Critic of one-child policy in from cold
While a ban on his book has been lifted as attitudes shift, researcher fears any change in policy may be too late for the mainland
Yi Fuxian was trained as a clinic medicine specialist before obtaining a PhD in medicine in the United States, but the Hunan native is better known as a staunch critic of the mainland's one-child policy, or family planning as authorities prefer to call it. His book A Big Country in an Empty Nest, a daring and critical reflection of the controversial policy, was published in Hong Kong in 2007 and banned on the mainland until recently. The 44-year-old academic talked about what made him openly oppose the one-child policy, and the sea change in official attitude he has seen recently.
What prompted your research on family-planning policy?
I was born in a rural town in western Hunan where the locals have a well-preserved culture of sustainable human reproduction and a strong sense of perpetuating the family. Even when I was very young, I was telling myself that I would have to have at least three children when I married. I went to the US in 1999 to further my studies in pharmacology and later in biology. But another reason I left China was to fulfil my childhood goal of having a big family, which is impossible under China's one-child policy. Not long after I arrived in the US I realised some of the misconceptions about Chinese, even held among the Chinese themselves, including the myth that we as a people have a burning desire for more children. To the contrary, I found out that Chinese-Americans were reluctant to have children. So the Chinese propaganda based on such a misconception is wrong. Then I began to write intensively about the flawed policy, which formed the basis of my book.
What do you think is wrong with the one-child policy?
The more I looked into it, the more flaws I identified, because many of the statistics or estimates used by the former National Population and Family Planning Commission were either unfounded or misleading. For example, the commission said in the early 1980s that China's population would reach 4 billion by 2050 without population control. It has maintained that the national birth rate has been 1.8 children per family since the 1990s, while my own research backed by census data shows the birth rate declined from 1.5 children to only 1.2 children per family between 1995 and 2000 and has stayed at that level ever since, which is far below a sustainable level of 2.1 children per family. I also did not believe that the country was as deprived of resources as the commission had claimed to justify its drastic family-planning policy. I'm also more convinced that a country's population has been better controlled by natural disasters, epidemics and war, as happened in the past, or by the level of development and people's pursuit of a quality life, as is the case today.
What else has convinced you that the commission had been wrong?
I began work at the department of obstetrics and gynaecology of the University of Wisconsin in 2002 when I graduated from two post-PhD programmes, one in pharmacology at the University of Michigan and the other in biology at the University of Wisconsin. I was shocked to discover from my research that infertility rates in mainland China had risen nearly tenfold to between 10 to 15 per cent from the 1980s, in line with developed countries like the US. However, the Family Planning Commission failed to take into account the impact of rising infertility rates on the population, which without doubt led to its misjudgment.
How did the public and mainland authorities respond to your comments?
I have to say that the public response was very negative at the time, with probably 90 per cent of online commentators disapproving of my criticism. But there has been a gradual shift in public opinion on the family-planning policy since late 2004 when the central government ordered a cabinet-level review of the policy. It was very encouraging to see an enormous interest in my writing that appeared online, and some of my articles in newspapers affiliated with Xinhua and People's Daily calling for an abrupt end to the one-child policy received as many as a million hits, with many more positive comments. However, the review panel was dominated by officials and academics who favoured family planning and it decided to maintain the stringent policy. I was then subjected to heightened censorship, and the book I published in Hong Kong in September 2007 was banned on the mainland two months later.
How did the book come to be published on the mainland last month?
Even though the book was officially banned, it was widely discussed and circulated online, and there has been no shortage of interest from mainland publishers over the years. Statistics from the 2010 census that were made public in November that year cast the Family Planning Commission in a bad light and substantiated many findings in my book. Last year I was approached by China Development Press, affiliated with the Development Research Centre of the State Council, about publishing the book on the mainland. It was delayed several times during a period of several major political developments including the leadership transition during the 18th party congress in November.
Even though authorities have begun to fine tune the policy, do you think China still has a chance of moving towards a sustainable population?
I'm rather pessimistic. Even if the family-planning policy were terminated today, it would be too late to solve our rapidly ageing population, the drastic shrinkage of the labour force and the gaping hole in social-security funds that the country has already begun struggling with.
Do you have personal concerns about old age?
I don't think people in China have concrete security even in the form of bank savings or investment in property. But as I'm a permanent resident in the US, I was able to raise three children whom I might be able to rely on when I get old.
Why did you decide to have only three children, and is that a form of family planning?
I would have had more children but I don't have the financial means to support a larger family as I'm only a research professor and spent far more time on population studies than on my medical profession. But that I think backs my earlier conviction that people's financial soundness and their pursuit of a quality life help control population in a much better way than an arbitrary administrative policy.
Yi spoke to Raymond Li