How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In the fall of 1983 when my mother was 29, she received news from her superiors at her shoe factory in Yun, a county in Henan Province, that every female worker who had already had one child would be required to undergo sterilization. The Chinese Communist Party had introduced the one-child policy a few years earlier in 1979, but this was the first time my mother had heard about the policy. And it was the first time it was implemented in her hometown.
The instructions had come through the local All-China Women’s Federation, a party organization that is charged with overseeing women’s issues and family planning. Soon after the announcement, the county government dispatched ten doctors, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, and set up a temporary medical clinic inside a nearby motel. As the local branch secretary of the federation and a production director at the shoe factory, my mother was charged with disseminating propaganda about the procedure, identifying which women would receive it, escorting them to the clinic, and arranging for their postoperative care. After the surgery, these women typically spent three days at the motel before being sent home to rest for a month of paid leave.
Some women were even forced to abort their first child so that local governments could meet the stringent birth quotas for each county or municipality. In Yun, it seemed that factories and other places of employment often helped to enforce the quota, although my mother was never certain. She simply followed her superiors’ instructions. My mother had a close friend who was forced to abort her eight-month fetus even though it was her first pregnancy because her factory had already reached its birth quota, which also meant it could not allow any more “pregnancy registrations.” My mother, by then a local director for the All-China Women’s Federation, had little power to break the rules. She accompanied her friend to the abortion clinic. It had been a boy.
Because having a second (or in some cases first) child would have gotten the women and their husbands fired, my mothers’ fellow workers generally cooperated. For that same reason, my mother, when she became pregnant again—I was one year old at the time—did not suffer a fierce ideological dilemma before getting an abortion. She went voluntarily. This is how I became a part of the first generation to grow up without siblings under China’s family-planning policy.
To be sure, there were some women who resisted the one-child policy, but they were mostly from the rural areas and were unemployed, so they had no fear of losing their jobs. Still, many of them were tricked into abortions or sterilizations. My mother told me that the local government would simply send doctors to the villages to conduct the abortions without informing the women about the procedure. Eventually, these women learned to run when they saw them coming in their uniforms. My mother’s stories always left a lot unsaid, but it can be assumed that most of the women were eventually caught and underwent forced sterilization or abortions. At the time, it seemed as if the whole country were consumed by an unstoppable witch-hunt for young mothers who wanted to have a second child.
Three years later, my mother had relocated to a different factory in Shiyan. Ding, a close friend of my mother’s and a fellow worker, became pregnant with her second child. At that time, my mother was no longer the local director of the All-China Women’s Federation. And so when Ding secretly confided to my mother that she was determined to go through with the pregnancy, my mother went to great lengths to cover for her while at work. It helped that my mother was a supervisor and that Ding was a part of the general staff. My mother was able to assign Ding lower-intensity work and allowed her to arrive at work later and leave earlier. And when Ding was not feeling well, my mother signed her sick leave forms.
It was a tense time; it was difficult for both Ding and my mother to lead a normal life with all that it took to hide Ding’s growing belly. During the hot summer months, Ding continued to wear heavy, loose clothing, telling others that she felt ill or cold in order to deflect suspicion. But as she neared her full term, it became obvious that she was pregnant, and the management at the factory noticed. Her boss immediately ordered her to get an abortion. Fortunately, Ding’s husband was able to bribe a doctor to provide a false report confirming that the pregnancy had been terminated and that Ding could be sent home for two months of recovery.
Late one night, my mother visited Ding. Her friend took her to a small basement that she and her husband had created deep beneath the house, explaining to my mother how this dark, windowless, and cramped hole would serve as a good birthing place because its thick walls could absorb any sound—no one would hear her scream as she brought the child into the world.
It was on a rainy afternoon that Ding tested the strength of those basement walls, as well as her own fortitude. She was at home knitting a sweater when her water broke. Her husband was still at work, so with a weak lamp and a pair of scissors, she made her way down to the damp space and labored for hours, alone and terrified. She finally delivered the baby sometime after nightfall. It was a boy. Her husband had not yet returned home, so she had to cut the umbilical cord by herself. No one found out about the birth.
The first month or more of the newborn’s life was spent in the basement. Ding checked in on him every hour or so to provide a feeding. And with her husband’s help, she kept the baby hidden from her neighbors and even from their five-year-old daughter. When it was time to breast-feed in the basement, she would send their daughter away, telling her to play in the yard; when their daughter went to sleep, she would visit the baby in the basement and care for him.After more than a month had passed, Ding had the boy taken away by a relative who lived in the countryside and she would come to visit every three months. But when the child was nearly one year old, someone discovered Ding’s secret, although to this day my mother does not know who it was, and reported her to the factory. Even though Ding’s relative continued to insist that the boy was adopted, Ding was punished. She did not lose her job, but she was hit with a 2,000-yuan fine, which was more than three times what she made in a year.
As a farmer, Ding’s husband also made very little. To pay off the fine, they had to borrow money from their relatives and take out loans. Ding’s husband eventually went to the Altai Mountains in Xinjiang, about 1,800 miles from Henan, in the hopes that gold mining could help him pay off his debts more quickly. It took years. And during this time, Ding and her husband were separated, and their son continued living with the relative while Ding stayed in Henan caring for her young daughter. When my mother recounted this story to me, it was difficult for her to express in words the depth of Ding’s suffering.
For the women of my mother and Ding’s generation, giving birth was neither a personal choice nor a blessing. Rather, the birth of a second child was a curse or, at the very least, a disaster. The mothers who dared to challenge the one-child policy became so-called public enemies. Back then, the majority of people supported this policy, either from fear, years of brainwashing, or habitual obedience to the government. It was very common for neighbors to report on one another. And so these women were faced with no option but to give birth in the dark.
In October last year, the Communist Party announced that the one-child policy would finally come to an end. On January 1 of this year, a new two-child policy took its place. But the government has remained silent about the suffering of the women of my mother’s generation who lived under the one-child policy. The aborted will never come back, the fines will never be returned, the parents who lost their jobs will never be compensated, and the emotional damage that the old family-planning policy inflicted cannot be undone. Even today, when I ask my mother and other women from her generation how they regard the one-child policy given that having a second child is now legal, they respond with numb obedience: any policies that the country has enacted are right, they say. For my generation, or at least for me and my female friends, the two-child policy does not really give us reason to celebrate. It simply brings us a little closer to what should have always been our right.
Translated from Chinese by Yulong Li.