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.