Beijing is reversing its one-child policy. Effective from 1st January this year, the State allows each couple a second child.
Two years ago, on Valentine’s Day, I was collected from Tiananmen Square in an official’s car and driven to a dark building on the outskirts of the city. Ushered into a lift with no buttons on the inside, I was transported to a Korean restaurant and Karaoke bar. My host was a veteran cadre of the Mao era with a penchant for 1950s Soviet Pop. His guests sang with great emotion to grainy footage of blast furnaces and combine harvesters on the plasma screen. The place was staffed by musicians whose families were held back in Pyongyang as security.
I was seated next to the cadre’s granddaughter. Severely warned off talking politics, I asked her about her holidays and she described an ammunition drill in the countryside. Plainly, a privileged background had not exempted her family from the rigours of civic duty. I later learned in Hong Kong that her mother had been ordered to terminate three pregnancies.
China has no civil society, so the State alone is responsible for the largest population on Earth. Understandably, they regard stability as the highest virtue and outside cultural influence as destabilising. They are usually generous enough not to mention the Opium Wars provided you don’t mention the regime’s control of the internet, the suppression of Christian worship, the sinister cult of Mao or the insistence that little girls learn to use firearms.
Very occasionally, however, China is forced to account for something that rattles the nation. This is where the national imagination, normally directed harmlessly into superstition, demonstrates its remarkable capacity for scapegoating. Those who grew up under Mao sometimes tell of a great role America played in suppressing the Communist revolution. Stories of Imperialist exploitation, black ops and torture chambers doubtless served to unite a critically divided nation, but cut it off from the West. I cannot disprove these assertions. They only lack weight to me because I know how far the Chinese must go to save face and reaffirm the virtue of the Communist regime. After Mao’s death in 1976, the time came to explain the Great Famine and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. As China had been isolated, these shortcomings had to be blamed on a political force within China – the Gang of Four.
A generation later, another monumental confession seems imminent.
The one-child policy was probably the most radical intervention ever made by humans in their own ecology. Some continue to argue, ad petitionem principii, that China’s economic miracle is partly attributable to 35 years of sterilisations and forced abortions, but we are only beginning to understand what China has truly unleashed upon itself. The second generation born under this policy often have no family beyond six ageing adults. One third of the Chinese population will be over 60 by 2050. Cultural desire to produce a male heir has led to the mass killing of baby girls, resulting in a surplus of 40 million men. This is an inhuman disparity, because nature assumes that strife and warfare will cost societies their men, not their women. Such brutalisation of women might suggest that China has a strong bent towards tyrannical masculine imperatives – but the opposite is true: an over-abundance of men in an epoch of free love and fast cash has produced two generations of brattish women who now pull every lever of social power and treat their supplicating, needy, menfolk as bag carriers. It seems ironic that a culture so absorbed by commerce and the pursuit of harmony could not see how this basic dynamic from supply and demand would play out. Even as the scheme is scrapped, citizens’ newfound bourgeois expectations make a compensatory baby boom highly unlikely. My guess is that apologists for this policy would gladly change their tune if only the blame could be shifted away from China.
Once again, the demand increases for a scapegoat. It’s well within the grasp of anyone’s imagination to identify the culprit for this one: western pharmaceutical companies. Who else was poised to reap the financial rewards as the world’s largest market for contraceptives opened up?
Economist Ma Yinchu got an almighty ticking-off when he originally tabled the one-child policy in 1957, so why was it suddenly allowed to resurface in 1980 when China was crawling with representatives of western corporations looking for contracts? Did foreign Imperialists bribe a handful of now-dead cadres? Every one of the world’s top twenty big pharma companies managed to obtain a joint venture contract with the Chinese State.
This is not the sort of conspiracy theory which depends upon a large number of people keeping quiet. It also plays neatly on the hubris of the liberal West. Imagine how this idea will be received by those ever ready to stand-up for the rights of the less fortunate; ever ready to excuse any form of tyranny which sails under the red flag; ever receptive to anything that might smear multinational corporate capitalism.
Investigative journalism is largely unknown in China, but the drones of their media machine will scurry around State archives collecting records of meetings between commercial representatives. There will be calls for government inquiries in the West to keep Beijing sweet.
And of course, even if it is what apologists for the Chinese regime would say, the claims could actually be true.
Any accusation that big pharma paid for the one-child policy would be the word of a venerable culture against that of a cash-driven corporation. A part of me says that it’s none of my business, but somehow my conscience demands that I put this out here now to steal the march for the West. It has something to do with the memory of those North Korean hostages smiling at me as I was ushered back into the lift with no buttons.
This article appears in the current edition of The Salisbury Review (Buy)