'People are not machines': John Oliver examines China's one-child policy

As the government celebrated 70 years in power, the Last Week Tonight host looked at the policy’s history and long-term effects

As the Chinese government celebrated 70 years in power with massive celebrations, John Oliver examined the country’s now extinct one-child policy on Last Week Tonight. A long look at the policy, which mandated only one child per family between 1980 to 2015, illustrates how the Communist party wielded and maintained power, said Oliver, with long-term effects confronting China today.

Oliver first went back to the beginning: in the years leading up to 1980, overpopulation was a global fear, and the Communist party saw population growth control as an economic opportunity to secure power. So who to solve this issue? “Just take a minute and think, who would be the absolute worst choice to craft a proscriptive nationwide policy on reproduction – and do keep in mind, Jared Kushner is not Chinese,” said Oliver.

The policy was developed by male military scientists who, according to Mei Fong, author of One Child, thought female fertility could be shifted up and down, like a switch.

“Yeah, she’s absolutely right: family planning isn’t rocket science,” said Oliver. “And that’s exactly why rocket scientists should not do it. It’s the same reason we don’t let OBGYNs launch babies into space and land them on the moon: experts should stay in their lane.”

The policy was a national directive from the Community party but enforced on the local level; there might be exceptions for second children in rural areas, but the general message was to have only one child, as conveyed through propaganda such as “have fewer children, but raise the quality”, which is “just not how children work”, said Oliver. “Children, and I say this as a loving parent, are not high-quality individuals. Their artwork is derivative and their stories meandering.”

The one-child policy was also enforced by a sprawling bureaucracy, with millions of local-level employees who would issue fines multiple times that of a household’s annual income to those with second children.

Even if the parents could afford the fine, “some chose never to let their kids ever forget it”, said Oliver. In the film China’s Stolen Children, for example, a father says: “Why did we name our child 20,000 yuan? Because that’s how much we were fined to have him.”

“Yeah, they named their kid 20,000 yuan so everyone would have to know what they had to go through to have him,” said Oliver. “It’s the equivalent of naming your child “Jason-last-minute-epidural-and-a-whole-lot-of-shitting-on-the-table Rabinowitz”.

There were also far more brutal enforcement methods; Oliver played a clip of one woman tearfully recalling her forced abortion at nine months. “That’s obviously horrifying,” said Oliver, “and I know that there are some who like to hold up China as a blanket argument against abortion in general, so just let me be clear on this: it is very easy to be both pro-choice and anti-forced abortion, in the same way that you can be pro-drinking fountain and anti-waterboarding. The important thing really is who’s in control of the fucking process.”

Moving to the present, “for a government that made it a point to micro-manage their citizens’ lives, China did surprisingly little to prepare for the long-term consequences of this policy”, Oliver said. For example: an entire generation of only children. And also an entire generation of “ghost” second children – 6.5 million with no official citizenship status because they were born outside family planning rules, according to a New York Times report from 2015.

There’s also a huge gender disparity – 34 million more men than women, meaning “millions of men who want a wife will never have one”, said Oliver. This has led to some unintended consequences, such as the success of a company that sells life-size mannequins of female bodies. “For the record, buying a life-size sex doll does not stop you from being alone,” said Oliver.

In 2015, China ended the one child policy by instituting a two child policy, with similar propaganda and enforcement methods of fines and forced abortions. The policy enforcement “does suggest that the Chinese government still hasn’t learned the fundamental lesson here”, said Oliver. “People are not machines whose reproductive systems can be turned on or off at will.”

The image of the sex dolls factory – full-size mannequins hanging on a clothing rack to peruse at will – is “pretty on the nose, if you think about it”, said Oliver. “A factory churning out headless silicone women because rocket scientists nearly 40 years ago didn’t care enough about what their policies might do to real ones.”

So as China’s Communist party celebrates 70 years in power this week, he concluded, “it seems worth remembering a massive way they used that power. And if they’re running low on pandas … I’d argue that sex dolls might actually be a more appropriate tribute.”


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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