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From Out of Control to Total Control:

The Urban-Rural Divide and Cultural Impact of China’s One-Child Policy

J.P. Sharp
Anthropology 1738
Sarah Wagner
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Malcolm Potts (2006) labeled the One-Child Policy as painful for a generation, but “one

of the most important social policies ever implemented.” From a removed perspective, he is

right. China’s population, although still unwieldy, is on a trajectory to become manageable in the

future. The nation’s economy is thriving, and China is quickly becoming a world power in many

respects. However, the One-Child Policy has affected its people in a variety of manners not

represented in that wide-scoped national picture. Anthropologists Faye Ginsberg and Rayna

Rapp point out that reproduction is not simply a biological issue. It is fundamental to society and

tied closely to politics (Ginsberg & Rapp, 1995). How has living with the policy affected

China’s families, culture, and microeconomy now and for the future? Because the One-Child

Policy and long-standing cultural ways of life do not often align, what conflicts have arisen and

how are both the people and the government utilizing biotechnology to address these issues?

Spanning all these topics, it is impossible to ignore the vast differences between urban and rural

life in China and how these cultural and social variations interact differently with the imposed

policy. Ultimately, Potts may be correct is labeling the One-Child Policy as triumphantly

important, but the wide-ranging effect of the policy appear to create a much more ambiguous

stamp upon Chinese society.


China’s population under Mao Zedong’s communist regime during the 1950s, 60s, and

70s grew at an increasingly rapid pace. Mao, interested primarily in total production output for

launching China into world power status, encouraged population growth (Potts, 2006). More

hands meant more workers for the state machine of national production. Centuries-old traditions

of large farming families thrived, and expanding family lineages continued effortlessly.
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Unfortunately, failures in agriculture during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution left

large portions of the massive population starving to death (Greenhalgh, 2003). In order to

explain the population growth and understand how its problems could be dealt with in the

ensuing years, a field of social scientists stepped forward. These social scientists followed a

Marxist schema of population defined by the “two-fold character of production.” This theory

explained that there were essentially two facets of population—production of people and

production of material goods. More people have the capability to produce more goods, which is

what Mao desired, but a disproportionate relationship between material and human production

could cause economic failure (Greenhalgh, 2003). Needless to say, although the social scientists

may have proposed a logical theory of the situation, they were unable to concretely grasp

population problems occurring in China through this economic-demographic dialogue model.

However, enough common sense existed to implement basic campaigns for reducing

fertility rates. The “later, longer, fewer” campaign in the early 1970s promoted later marriage,

longer periods between pregnancies, and fewer children overall (Zhu, 2003). This was a

reasonably successful plan, bringing the total fertility rate (TFR) from 5.9 children/mother in

1970 to 2.7 in 1979 when Deng Xiaoping took China’s reigns after Mao’s death (Zhu, 2003).

With Deng came the sweeping reforms that have brought China into the realm of an emerging

world power, but with the TFR still above replacement level (2.0 is replacement level), the

population was rapidly moving to become exceedingly unmanageable for the desired economic


Here begins the overlapping story of Song Jian, a brilliant military scientist who became

famous during Mao’s era. His primary work was in cybernetics, a field which encompasses

defense weapons systems and missile science. Under Mao, a very real threat from both the
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United States and the Soviets encouraged disproportionately large funding to be allocated to

military science for creating an atomic bomb and proper missile systems to carry the payload

(Greenhalgh, 2005). Song’s skill in this domain put him in good favor with the Chinese

Communist Party (CCP). When Deng gained control of the party, he downplayed military

production for economic efforts. The mathematical mastery of Song Jian and his colleagues was

no longer in great demand, but it turned out to be perfect for studying populations. Using ideas

gleaned from the western scientific organization, the Club of Rome, Song applied cybernetics to

population variables using military computers and produced a mathematical model of China’s

projected population growth for the following 50 years given different TFRs. The results looked

grim, illustrating a skyrocketing population for several decades unless the TFR was drastically

lower. So, using his political leverage and scientific prestige, Song presented his projections to

the CCP. The apparent removal of subjectivity and the concrete appearance of the models

impressed Deng Xiaoping and convinced him of the seriousness of the overpopulation threat

(Greenhalgh, 2003; Greenhalgh, 2005). Fortunately, Song, this elite missile scientist,

accompanied the projection with a radical, comprehensive plan that would reduce population

growth, allowing Deng’s economic goals to succeed. It was named the One-Child Policy.

