Mei Fong on the one-child policy and China’s demographics


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Mei Fong, the author of One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment, discusses one of the world's most controversial approaches to population management.

Image courtesy of Mei Fong.

The first day of 2016 marked the official end of China’s one-child policy, one of the most controversial and draconian approaches to population management in human history. The rules have not been abolished but modified, allowing all married Chinese couples to have two children. However, the change may have come too late to address the negative ways the policy has shaped the country’s demographics and the lives of its citizens for decades to come.

In this podcast, Jeremy and Kaiser talk with Mei Fong about the policy’s history, its effectiveness and the consequences of nearly four decades of mandating a family’s size. Mei also discusses her heartbreaking encounters with parents who lost their only children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and their subsequent rush to have their vasectomies and sterilizations reversed. She provides insight into the people who designed the policy (rocket scientists — literally, rocket scientists!), those who enforced the rules, what lies ahead with the relaxation in the policy, the 30 million unfortunate bachelors who can’t find a mate, and the fate of grandparents who have only one descendant in a culture that used to regard a large family as the ultimate happiness.

For further reading, don’t miss Jeremy Goldkorn’s Q&A with Mei Fong, in which she discusses her early life and career, from developing an interest in journalism after a meeting with Queen Elizabeth to winning a Pulitzer to navigating the white-male dominated ranks of the foreign correspondence field. Our Sinica backgrounder, “The past and future of China’s one-child policy,” provides different perspectives on the controversial subject, some of which highlight the benefits it may have had. And don’t miss this podcast episode from 2012, featuring Evan Osnos and Alexa Olesen discussing the one-child policy.


Jeremy: China: When the Cats Rule, by Ian Johnson, on the 20th-century Chinese writer Lao She.

Mei: The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee; Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande; When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.

Kaiser: The television show BrainDead.