Nearly two decades ago, Zhou Xiangheng’s son was training to become a train driver at the locomotive depot in Beijing. As he was purchasing cigarettes after work, he discovered that the shop had sold him fake cigarettes and quickly confronted the seller.
“He was really naive,” Zhou said. His two friends walked over, and when the seller refused to give them a refund, they flipped over the cigarette table in frustration. A fight then broke out. Zhou’s son and his friends were soon surrounded by a group of people. As his two friends ran off, Zhou’s son was stabbed seven or eight times. One of the knife strokes reached his heart.
Zhou felt numb when she heard the news. It was not until a few days after the tragedy, as Zhou was looking out of the window, that the reality hit her: her son was not coming back. Her tears started to fall.
China's one-child policy, which spanned nearly 40 years, was implemented in 1979 by the Chinese government as a way to curb overpopulation. The government imposed strict punishments for noncompliant families, leaving a legacy that forever changed the lives of many of China’s 1.38 billion citizens. Many compliant families like Zhou’s, who obeyed the limit but later lost their only child, suffered untold grief. Families who dared to defy the one-child policy to bear an additional child, experienced fines and social pressure that left different economic and emotional scars. The law led to some rural areas enforcing strict abortion laws that required aborting fetuses as late as the seventh month of pregnancy.
By controlling population through the policy, the government tried to relieve poverty, promote modernization of the economy and prevent depletion of the land’s natural resources.
Bowdoin College Sociology Professor Nancy Riley, who has done research on China’s family planning and population, said that the one-child policy was a way for China’s government to establish the country as one of the world’s leading economic powers. “They said, ‘We want to be a modern country. And in order to become a modern country, we can’t have so many people,’” Riley said.
Throughout the duration of the policy, the U.S. mass media’s coverage of its impacts often focused on the negative fallout of the policy on society at large, ranging from a new era of only children, the so-called “little emperors,” to a generation of men without a spouse, the so-called “bare branches.” Coverage also focused criticisms leveled at Chinese policymakers by many human rights organizations and the unfavorable view of it in the public’s eye.
But its greatest impact was on women who experienced government-mandated abortions, along with female infants who were never born due to sex-selective pregnancy termination. The one-child policy is estimated to have prevented 400 million births, according to the Renmin University Sociology Professor Zhai Zhenwu in Beijing.
There is no denying that these things occurred, Riley said, but added they present an incomplete picture of the policy and its impact. “We heard a lot about the negative things that happened, and there were a lot,” she said. “But that’s not all there was.” The U.S citizens only get partial information about the policy filtered through an American lens, she added.
People have the assumption that the policy was callously enforced, she said. However, the Chinese government did not just say you cannot have another child and stop there without explanation. The government also conducted a campaign of social marketing to persuade its citizens that the policy was necessary and beneficial for China to modernize and make it as a leading world power. It appealed to citizens’ nationalism even though some sacrifices had to be made.
Through posters, billboard advertisements and official announcements, citizens were repeatedly exposed to the message that having a single-child was good for China, and that it was necessary. People soon began to regulate themselves.The notion of having a single child became the norm so much so that Riley recalled that a friend of hers in China could “stop all traffic” by bringing her four sons on the street.
“The really remarkable thing about the one child policy was that they (the government) really did convince people in that country that it was necessary,” Riley said.