The One-Child Policy


The basic element of the policy, implemented in 1979, is that a couple is allowed to only

have one child. There are many variations of the policy across China, but a few basic tenets

serve as the groundwork. The general rules are loosely controlled centrally by a bureaucratic

entity, the State Family Planning Committee. They state that only under certain circumstances

may couples have more than one child. These exceptions are: 1) in remarriage, if at least one of
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the partners has not yet had a child; 2) if a child has a specific, medical doctor-certified, birth

abnormality that will shorten life expectancy; 3) the father works in a very dangerous vocation

such as mining; 4) if both spouses are only children (Zhu, 2003; Deutsch, 2006). The fourth

allowance is a clause that will allow the population to stabilize if the policy remains in place for

decades to come. Also, ethnic minorities are usually unrestricted. Central rules stipulate that the

policy should be implemented through various financial incentives and disincentives. These are

loosely prescribed, and vary between localities (Short & Fengying, 1998; Watts, 2005). Through

the policy, the TFR has effectively been reduced, although not according to the original strict

regimen set forth by Song Jian. China’s population is approximately 1.3 billion people, and the

TFR is currently 1.6, which is well below previous figures and under replacement level (Potts,

2006). However, the TFR falls short of Song’s goal of 1.5 that was to be achieved by 1990, and

the maximum population was supposed to peak at 1.2 billion in 2000 (Hsu, 1985). Because of

this sluggish reduction and the high TFR of several decades ago, the population will continue to

rise for decades to come before leveling off and dropping to a stable level (Adamchak, 2001).

Ever since media images of coerced abortions and jails for noncompliant families reached

America, the U.S. has been opposed to the One-Child Policy. The policy feeds U.S. views of

China as poor, backward, and inferior to its own culture. Americans typically see the plan as a

product of an over-restrictive government with weak scientific backing (Greenhalgh, 2003).

Typical of the differences between Eastern and Western cultures, it is difficult for Westerners to

grasp a value system in which the good of society is so blatantly triumphant over individual

interests (Potts, 2006). The American government criticizes the plan for its infringement upon

individual rights to have children as one pleases (Zhu, 2003), but tends to forget the not-so-

distant past of eugenic sterilization on its own soil. The Chinese people generally see the policy
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as inconvenient at times but overwhelmingly important for both personal well-being and China’s

wealth, modernity, and global power (Zhu, 2003; Greenhalgh, 2003). Such a circumspect

layperson view exhibits how the population situation has effectively entered the consciousness of

many Chinese citizens.

Variations in Policy Strength and Implementation

As noted earlier, there is great range in the materialization of the One-Child Policy

throughout various regions in China. This deviation is possible because of the freedom given to

local governing bodies. National policy is passed down the administrative chain and then

adapted according to the needs of a community; in essence, there is no single One-Child Policy

(Short & Fengying, 1998). Across jurisdictions, the most noticeable comparisons can be made

between urban and rural regions. First of all, despite the incredibly large and dense urban centers

such as Beijing, 70% of China’s population lives in rural areas. Compared to urban society, rural

society consists of primarily agricultural labor, greater poverty, and a lower level of education

(Hsu, 1985). Likely related to agriculture, lower education levels, and removal from

international, modern ideas, rural culture retains traditional values much more strongly than city

goers. Such values consist of large families used for helping with labor and care of elders. In

this patriarchal society, there is also a keen desire to have male heirs to carry on the family name.

