An account of what may possibly be the world's most extreme social experiment in modern times, ONE CHILD tells the story of China's one-child-policy, that was enforced in 1980 as a drastic family planning initiative to arrest its exploding population. The policy was phased out last year, in 2015, and this book takes a look at what this policy has really meant for the people of China, how it was implemented, and how it will take a long time for the country to recover from its impact.
Two of the most striking emotions that I have associated with China from whatever I have read and heard in the past, and more strongly through this book now, are fear and control. The way the Communist Party and government system control the country down to the last and remotest person is disturbing. Several instances in the book show how people were bound by the one-child rule, breaking which brought about a slew of fines and punishments, economically debilitating an already poor population and leaving them with nearly no choices of a fair recourse. It was non-negotiable.
The book shows how the policy has affected not just the parents who were forced to adhere to it, but also its impact on the children who were born as the one-child generation. There are horrifying instances of in-human forced late-term abortions, and sad tales of parents losing their only child to natural disasters - like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that claimed the lives of thousands of children, who were at school at the time, due to the poor quality of their school buildings. In the aftermath of such incidents, the desperation of parents scrambling to register themselves to have another child, as they would be eligible again, is heartbreaking.
But there is also a very economic and pragmatic reason driving them to make such desperate scrambles to have children. As the author states, everything in Chinese society is geared towards marriage and family, and being unmarried or childless placed you very low on the societal totem pole. (There are labels like "leftover women" for those who remain unmarried after 25, and "bare branches" for men who are also unmarried after the designated ripe age. There are "bachelor villages" because of an extremely lopsided gender ratio, that was further exacerbated by the one-child policy, which encouraged people to be even more choosy about having their "one-child" as a boy.)
People who broke the one-child rule or did not have any children, could not claim several of the benefits that the state offers - they simply became ineligible. Without any progeny, people found it difficult to buy even burial plots for themselves. Also, as the ratio of the older generation in China increased, and with expensive hospice care, having a child to look after you in old age became a critical requirement and investment.
Other discriminating policies like hukou, which prevents migrant populations from overpopulating cities by making them ineligible to government benefits that a resident would normally get, show how difficult life is in China for the economically weaker class.
There is a very interesting section early in the book, that talks about how the Olympics were also one area for the authorities to exercise population control to bring glory to the country - - where selective breeding to raise more talented humans was a central part of the elite sports program.
Held very soon after the devastating Sichuan earthquake, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were China's opportunity to dazzle the world, and they likely did. But some of the facts about how they did this has been an eye-opener - from spray painting the city's dry grass an emerald green, to deploying 25 control stations to fend off rain clouds approaching the Bird's Nest stadium, to the computer generated imagery of the fireworks one saw on TV - - it shows how China can and will go to any extent to paint a picture of perfection.
Ironically, after three decades of making the one-child policy mandatory, the Communist Party is now having trouble making people choose to have two children - With such high parenting and child rearing costs, most middle-class Chinese now prefer to have only one child.
There's a lot more that the book covers that is interesting, insightful and informative and I would recommend everyone to read it, just to know a little bit more about this intriguing land of smoke and mirrors and the struggles of its people.