井底之蛙

6/22/2005

One-Child Policy as History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:14 am

I just finished teaching 20th century China, and the three biggest issues in the last section of the course were clearly economic growth, political liberalization and the one-child policy. All three of these are ongoing processes — some more potential than reality — so all I could really say, in the end, was “stay tuned.” It turns out that these processes may be more closely related than I thought, as pointed out in this review [registration required] of Vanessa L. Fong’s Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy (Stanford University Press, 2004).

Fong argues, if the review is correct, that the one-child policy was not just an attempt at gross demographic relief but also a plan for economic development through cultural, even psychological, engineering. “Her central claim is that the policy was designed ‘to create a generation of ambitious, well-educated children who would lead their country into the First World, [and it] succeeded, but at a price’ (pp. 2-3).” Fong argues that the one-child policy has raised the status of female children within the family: families are more willing to invest effort in girls when they have no boys as an alternative. Fong also points out that parents are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for their childrens’ education — the brief discussion of university entrance exams in the review was, of course, reminiscent of Japan’s “examination hell” of past decades — and upbringing when they have only one in whom to invest all their hopes and ambitions.

This is “the cultural model of modernization” in action, we’re told: channeling the aspirations of traditional families into education, which is seen as fundamentally modern, as a route economic success, which is seen as beneficial to society generally. It doesn’t matter, apparently, that Japan’s modernization was in the opposite direction: Japan’s de facto one-child policy families are a result of industrial economic growth which drove cultural change and, consequently, raised the status of education which, in turn, lowered birth rates, etc. It might be less of a process and more of a cluster of co-dependent variables, if Fong is correct and if the founder of the one-child policy really had this in mind.

A few thoughts come to mind: it may well be true that one-child raises the status of girls within the family, for families that have only one girl. This is plausible, but has to be mitigated by the obvious (and accelerating) gender gap in births which indicates the strong survival of patriarchal and patrilineal patterns. There’s also a significant question as to whether one-child policy is viable in a more mobile society — and mobility is so often both an engine and effect of modernity — where strict work-group monitoring is impossible. So it may turn out to be an episode rather than a pattern. And I’d like to hear from someone who is more familiar with the origins of China’s demographic intervention as to whether Fong’s impression of the policy as a component of a planned jump-start to modernization is indeed born out by the historical record.

Self-Intro: Vincent S. Leung

Filed under: — Vincent Leung @ 3:06 am

Hi, everyone. This is Vincent Leung, a PhD student in Chinese history at Harvard. I just finished my third year in the program, and hopefully after my general examination this September, I can at last proceed to writing my dissertation. My research interest is on the political and intellectual history of early China, particularly the late Warring States and the Han empire (ca. 300 BC-AD 200). More specifically, I want to study the “imperial formation” during this period, which led up to the first bureaucratic empire in the Central Plains, looking at things like the territorial expansion, monetary policy, allocation of natural resources, and not the least, its ideological state apparatuses.

Before doing my PhD, I did a masters in East Asian Studies at Harvard. And before that, I was a math/econ major at UMass Amherst. In my more quixotic days back in college, I did want to do grad work in math, but alas, soon enough I found that I was not really cut out for it. I am glad, though, that I did bump into History, esp. early Chinese history. The received materials from early China, texts or otherwise, are exciting enough, despite their relative paucity, but all the excavated texts from the past few decades are simply incredible. Tens of thousands of them are just now sitting in museums waiting for people to work on them. And I sure hope I can dig my hands into them when I go aborad sometime in the next couple of years in China.

Let’s see — what else should I put in this intro? Perhaps I should mention the fact that I am originally from Hong Kong, where I grew up. I do a little bit of Chinese calligraphy on the side, though hardly anymore these days, and also (try to) study a bit of the early (political) history of Chinese Buddhism.

Thanks Konrad for inviting me to this blog! This is actually the first blog that I’ve joined, so it should be exciting. Very much look forward to our exchanges in the coming months!

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