Women are adopted into the families of their husbands, so it is important to have a son in order

to retain offspring and have them support the elders. In fact, it is considered a curse and a shame

in many towns to not bear a son (Deutsch, 2006). This scenario has current and future social

implications that will be discussed later, but in this context it is important to understanding the

policy in rural areas. Because of this tradition and resistance to radical alterations of ancient

family values, rural policies are more lenient than urban policies and the TFR remains slightly
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higher (Zhu, 2003; Hsu, 1985). One of the most of noteworthy structural policy differences is

that many rural communities openly allow families to have a second child if the first is a female

(Zhu, 2003). Furthermore, some rural communities allow two children per couple without any

stipulations (Short & Fengying, 1998). This can be seen as a realistic concession by the state. If

one recalls, Song Jian’s long-term TFR goal was 1.5, which inherently accounts for half the

population having a second child. Balancing human cultural aspects of China and top-down

mathematical ideals is important to the state’s legitimacy and reducing the shock of an invasive


Short and Fengying (1998) looked at three waves of data from the China Health and

Nutrition Survey that was administered to 168 communities in eight provinces in order to

analyze the variation of the One-Child Policy across regions and between urban and rural

locales. For analysis, they identified two important facets of the policy—strength and

implementation. Policy strength relates to the explicit rules set forth for a community and

implementation pertains to the tactics used to encourage adherence and discourage deviation.

Policy is weaker overall in rural areas, but it has changed over time. In 1989, 35% of rural

communities applied the One-Child Policy strictly with only the four centrally delineated

exceptions allowing a second child, but by 1993, that proportion had risen to 44% of rural

communities. Roughly 17% of rural jurisdictions unconditionally allowed two births per family

during the time span and the remainder (approximately 40%) provisionally allowed second

children—primarily if the first child was female. By comparison, about 85% of urban regions

during the same time period adhered to the standard one-child per family system, exhibiting the

stricter nature of city policies (Short & Fengying, 1998). Logically, it is reasonable to have this

disparity between rural and urban policy strength. In China, the countryside and the cities are
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vastly different worlds. The cities, which are extremely dense and modernized, benefit more

from the strong policy standards. Overcrowding and unemployment in major centers such as

Beijing and Shanghai need to be kept under control. Also, news of policy inconsistencies in

urban areas will be communicated between cities much more frequently than in rural areas. This

could lead to dissatisfaction in certain cities where the policy is no as lenient compared to others.

Rural villages are so numerous and so distant from one another that such intercommunication is

not prioritized heavily compared to the needs of agricultural production and family subsistence.

Although there are no threats of unemployment or overcrowding in the country, worries of

poverty and starvation are the key issues. If a community’s population is not hazardous to its

well-being, policy can afford to be relaxed.

Regarding implementation, disincentives for having excess offspring are more common

than incentives for having just one child, but both are prevalent across China. Some examples of

incentives are social benefits for signing a “one-child” certificate, better housing, extra food

rations, child healthcare, and cash subsidies (Short & Fengying, 1998). All regions have these

state-approved methods of incentivization in their repertoires, but local officials use them

differently. Whereas cash is overall the most common incentive across the nation, housing, food,

and childcare are used almost exclusively in urban areas. Most rural towns have no housing

competition or childcare plans, so cash is often the easiest and fairest manner to distribute

benefits. Disincentives come in a variety of sanctions. Steep fines are most commonly

employed in rural areas and often require a significant portion of one’s annual income. Lower

quality healthcare, reduced food ration, or lower quality education access are also used in urban

settings. Often it is the extra child who receives these penalties, which can cause achievement

gaps and unhappiness within a single family (Short & Fengying, 1998). Methods of
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implementation are not gentle. Although urban and rural inhabitants may experience different

modes of rewards or penalties, the state has made a point to give local authorities the ability to

dole out penalties that can be detrimental to a family’s well-being.

Trouble with Enforcement

There is no denying the fact that these official enforcement tactics are overtly coercive.

