For Many, One Child Policy is Already Irrelevant

With the administration of Xi Jinping taking power in Beijing, many people have questioned whether the new leadership will ease the single child policy, which has been in effect since the late 1970s. But Leslie Chang, author of Factory Girls, writes that, in effect, the policy is no longer strictly in effect in many areas of the country. From ChinaFile:

Lu Qingmin, or Min, is typical of the migrant workers I met while researching a book in the factory city of Dongguan. Born in one place, working in another, and married into a third, they are as adept at moving between worlds as the frequent-flying global élite, with the difference that they have never left their home country. The Chinese government, which is good at transmitting edicts from Beijing down through the provinces to counties and villages, isn’t set up for people who don’t respect borders. Married migrant women are required to send home a certificate every year confirming that they are not pregnant; Min has never done this. Her older sister, who works in nearby Shenzhen, also has two children. The owner of an apartment that I rented in Dongguan from 2005 to 2006 had two children; so did a businessman who gave me a tour of the city’s karaoke bars. “Most of my friends have two children, except the ones who have three children,” Wu Chunming, a migrant who has lived in the city for nineteen years, told me. “In the villages now, having two children is standard.”

For so long a symbol of the authoritarian state at its most coercive, China’s policy limiting most families to one child is slipping into irrelevance. Last week, the government announced it would merge the National Population and Family Planning Commission, which has overseen the policy for three decades, into the Ministry of Health—a tacit admission that limiting births no longer requires the scrutiny and enforcement it once did. Most observers see this as a first step toward dismantling a policy that has already been rendered inconsequential by increased mobility, rising wealth, and the sense that stringent controls are no longer necessary. Wealthy Chinese can travel to the United States to give birth, which also confers the bonus of American citizenship on the child. Couples one step down the economic ladder may have a second child in Hong Kong, Macau, or Singapore. Families with two offspring are commonplace among the country’s millions of mobile entrepreneurs; an estimated 150 million rural migrants enjoy similar freedoms. Even in the countryside, where heavy penalties and forced abortions were more prevalent in the past, officials are loosening their grip. In my conversations with rural Chinese people over the past several years, it has become clear that fines that were once prohibitive are now just a nuisance—a couple of months’ wages, rather than a lifetime of savings.

China newz interviews Chang about her book and how things have changed for the migrant workers she portrayed in recent years:

china newz: Do you still keep in touch with Min and Chunming?

Leslie T Chang: Yes, I am in touch with both of them.

china newz: How have their lives changed since your book?

Leslie T Chang: They have both continued to pursue their own paths. Since the book came out, Min married a fellow migrant, had two daughters, and lived for a while in his family’s village with him. She and her husband subsequently returned to Dongguan on their own to work in a construction crane factory. They recently moved to Huizhou, another city in Guangdong province, where she works in the purchasing and finance department of a small cellphone factory. Now her husband, two daughters, and parents-in-law are all together in the city. Chunming has changed jobs five or six times since the book came out. She now works in sales and training for a chain of traditional-style tea houses. She is still unmarried and looking for love and a suitable husband. My book is actually being published in China this month, so they will finally be able to read the book in full. I am very curious to see what their responses will be.


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