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

15 June 2016

By Naomi Canton

Rising house prices, a shortage of brides, labour and fewer 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 which was published in the UK in March 2016. The policy was relaxed three years ago after 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. My first knowledge of 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 that was my first introduction to the one-child policy.

“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 continued.

“Things were happening and changing at a terrific pace in China. 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. All our family were urbanites. Most of them were not affected by the one-child policy. But the forced abortions and sterilisations happened to peasants in the countryside.

“At that time China was the manufacturing centre of the world. In 2003 I remember factory owners were 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 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 recalls in Beijing in 2008 writing about the Beijing Olympics which was seen as a huge marketing opportunity.

“It was seen as a big infrastructure story and the social economy was strong. There was an earthquake in Sichuan at that time 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 worldwide,” she said.

 “A childless person in China is called a shuba shudu – that is parents who have lost only one child.  There are one million of them in total 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 and childless couples were worried they would not get into nursing homes as they would not have anyone who could “sign off their care.”

The one-child policy has also caused a huge gender imbalance as couples felt “forced to choose which gender child to have” which has led to 30 million excess males – the size of the population of Canada.

“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 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 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.

She said house prices had also soared as a result of the one-child policy. “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.”

She said these children were also less optimistic and more risk averse.

Pictured is, left, Jemimah Steinfeld and right Mei Fong

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

“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 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.

She wrote the book 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.”

The way the rules were implemented depended on where you lived “like tax codes in the USA,” she added.

“The sex ratio at birth worldwide is commonly thought to be 107 boys to 100 girls. In China 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. There is evidence that it has peaked and the numbers are coming down,” she added.

By 2020 there will be between 30 million and 35 million more Chinese men of marrying age than women.

However, one offspring of the one-child policy in the audience disagreed with the negative picture the author painted. The Chinese woman in the audience said: “If we had not had the one-child policy, China would have forever been the factory country of the world. Now we have high-tech industries and we don’t need to work in factories. Because of this policy I could learn English and come to London. I don’t need to work in a factory. Sex discrimination is because of a lack of education and not the one-child policy as it is allowing more people to get an education. The one-child policy is one of the reasons I see so many students coming here to the UK.”

But Fong said that privatisation, allowing entrepreneurship, encouraging foreign direct investment and revamping badly run SOEs and 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.

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