However, none of the general rules are physically forced upon the population. Lives may be

indirectly damaged through fines or poor health care, but Chinese officials ultimately assume the

role of benevolence and do not want to cross the threshold of torturing, abusing, maiming, or

killing its citizens for the sake of population control. Choice theoretically still exists despite

heavy influence to act in a prescribed manner. This is the official position of the CCP.

Unfortunately, a number of public cases have marred this clean image. The most noteworthy

instance took place in Linyi city in Shandong province. Essentially, there were a great number of

cases of violence associated with enforcing the policy. Tales of violent kidnappings, forced late-

term abortions and sterilizations emerged from the region. Many police forcibly entered

households and jabbed poisonous syringes into the abdomens of women pregnant with their

second or third child. This process often did not only kill unborn children and prevent future

births, but physically and emotionally harmed the expectant mothers. Often, relatives of

offending individuals were kidnapped and tortured until a mother gave in to having an abortion

(Beech, 2005; Watts, 2005). These horrendous accounts show that state officials very clearly

crossed the line into unacceptable enforcement for an already morally ambiguous national policy.

How did this situation, confirmed true by the Chinese government as well as by visiting

reporters’ interviews with villagers, occur?

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First of all, the State Family Planning Commission, the central authority of the One-Child

Policy, washed its hands of the incident in Shandong. It referred to its rules for enforcement and

chastised the Shandong officials for using violence when Chinese Law states that financial and

social penalties are the only acceptable means of punishment for deviation. The commission said

that it undertook an investigation into the situation and has warned Linyi officials of their

infractions. In the end, only a few lower ranking scapegoats were severely punished for the

entire debacle (Beech, 2005; Watts, 2005). Perhaps the central commission was quickly

distancing itself from this particular instance in hopes of covering up a more widespread,

systemic pattern of violent coercion, but it is probably safe to say that the highest-ranking entities

behind the policy do not condone or desire such lawlessness. They truly do want a clean, safe

implementation of the policy in order to better Chinese society. However, despite benign top-

down ideals, the Shandong incident did occur on a rather large scale with smaller incidents

cropping up elsewhere.

Central authority is seemingly losing its grip upon the expansive bureaucracy across the

countryside. Watts (2005) notes that over the past five years, laws regarding the One-Child

Policy have become more progressive in favor of human rights, but these parameters are difficult

to synthesize into local systems. Local officials have given themselves more power and often

treat their jurisdictions as “personal fiefdoms” (Watts, 2005). The root of the problem seems to

be the CCP promotion and spoils system. A great deal of value is placed on statistical measures

of performance in an official’s jurisdiction. For instance, officials are looked highly upon if their

area of command boasts a low TFR and high compliance with the national standards of the

policy. This desire for success ranges from local leaders to provincial governors because for any

of them, success in implementation can equate promotions. The Shandong province—Linyi in

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particular—was having trouble keeping its birthrate at target levels. Although there was likely

no organized conspiring, all officials involved felt the pressure of CCP competition and realized

that promotion opportunities were narrow as long as birthrates were elevated. Unless caught red-

handed by internal investigations, this flawed system promotes officials to prioritize getting

ahead in the CCP over abiding by national laws (Watts, 2005). Pleading innocent to the

Shandong situation and only doling out improper punishment worsens the state’s current

condition. Only if the state can hold itself responsible at all levels of its bureaucracy can it

continue to effectively employ the One-Child Policy. The state must make all officials

accountable for the behavior over their jurisdictions. Righteous punishments for deviance should

outweigh the lucrative prospects of personal promotion. This way China can avoid severe moral

transgressions and gain greater international legitimacy for its policy.

Cultural Results

Through the need for proceduralized implementation of the One-Child Policy and the

resistance to the plan by some of the Chinese people, it is evident that the current goals of the

People’s Republic and the nation’s long-standing cultural ideals are not in sync with one another.

The policy’s infringement upon natural Chinese tendencies of childbearing has resulted in a

number of significant cultural alterations—some negative, some positive.

