“But it was a good thing, surely?”
“No. It really wasn’t.”
“How can you say that? Can you imagine if we only had one child per family in India?”
I’ve suffered through this conversation more than a few times. When people back home in India learn that I have a Chinese connection, the talk goes beyond pollution, my adopted country’s growing geopolitical reach and Shanghai’s indisputable advantage, skyline-wise, over Mumbai. It circles around to this — a hankering after a policy that is identified, root and branch, with China. This unwanted exchange is often accompanied by a sigh on the part of my interlocutor, sometimes even a faraway look to a horizon over which soars India’s growth rate, unfettered by superfluous children.
Never mind that the policy was scrapped in 2015, or that it always had a host of exemptions anyway. Never mind that even the course correction — administered from above, naturally — has had its own issues. Even now, more than three years after the policy was overturned, China admits that it is struggling to get its young citizens to make more babies. A rapidly ageing country faces a dire demographic prognosis.
Yet surprising numbers of people in India think the one-child policy was actually something China got right. It is genuinely baffling.
As journalist and author Mei Fong points out in her compelling book One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment , China’s fertility rate was probably falling anyway at the time the policy was put into action in the late-1970s. This would have been in line with other Asian countries at similar points in their development. Yet the Chinese state went ahead. It intervened at the most basic, most personal level of its citizens’ lives.
No doubt it acted upon the wishes of its leaders, who were motivated by what they thought best for their country at the time.
But also, it intervened because it could.
It isn’t just the policy my dreaming friends in India hanker for. What they want, at some level, is an India where the state can feel free to make decisions such as this, and then blithely act upon them, freed of the inconveniences of actually answering to its citizenry.
That isn’t just baffling. It is troubling beyond belief.
The inhabitants of my two countries are conditioned to think about their relationship to the state in different ways. Indians can shake their fists in the air when they feel impinged upon, vote for the other team; if all else fails, they can go to court.
Things are a bit different over here. At the time of the imposition of the one-child policy, China was still coming out of the Cultural Revolution. Years of strife had brutally reconditioned Chinese society to accept what it was given. The change in official family planning rules was ordered into being, a technical solution posited, and a rocket scientist — no, really, it’s true — was put in charge. The citizenry was too traumatised to object collectively.
Individually, of course, is a different story.
China’s first Nobel winner for literature, Mo Yan, has written of the human cost of the policy in Frog . There are darkly comic descriptions of women fleeing with their contraband foetuses, of deliveries in boats while pursued by determined apparatchiks hewing to fertility quotas.
Mo Yan has a larger tale to tell of moral vacuums in a post-communist landscape. For me, the most effective, because moving, parts of his story are when he writes of people compelled to act to save their future families. They have no legal recourse. They can’t go to the state for help, because it is the state that hunts them.
But they run anyway.
I’d known, in a nebulous way, of the impact the forced vasectomies of the Emergency era had on the national consciousness in India. It took an undergraduate reading of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to actually bring it to riotous life. When I read it in the early ’90s, it was in the light of a lesson gleaned from the past, a cautionary fable about unchecked power and its consequences.
However, stories emerged a few years ago of poor rural women dying of botched tubectomies at a “sterilisation camp” in Chhattisgarh. This caused some surprise, at least among the consumers of the English press. Beyond the loss of life, the fact that there were still official sterilisation targets that had to be met, in India — this was news to many people.
If outrage had been the only response, it would have been understandable. But there was also the drumbeat beneath — “Well, it’s unfortunate and all, all those women dead; but at least the government is still trying”.
Far too many Indians still love the idea of the big change imposed from above, the societal intervention. I live in a country that specialises in this. Sure, many of these changes have verifiably worked. Others, not so much. That the state still doesn’t factor in consequences for its citizens, or allow space for redress, is a glaring gap.
Against all its faults, this is India’s great strength (even if it is hugely under threat). When the state gets it wrong, we can compel it to change its course — legally, electorally, on the streets. To give up that strength is to give up what we are.
It isn’t rocket science.
Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing
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