A two-child policy introduced in the 1970s gave way in the 1980s to the one-child policy as worry about population growth intensified.

China has the world's highest minimum legal age for marriage - 20 for women and 22 for men. Chinese must apply for a certificate to gain permission to give birth. This is relatively easily obtained for a first child, but it will be issued only in a very few circumstances for a second. Those who bear "out-of-plan" children suffer fines and other penalties.

White argues convincingly that the organisational style of the birth-planning campaign resembles those of Maoist economic and political campaigns, with periods of great intensity often followed by comparative laxity. She provides a good analysis of the harshness of the 1983 sterilisation drive. In a chapter on resistance, she shows that although women of child-bearing age are monitored constantly, many beat the limits by concealing births, running away to a jurisdiction where they are unknown, appealing to the sympathy of village cadres or by paying considerable bribes.

Preference for a son is widespread. One of the most notorious aspects of recent demographic change has been the increasing imbalance in the sex ratios of newborns. The ratio rose from 108.5 males to every 100 females in 1981 to 111 by 1985, 114 in 1989 and 117 in 2000, far exceeding the norm for human populations of 105-106. Imbalances for second and subsequent parity births are even worse; such births are normally to parents who already have a daughter and are determined to have a son. The mechanisms for this imbalance undoubtedly include the under-reporting of female births, sex-selective abortion and even female infanticide. That the imbalance narrows as each cohort reaches school age suggests that many infants are hidden, only to be reported when they need school places. White accepts that such cases probably account for about one third of the missing girls. Sex-selective abortion is generally believed to be the most important contributory factor.

White exaggerates the lack of study of the one-child policy. There is much useful work on it. In particular, Thomas Scharping's Birth Control in China, 1949-1999: Population Policy and Demographic Development (2003) contains an informative account of its political origins, an area that she claims has been ignored. Moreover, Scharping offers more details about the policy and a more comprehensive statistical analysis of fertility.

Unfortunately, White misspells his name and wrongly dates his book to 1999.

However, White's work is fluently written, concise and up to date. It will appeal to the readers looking for an introductory overview to China's population policy.

Delia Davin is emeritus professor of Chinese social studies at Leeds University.

China's Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the People's Republic, 1949-2005

Author - Tyrene White
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Pages - 320
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 0 8014 4405 5

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