Technological Intervention and Male Preference

Relatively basic biotechnology is being used regularly in China to both comply with the

One-Child Policy and evade its consequences. First of all, voluntary sterilization to prevent

excessive pregnancies is quite common across China. Sampling 3800 households in eight

provinces, Short, Linmao, and Wentao (2000) found that approximately 91% of households

report using some type of regular contraception, which is very high compared to most nations.
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In particular, 46% of couples use sterilization to prevent pregnancy. Sterilization prevalence (as

opposed to nonpermanent contraception methods) and which partner (male or female) is

sterilized vary dramatically across provinces. For instance, in Liaoning province, only 20% of

couples use sterilization, and almost all of those sterilizations are performed upon the female

partner. In Shandong, about half of couples are sterilized, and male-female prevalence is almost

equal. In Henan, 60% of couples are sterilized, and three times more females are sterilized than

males (Short, Linmao, & Wentao, 2000). According to the researchers, there is no solid

explanation for such variance. Sterilization patterns are not statistically related to minority

populations, urban-rural differences, population density, literacy, number of hospital beds, or life

expectancy. The differences across provinces likely boil down to random variations in policy.

Local party leaderships often embark on sporadic campaigns that emphasize one method of

contraception over another. Because there is no central procedure for policy campaigning, some

regions may promote sterilization more than others. Finally, the data collected cannot explain

how voluntary sterilizations in a given region were. This relates back to the Shandong incident

in which sterilizations in a city were forced. Although no evidence supports or refutes such a

hypothesis, high sterilization rates in a province might denote an unreported atmosphere of

dangerous coercion. Although policy strength and implementation methods are clearly divided

between urban and rural regions, the types and prevalence of contraception seem to be more

idiosyncratically patterned.

Contraception is an integral biotechnology to the success of the One-Child Policy, but

many Chinese citizens are using very simple technology in order to skirt the restrictions.

Abortions are not illegal in China. In fact, they are encouraged if a mother is going to exceed her

allotted amount of children. However, abortions solely for the sake of sex selection are illegal.
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Many couples across China participate in using ultrasonography to determine the sex of the child

in the womb, which is then followed by an abortion if the child is an undesirable sex, generally

female. This allows couples who are under the constraints of having only one child to have a

male, which is more culturally preferred Despite the fact that this practice is outlawed, there is

obvious evidence that a great number of citizens are slipping through the cracks and using

ultrasonography and selective abortions to have a son. Several studies have gathered concurring

data illustrating that the current male to female birth ratio is drastically skewed. The worldwide

average birth ratio is approximately 1.03 males born for every female born (Ding & Hesketh,

2006), but in China, there is an average of 1.17 males per female born (Potts, 2006; Plafker,

2002; Ding & Hesketh, 2006).

This is largely possible because the ultrasonography equipment and the variety of

abortion techniques are relatively inexpensive. Even poor, rural doctors have the equipment

available. However, there is a definite difference in male prevalence between poorer and more

prosperous provinces. Although the average ratio is 117 males born for every 100 females born,

Guangdong and Hainan provinces boasted 130 and 135 males, respectively, for every 100

females born (Plafker, 2002). These ratios are extremely unnatural and point to the willingness

of citizens, especially those with ample resources, to take advantage of an opportunity to have a

male heir. Furthermore, ultrasonography and abortions alone are far from illegal, so there is no

easy way to concretely identify individual cases of misuse or locate doctors that utilize the

techniques. The resources are simply not available to closely monitor every doctor visit in

China; therefore the practice continues as a solution for families desiring males within the

limitations of the One-Child Policy.

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In addition, female infant mortality rates are higher than male rates in rural regions

(Chan, et al., 2002). Infanticide is actually quite rare (Plafker, 2002), but this phenomenon is

likely due to general neglect or lower levels of care for females. Furthermore, almost all orphans

in China are girls, and China is the only nation in the world in which the female suicide rate is

greater than the male suicide rate. In rural areas, female suicide is four times greater than in

urban locations (Chan, et al., 2002). These discouraging statistics illustrate how deep-seeded the

preference for males is in Chinese culture. Through both explicit and implicit factors, females

are second-class citizens and often resented if they are the only child allowed in a family. In

modern urban settings, females can thrive and succeed, but to rural families, females are merely

burdens to be given away for other families’ benefits. The ethical problem is that the one-child

policy magnifies this situation and makes the lives of rural daughters a miserable experience.

