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One Child, one billion heartaches – the true story of China's one child policy

Ahead of new BBC2 drama One Child, BBC Beijing correspondent John Sudworth reveals the reality behind the new Chinese-set family drama

Published: Wednesday, 17th February 2016 at 10:00 am

Over the past few years that my family has lived in China we’ve never quite got used to our trips to the local park. It is – don’t get me wrong – an endlessly fascinating place, populated by kite-flyers, troupes of elderly line dancers, tai chi masters, even solo opera singers, enjoying every available inch of public space as an escape from cramped and gardenless apartments.


But as my wife, our three children and I take in this marvellous spectacle of human revelry, it is us who find ourselves the object of curiosity. “San ge?!” we hear them ask each other incredulously as we walk by. “Three?!” They are words that bring us face to face with the years of immeasurable harm, hardship and horror caused by one of the most radical experiments in social engineering ever undertaken – the One Child Policy.

For many of us living in the West over the past four decades the policy became a well-known symbol of Chinese Communism, such a part of the fabric of this distant land of 1.3 billion people that we perhaps stopped thinking about its effects. Its terrible, perverse logic may even have subconsciously resonated with some. “There are rather a lot of them, after all.”

The policy, though, wouldn't have been much of a policy without enforcement. And that has been nothing but brutal. Since its formal adoption in 1979 to its abolition at the end of last year, millions of forced abortions and sterilisations have been carried out in its name. It has been policed ruthlessly by a nationwide network of family-planning officials, tasked with carrying out intrusive medical examinations, spying on neighbours and hunting down hidden pregnancies. Couples have been able to defy the policy only by paying heavy fines of several times annual income, which in turn have become a lucrative revenue stream for local governments.

Katie Leung stars in new BBC2 drama One Child

In November, on the day the authorities announced the policy’s repeal, for my BBC News report I sat around a dinner table with five generations from one family. At the end of the line, sat just one great-great-granddaughter, robbed of brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles by the State. Her grandmother told me, in a quiet voice, that she’d had an abortion. “Was it your choice?” I asked. “You had to go willingly,” she replied, “or the government came for you.”

None of this, of course, should ever have happened. But it is made worse by the fact that there was simply no need for it. The One Child Policy was dreamt up by Communist Party scientists obsessed with the threat of rampant population growth. And yet at the time of its inception, China’s fertility rate was already in decline, a natural consequence of the social changes that come with urbanisation and industrialisation. All the policy did was speed it up to the point that China now finds itself in the midst of an unfolding demographic disaster of its own making, with a workforce ageing far too rapidly long before the country has grown rich enough to afford the huge and rising cost of pensions and elderly care.

It is that economic imperative, not the moral one, that has led to the scrapping of the One Child Policy, although the authorities haven’t had the courage to go the whole way. Instead they’ve replaced it with a Two Child Policy, which will still need enforcing. So today, the Chinese Communist Party still insist on the right of intrusion into the fertility of hundreds of millions of women.

In our local park, we’ve been asked by curious onlookers; “How many children are you allowed to have in your country?” My answer – a somewhat awkward and sheepish assertion of the most basic of human rights – is met with a look of disbelief. “As many, or as few, as we like.”


One Child begins Wednesday 17th February at 9pm on BBC2


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