Rising house prices and shortage of brides are cost of China’s one-child policy, claims author

Journalist and author Mei Fong spoke about her book ' One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment' at Asia House

Journalist and author Mei Fong spoke about her book ' One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment' at Asia House

Rising house prices and shortage of brides are cost of China’s one-child policy, claims author

15 June 2016

By Naomi Canton

Rising house prices, a shortage of brides and workers and less adults to look after old people, are some of the long-term consequences of China’s one-child policy, according to a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author.

Malaysian Chinese Mei Fong has written about what she describes as the true cost of this controversial policy in her book One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, published in the UK in May 2016. The policy was relaxed three years ago after being in place for 35 years.

Fong, who studied in Singapore and the US and has a 2006 Human Rights Press Award from Amnesty International, is one of five daughters raised in Malaysia of Chinese heritage.

She spoke about the book at a talk held at Asia House.

“I am a third-generation Chinese born in Malaysia; my grandfather came from the Canton area,” she said.

“What people say about overseas Chinese is that in some ways we are more traditional than the Chinese in China – that we tend to cling to the old ways as we did not have the Cultural Revolution, so we still light incense and worship our ancestors.

“Sons were very important to my family yet my mother had only girls, five in fact. My first introduction to the one-child policy was when my relatives would say ‘you were lucky you were not born in China as you would probably have been given away’.

“So I always thought of China as a place that did not value girls,” she said.

“When I was growing up, China was not a big attraction. It was more about, ‘Do you want to go West than East?’ We were discouraged from learning Mandarin and encouraged to go West; China was seen as the place that our poor cousins were from. So I aspired westward, learnt English and I went to graduate school in America,” she explained to the audience.

“Things were happening and changing at a terrific pace in China in around 2006,” she reminisced. “I remember Ikea had opened its second largest store, in Beijing, to meet the needs of a first generation of China homeowners. At that point the impact of the one-child policy was less important because of China’s upswing. Starbucks started appearing and most people were living in cities.”

She said that at that time China was still the manufacturing centre of the world.

“But even as far back as 2003, 24 years after the one-child policy was introduced, I remember factory owners telling me they were having a worker shortage. I remember investigating it but at that time the whole idea of the one-child policy having an impact on the labour force was a new one. Most economists poo-pooed the idea that China would run out of people fairly soon. It was soon to be the beginning of the end of China being the factory of the world. Nobody expected population rates to fall as fast as they did. There was no expectation that that would be the case,” she said.

She then recalls being in Beijing in 2008 and writing about the Beijing Olympics.

”I remember the Olympics were seen as a huge marketing and infrastructure opportunity at that time and the social economy was very strong. Then there was an earthquake in Sichuan killing 70,000 people. Sichuan was where many of the migrant workers working on the Olympic Games were from. Most of them discovered someone had died in their families. The area where it happened was the test ground for the one child-policy which gave them the confidence to launch it nationwide,” she said.

“There is a word shidu in Chinese which is used to describe parents who have lost their only one child. There are one million of them in total in China and 70,000 join them every year. For a lot of people a child is their retirement fund as pension funds are not so well developed in China,” she added.

She said there was a huge stigma surrounding being childless in China and childless couples were worried they would not get into nursing homes as they would not have anyone who could “sign off their care.”

Another outcome of the one-child policy is the gender imbalance in China. When the one-child policy was in force couples felt “forced to choose which gender child to have” which led to 30 million excess males – the size of the population of Canada, she said.

“So a significant population of men cannot have families – they are called the reproductive dead ends of the family tree. For these children there is also huge marriage anxiety. The parents as a result are very emotionally invested in who they marry,” she said. “That is why dating parks have sprung up in China where people place handwritten notices about their children. It’s Generation Tinder.  Major companies like Baidu [a major Chinese search engine] run single events. They see it as a recruitment tool to retain talent and it goes in their newsletters to make parents feel happy,” she said.

Pictured is, left, Jemimah Steinfeld and right Mei Fong

Pictured, left, is Asia House Literature Programme Manager Jemimah Steinfeld and right, is author and journalist Mei Fong

Another unintended consequence of the one-child policy is that house prices in China have soared, she said. “Economists estimate that if you want your son to be more attractive in the market you have to buy him an apartment which has caused a 30 per cent rise in house prices,” Fong told the audience.

She claimed that the offspring of the one-child policy were less optimistic and more risk averse than people who had siblings.

“At first they were ‘Little Emperors’ surrounded by adoring adults but it’s been in place for 30 years so they are in their 30s now. They were the focus of everything as a child but now they have to take care of both adults,” she said.

“China has more than 25 per cent of the world’s Parkinson’s disease sufferers. Who is going to take care of all these old people? I think there is a realisation now that we are going to have a huge old population. They recently introduced this rule that young people have to visit old people,” she said.

The way the rules of the one-child policy had been implemented across the country depended on where you lived ‘like tax codes in the USA,’” she added.

By 2020 there will be between 30 million and 35 million more Chinese men of marrying age than women. “The sex ratio at birth worldwide is commonly thought to be 107 boys to 100 girls. In China, however, it is 117 boys to 100 girls in some areas due to sex selection at birth. In other areas it is as high as 138 to 140 boys to 100 girls,” she said.

However she added there was evidence that it had peaked and the numbers were coming down.

She wrote the book at the same time as the policy was being relaxed, first to allow couples where both parents were only children to have two children and then to allow couples where only one was an only child to have two children. Then in October 2015, on the eve of the book’s publication in the USA, China ended the one-child policy, bringing in a two-child policy in its place.

“When the policy ended I was inundated with calls from the Chinese media asking me how I knew it would happen. But I didn’t know – I was just lucky.”

However, one offspring of the one-child policy, who was in the audience, disagreed with the negative picture the author had painted.

A 21-year-old Chinese student, who spoke during the Q&A, said: “A controlled population eased the burden on China’s resources, so that we can have our fast developing economy and high-tech industries. If it were not for the one-child policy, we would forever be the factory country of the world. Also, because of this policy, the status of women in China was largely raised. Women are no longer ‘baby machines’, and more girls get the opportunity of receiving an education. As a result, girls like me can be lucky enough to study here in London, instead of working from a young age to earn school fees for a younger brother. Gender imbalance is because of sex discrimination – a result of a lack of education, and not the one-child policy. The one-child policy actually allows more people to get an education and get rid of the old thoughts of boy preference.”

But Fong said that privatisation, encouraging entrepreneurship and foreign direct investment and revamping badly-run SOEs (state-owned enterprises) – not the one-child policy – were responsible for China’s growth story.

“In my view you can reduce the population of China without going to the extremes of the one-child policy. China had such a system in place before the one-child policy was introduced. They did not have to go to this extreme. It can be done through education and contraception,” she concluded, citing the examples of neighbouring countries South Korea and Japan that saw significant dips in their populations without any similar policies.


Aung San Suu Kyi’s biographer Peter Popham will talk about his critically acclaimed new book The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s struggle for freedom  (March 2016) at Asia House on 21 July at at 18.45. For more information click here.

To see all the events in our upcoming literature programme click here.

Last year British-Chinese writer Xue Xinran spoke at Asia House about her book, Buy me the Sky. It is a series of stories about the men and women born in China after 1979 when the controversial one-child policy was introduced. Her book claims to show how Chinese parents had pinned all their hopes and dreams on these only children but that their overindulgence had created a generation of spoilt arrogant self-centred young adults – the centres of their own social universes, often unable to carry out basic household tasks. To read about these ‘Little Emperors’ (or xiao huangdi) click here.