Beyond the direct repercussions, one can imagine the impending demographic problems

if such a ratio continues. Having nearly 20% more males than females will put a premium on

females. There are potentially a few different directions that this skewed ratio can go in the

future. If males are too plentiful, there could be a cultural sex selection shift in favor of females

because they will be more valuable. The current practice of giving up one’s daughter to her

husband’s family prevents the wife’s family from receiving any benefits, but perhaps competition

will result in wedding dowries allotted to the female’s family. Also, the limited number of

females can provide a platform for feminist advancement of women’s power and autonomy

(Deutsch, 2006). Although this situation could be positive, so far only negative consequences

have arisen. Some underground “bride markets” have emerged where young women are

kidnapped into marriage in locales where females are sparse (Plafker, 2002). So far, it seems the

imbalance has created further objectification of sparse, desirable women.

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Familial Effects

There may be some promising evidence toward the positive, female empowerment

argument, though. Deutsch (2006) studied how the policy has affected modern Chinese filial

piety (responsibility toward family) and patrilineality (family name passed down through male

heirs). These Confucian ideals of a patriarchal system of respect and obedience to one’s parents

survived the Mao era, which attempted to rip such traditions apart during the Cultural

Revolution. How, then, have they stood up to the One-Child Policy? Deutsch gathered 84

graduating university students from urban areas who were part of the first cohort born under the

policy and compared those who were only children to those with siblings. Some hypotheses

gathered from prevalent social ideas of the effects of the policy included: only children would

become pampered emperors spoiled by increased resources; increased feminine autonomy to

escape demands of the husband and develop intellectual potentials; decreased filial piety and

lessened subscription to patrilineal norms. Concurrent with one hypothesis, female only children

do get more attention from their families now, and their education levels have increased. It

seems that in the long-run, this policy may prove more effective for promoting female equality

than years of Maoist mantras of gender equality. Recalling the bride markets, the effects have

cut both ways for the condition of women in society, but the improved early lives of females in

urban locations will hopefully translate into feminine advancement. For the most part, the other

theories were disproven. Single children demonstrated equal concern for and responsibility to

parents compared to children with siblings. Most importantly, only children showed more

emotional closeness to their parents—a rather logical results—and most fell short of earning the

title, “pampered emperor” (Deutsch, 2006). The shortcoming of this study is that it almost

exclusively studied urban families. The results are still important, but cannot be expanded to the
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large rural population. As previously noted, families in rural areas are strained with less support

for elders and females are so undesirable that they are neglected and commit suicide at alarming

rates (Chan, et al., 2002). Chinese officials should take this highly noticeable discrepancy of

female quality of life into account when evaluating the policy.

Economic Effects

Disregarded by the initial designers of the One-Child Policy are economic problems that

may arise in the upcoming decades. There is no doubt that the policy has positively affected the

Chinese economy thus far because there is a large workforce with a low proportion of young,

pre-employment residents. Also, if the birthrate remains low, the total population will eventually

decline, improving resource availability and lifestyle for most citizens. However, there is a

dangerous period between these two positive stages. Soon, the workforce will shrink due to the

generations of single children reaching adulthood while the largest segment of the Chinese

population, the current workforce, will become elderly and dependent upon the government and

their families. Additionally, life expectancy in China has skyrocketed from only 40 years in

1950 to 73 years in 2000 (Adamchak, 2001). The traditional intergenerational family support

system will be difficult to maintain because only children will be forced to single-handedly

provide for multiple elderly family members.

Adamchak (2001) estimated that elderly individuals (age > 59 years) will constitute

15.9% of the population by 2025 and a whopping 24.8% of the population by 2040. With fewer

workers supporting more elders, no social security system in rural areas, and pensions being rare,

anything less than a booming economy could spell disaster, especially for rural families.

