China's relaxation of the one-child policy is too late for many
Published 02/11/2015 | 02:30
One of the things I found hardest to get my head around when I moved with my family to China in 2001 was the country's draconian one-child policy.
Living for two years in this fascinating country was culturally challenging. But as one of a family of 10, I found it impossible to come to terms with what I saw as a heartless and ruthless law which deprived people of one of the most basic of human rights - to have as many children as you want.
It was strange and sad to observe typical family units in restaurants or walking Beijing's packed streets... a mother, father and one child.
I recall one day myself and my two kids eating in McDonalds in downtown Beijing (we rarely did this but were feeling lonely for home!) and were curious to see one child surrounded by six adoring adults - his parents and what were clearly both sets of grandparents too.
My kids were thinking of all of their cousins back in Ireland and how family get-togethers were full of noise and bustle and joy. And how sad it was that in China kids didn't have brothers and sisters.
Back then, I did a feature on the one-child policy and China's central family planning agency took me to a poor rural region in northern china.
They wanted to show me one of their birth-quota programmes, where women were sterilised or fitted with contraceptive devices as part of a campaign to reduce births
Women found to be pregnant with a second child without permission had to have an abortion, after which they were sterilised.
Over the years, human-rights groups have campaigned against the policy and documented thousands of cases of forced abortions and sterilisations which Amnesty International labels as torture.
One day, my driver in China, a wonderful man called Mr Lu, told me his devastating story. He and his wife had a gorgeous 10-year-old daughter to whom they were devoted.
They had dreams of her becoming a doctor (which has since happened) and that she would look after them in their old age.
He said his wife had accidentally become pregnant with a second child. They had a test and were very excited to find out it was a boy.
But after thinking it through, they had an abortion because they felt the consequences would be too much.
Enforcement of the one-child policy in urban areas in particular was merciless and Mr Lu explained the consequences of having his son.
He would have been fired from his job with the State Employment Bureau, (which supplied staff to western companies and embassies), would have lost his apartment, would not have been able to get a bank loan and would have been fined 20pc of his annual salary.
Even worse, his "illegal" child would be denied a "hukou", or residence permit, making him invisible in the eyes of the government and the law.
He shed a tear as he told me how he thinks of his unborn son each day.
For Mr Lu and millions of Chinese people, the announcement this week by China's Communist Party that the controversial one-child policy is finally to be scrapped after 35 years has come too late.
From now on, all couples will be allowed to have a second child under new rules agreed at the party's fifth Plenum in Beijing.
It is estimated that without the one-child policy China's population would be 300 million more.
But the relaxation of the law is too late to avert a collapse of the workforce and a demographic crisis by the late 2020s, according to experts.
China is facing a crisis as its fertility rate has plummeted due to the policy and it is now among the world's lowest.
It is now becoming a country of old people.
The number of workers available for sustaining economic growth and caring for their elders is shrinking - and each single child can look forward to eventually looking after two parents and four grandparents.
It is hard to imagine a more intrusive role for a government than telling couples how many children they can have. It is not a government's job to skew the natural order. It is its job to cater for and to cope with all the people who are born.
Here in Ireland, we have no such restrictions. Thirty years ago, it was not unusual to have families with eight, nine and 10 children. Even today, families of three and four, while considered big in these times, are not out of the norm.
I believe life is to be cherished and should not be taken for granted. I am so glad we don't have abortion on demand in this country. It should only be available in extreme circumstances.
In my book, unborn children deserve a say, and a chance at life.
Having lived in China, I came to value and cherish the human rights we enjoy in Ireland and not to take them for granted.
And I often think of the hard choice that Mr Lu and his wife had to make, and of the millions in China who never got the chance to be born due to an inhuman, unforgivable policy.