Frank J. Batavick | CNBNewsnet
The term "failed social experiment" has taken on the character of an epithet in our fractured political climate. Republicans have used it to decry everything from the "Common Core" curriculum to Affirmative Action policies in higher ed. There is no doubt that some progressive attempts at social engineering have less than spectacular results. President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty can’t be considered a success, though a host of unexpected events exacerbated the problem, from the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs to off-shore sites to the drug epidemic and its misguided sentencing guidelines. These factors decimated families and added to the ranks of the poor.
But what if a country decided to enforce some social engineering that cut at the very heart of what families are all about? That's exactly what happened in China in 1979. Faced with a population that topped 940 million and fearing that there would not be enough food, water, and natural resources if it kept growing, the communist government imposed a "one child per family" policy. They enforced it by fining families the equivalent of $3,000 for a second baby, though if the first child was a girl, the couple could try again. However, two children was the absolute limit, and a rising and punitive scale of fines for subsequent babies went as high as $50,000. The very rich could decide to ignore the regulation and pay the fines, but others had no choice but to adhere to the state’s policy. Exceptions were permitted for ethnic minorities and farm families.
On our visit to China, our 35 year-old guide admitted to being a product of this one-child policy. Her mother was a Mao jacket-wearing college student during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. The guide told us the law was changed to a two-child policy last year, and she thought this a good thing. That’s because of some troubling unintended consequences.
The first ill effect is that Chinese society now has 30 million more boys than girls. Boys are more valued there because the marriage of a son doesn’t involve an expensive dowry. It is also the responsibility of a son to care for his parents in old age since China lacks the equivalent of our social safety nets. So, to increase the odds of having a boy, it became common practice to have a baby’s sex determined before birth. If the baby was a girl, it stood a good chance of being aborted. Religions have long been discouraged if not persecuted there, so abortion is not considered immoral. Hence, the bottom line is that if you are only permitted to have one baby, it best be a boy. Malaysian-Chinese journalist, Mei Fong, noted, “As a bookish child, I would come to see the one-child policy as one of the most fascinating and bizarre things about the land of my ancestors, equal parts Aldous Huxley and King Herod.”
The resultant and disproportionate number of boys versus girls means that many Chinese men today simply cannot find a wife. Consequently, this has diminished the number of babies being born. In a country of 1.4 billion, you wouldn’t think this a problem, but it is. China has a large aging population and not enough productive workers paying into their equivalent of Social Security to support it. Too, their economy has started to cool off, and one reason given is that there are insufficient numbers of home-grown consumers buying the myriad goods now manufactured there.
China is certainly not the same country it was in 1979. It now has a rising middle class that finds it challenging to work and care for children, especially as the cost of living increases. A survey conducted by China’s National Health and Planning Commission discovered that only half of eligible couples wish to have two children. Big Brother may need to change his playbook and incentivize them if the new policy is to have any impact.
Some experts believe that China’s forced birth control policy may have prevented 400 million births. If these babies had come into the world, married, and had children of their own, there’s no telling the ultimate impact this swollen population would have had on China’s role in the world and, not incidentally, its natural resource-rich neighbors. Back in 1937, Imperial Japan began its war of conquest to solve a similar problem. Its first target was China.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.