Demographics are rather predictable over long periods of time, so this economic strain is almost

certain. Economic activity, on the other hand, is impossible to foresee decades into the future.
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For that matter, the Chinese government needs to ensure that it is prepared for this impending

situation and does its best to soften the financial blow to its people.

Other Future Issues

There are two additional areas of concern for the Chinese state when assessing the future

of the One-Child Policy: phasing out the policy and biotechnology. China has not yet confirmed

a plan for sunsetting the policy. When initially designing the policy, the CCP had no intention of

making it permanent. Even with the rule that allows single children to have two children of their

own, the policy is not sustainable indefinitely because it operates at below replacement level

fertility rates. That being said, the point at which the population will actually begin decreasing at

a significant rate remains many years ahead. There is no hurry to figuring how to slowly lift the

policy, but the key is to keep fertility rates from exploding back to mid-20th century levels. The

important facet that the state needs to address now is how to non-coercively alter the cultural

landscape so that families simply have less children of their own accord. Neighboring Hong

Kong has no restrictions, but it currently has a TFR of only 1.1 (Zhu, 2003). This can likely be

achieved if China continues on its trajectory of improved education and economy and tempers its

tendencies for large-scale public disasters such as Tiananmen Square and the Shandong violence.

Second, the capabilities of biotechnology are rapidly increasing. Although

ultrasonography and abortions are currently the only widespread technologies used to sidestep

laws surrounding the policy, there are potential others that will likely be used on both citizen and

government sides of the policy. The most notable emerging technology that will likely present

itself in this arena is something India is already grappling with in its own male-biased culture—

preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) (Kumar, 2002; Mehta, 2002). Unlike the post-

conceptional elimination of unwanted fetuses, PGD selects a desired sperm-egg combination and
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implants it into the female reproductive tract (Mehta, 2002). This technology can essentially

work for selecting any number of genetic conditions, but because sex determination is a very

easy process and sought after in China, the technology will likely develop in that direction first.

Regarding sex selection, there are both moral issues and practical issues. Morally, PGD

introduces an interesting dichotomy. It eliminates the weight of killing a fetus. Anti-abortion

arguments are limited because an embryo is created, carried to term, and born without any

destruction of life. If a couple can design what they want instead of destroying fetuses until they

naturally get what they want, PGD seems like an acceptable solution. Of course, fundamental

religious views will undoubtedly find all of this activity morally reprehensible, but in

comparison, PGD seems the lesser of two evils. However, ultrasonography and abortions are

able to hide behind a veil of acceptable practices in China. Each is commonly used and widely

accepted on its own, and even in conjunction the pair is often used to weed out likely cases of

infant mortality or severe disorders. The Chinese state has simply drawn the line at gender

discrimination. PGD cannot hide itself behind other acceptable applications. It would blatantly

stand for pre-selecting the sex of a child. Ultrasonography and abortion can both stand alone as

non-discriminatory and socially beneficial, but PGD can pose as neither unless it first emerges as

an enhancing tool for other human traits. It is purely discriminatory and works to augment the

already expanding male birth preference.

Practically, PGD also cuts both ways. It eliminates the painful and often scarring process

of abortions, but it also is extremely expensive. Of course, the price will eventually decline

when technique is perfected and its market broadens. Until then, only the wealthy will be able to

select male heirs with ease. If the case is taken to the extreme, this could create a society which

perpetuates the elite male because females will not be as likely to be born into wealthy families.
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This will defeat the effects of gender equality Deutsch (2006) mentioned and work to maintain

the patriarchal system. However, it is unlikely that the prevalence of genetic selection will

increase that dramatically from its existing levels in urban areas. The rural regions seem more

stubborn and intent on having male children. Whichever methods reach rural China will likely

have the greatest effect on demographics. Finally, as an outright illegal practice that has no legal

cover function, it will be much easier for a vigilant government to locate and punish doctors and

individuals who take part in PGD.

