Each of the books under review offers a searing, important, and eminently readable exploration of China’s one-child policy, with Mei Fong’s One Child the more comprehensive and Kay Ann Johnson’s China’s Hidden Children more focused on adoptions. The one-child policy, unlike many Chinese missteps, was not a product of Chairman Mao’s zeal or ideology; in fact, China was extricating itself from Maoism when it adopted the one-child policy.
Mao had earlier made the opposite error, doubting any need for family planning. When Ma Yinchu, the American-educated president of Peking University, suggested in the 1950s that China should try to curb runaway population growth, Mao fired him. But as Fong, a former reporter in China for The Wall Street Journal, writes, by the early 1970s China had adopted a highly successful voluntary family planning program called “Later, Longer, Fewer.” Its slogan was “One child isn’t too few, two are just fine, three are too many.” And within about a decade it managed without coercion to reduce the average number of births per woman from six to three, a remarkable achievement. It’s rarely acknowledged that the biggest drop in Chinese fertility came not from the one-child policy, but earlier during this voluntary birth control campaign.