The One Child Policy's Lasting Legacy

China has relaxed its One Child Policy today, allowing married couples to have two children. This was an attempt by the central government to stem the effects of its rapidly aging population and inject young workers into the workforce. When China made this policy law in 1979, its intent was to curb the growth of its population, which was getting too large for the government to feed and control. But the biggest consequence of such a sweeping law, a dwindling workforce, is now working against their booming economy, which is showing signs of weakness.

But the aftermath of the One Child Policy is far more than a dwindling workforce. It is one of suffering. Its legacy has reached into the wombs of expectant mothers who have been forced to have abortions. The One Child Policy has sparked one of the worst trafficking crises in the modern world as refugees, many from North Korea, are taken by force to be married to Chinese men who cannot find wives.

Forced Abortions

China’s Health Ministry reported a staggering number of abortions it performed since 1971, when the country began steps to control their population. China has performed 336 million abortions during this time and continues to do so.

To put this into context, China has performed more abortions than the total number of people currently living in the United States. China's total abortions since 1971 dwarfs the US abortion total since Roe v Wade was decided in 1973. That number is about 58 million.

In 2012, National Public Radio reported a disturbing story of a young woman, Feng Jianmei, who was found by Chinese family planning officials to be seven months pregnant with her second child. The authorities demanded that she pay a $6,000 fine. The fine, which is often set by local authorities, is called a “social compensation fee” and is usually set anywhere between 3 to 10 times a family’s annual income.

Since she could not afford this, the officials proceeded to give her an injection, which “ensured the couple's 7-month-old fetus was stillborn,” according to the report.

Another woman, who was eight months pregnant told the New York Times that officers forced her to a local clinic, bound her to a table where she was given an injection into her abdomen that was lethal to her baby.

“For two days she writhed on the table, her hands and feet still bound with rope, waiting for her body to eject the murdered baby. In the final stage of labor, a male doctor yanked the dead fetus out by the foot, then dropped it into a garbage can. She had no money for a cab. She had to hobble home, blood dripping down her legs and staining her white sandals red,” the report stated.

Human Trafficking Perfect Storm

China’s Academy of Social Sciences reported that there will be between 30-40 million more men than women in China by the year 2020. China’s gender ratio has already reached an epic imbalance. This means that the country’s poor must find wives through other means.

As we have documented extensively on our blog, North Korean refugees -- 70 percent of whom are women and 80 percent of whom have been trafficked -- have been sold by the hundreds of thousands. This is due to China’s zero tolerance stance on North Korean women who have poured into the country after North Korea’s cataclysmic famine in the 90s.

Women have been duped by traffickers who promise good jobs and food but in the end were sold with no way out of these marriages through legal channels.  

Crossing Borders works extensively with these women and have heard horrific tales of inhumane conditions they must endure. One woman shared with us that she was sold to a group of poor farmers who could not afford a single wife. She was kept in a shed for this group to share.

In addition, these women have to constantly look over their shoulders because, if they are caught, they will immediately be arrested and sent back to a North Korean prison camp.

Senseless Suffering

The great tragedy of the One Child Policy is that many experts question its effectiveness. It has been proven that, as a country urbanizes and grows in wealth, their population begins to diminish on its own. Some experts contend that this was already beginning to occur when China enacted this policy in 1979.

Even worse, the country’s prolonged use of this policy perhaps was driven by another factor: money. The decision today came out of a meeting of the ruling elite to lay out the country’s five-year development plan. China’s local governments have earned an estimated $300 billion from these fines alone. These fines, levied at the hands of local magistrates, often find themselves in the pockets of the ruling elite.

The One Child Policy has exacted a stunning toll on China and the world. Today it was loosened. But the practices of local governments in China are challenging to change on a local level and some suspect that the One Child Policy will still be in effect for years while the national government will now enforce its new Two Child Policy.  

This legacy of pain and suffering will be felt for generations to come.