There are also a variety of possible biotechnologies the Chinese state can use to deter

illegal abortion practices and even better track which families have violated policy standards.

Unlike the emergent PGD practice, there is no particular practice of note in this realm, but it is

not difficult to hypothesize potential uses to curb illegal activity. Registering DNA samples of

all aborting mothers and their aborted fetuses would allow authorities to determine whether or

not a particular individual exhibits a habit of aborting female fetuses. However, such a practice

both violates privacy and is not feasible on a large scale in rural settings. A possible use to curb

general violation of the policy is for the state to enhance its child registry process. All children

are supposed to be locally registered, and penalties are assessed for failures to register. Many

mothers move between jurisdictions in order to register newborns in different sectors, evading

official record of excessive children (Zhu, 2003). If local registries attached DNA or fingerprints

to mothers and their children and placed the information on a database, overlaps across

jurisdictions could be detected and investigated. Of course, there is the possibility that by simply

going through the motions of taking blood samples or fingerprints, citizens will self-regulate

their behavior a la Panopticon. Any expensive biotechnological methods used by the state will

realistically only affect urban centers, though. The price and difficulty of implementing such
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processes in remote villages across China is not cost-effective. Ultimately, the most benign and

probably most effective way of promoting the One-Child Policy is to improve the availability,

quality, and education of contraceptive methods. It appears that campaigns sponsoring various

types of contraception do have a noticeable effect on the contraceptive habits of citizens (Short,

Linmao, & Wentao, 2000), so if the State Family Planning Committee were to design and push a

centrally organized campaign for certain cheap, safe, and effective contraception and/or

sterilization, it might increase awareness and make compliance to the policy easier than ever.


Although anthropologist Rayna Rapp may go too far when she proclaims that

reproduction is always implicated in political life (Ginsberg & Rapp, 1995), she allows one to

discover how, in a Latourian or Jasanoff coproductionist perspective, reproduction is

simultaneously biological, social, economic, and political. It varies depending on culture, but in

China reproduction overtly ties into larger social elements. Birth is engaged on every playing

field and rightfully so.

To begin a more concrete summary of the universal importance of childbirth, it is

apparent that urban-rural differences exist in China’s One-Child Policy. That phenomenon alone

has no inherent meaning. It is the difficulties that have arisen and will continue to arise due to

these variations that are important to China as a nation. Violent acts by government agents.

Economic strain from both underpopulation and overpopulation. Gender imbalance, gender

discrimination, and concealed gender selection methods. Class differences. Loss of central

authority. These issues are serious concerns for the People’s Republic that all are directly or

indirectly related to the vast differences between China’s urban and rural experiences with the

One-Child Policy. This is not recommending that there should be no urban-rural discrepancies or
Out of Control 21

no One-Child Policy. On the contrary, both points are very important to improving Chinese

society for all its citizens. It would probably be beneficial for China to further modify the policy

in the future to accommodate the significant differences in urban versus rural culture. Urban and

rural locations should be encouraged to improve connections, but if they truly are different

worlds, then policy should reflect those differences. The Chinese government simply needs to be

aware of the troublesome issues that have accompanied and will accompany the policy and

remain attentive to solutions in order to maintain the current positive momentum of the nation.

It is difficult from a human rights perspective to endorse the One-Child Policy, but its

utilitarian effects are undeniable. It is not so much the policy as the secondary repercussions that

have sparked the greatest moral infringements. In fact, China is offering its knowledge of

missile science-turned-population planning to other areas of the world that are experiencing

similar troubles due to overpopulation. Most notably, western African nations are on the brink of

mass starvation, poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment (Potts, 2006). Central population

planning procedures could save the world a great deal of suffering at the cost of individual

liberties. The best compromise is to hope that China can successfully lift official enforcement of

the policy and turn it into a national effort heeded by all for the good of society. China can set an

example through its mistakes and successes for any nations that follow suit to act in a respectful,

organized manner that fosters awareness and national pride.