We start Mei Fong's book on a train from Beijing to a town in Sichuan. It's 2008 and a deadly earthquake has just struck southern China. Fong, then a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, is on her way to cover the story. She is travelling with a couple who suspect their only child has perished at school. The train is overcrowded and the journey long. By day three, the wife, who has not stopped crying, is too dehydrated to produce tears. It is, Fong says, "a prickly ride, sour with tension and fear." When they finally arrive, the parents' worst fears are confirmed.
It is commonly cited that China's one-child policy has averted 400 million births. Fong contests this (the calculation was haphazard and based on guesswork, she says). She also sees this flawed statistic as little cause for celebration.
The book divides along two lines of inquiry; one looking at how the policy has been applied and the other its consequences. Chapters are illustrated with anecdotes and interviews from people across the board. At one stage we meet the population police, as Fong calls them, and hear about the tactics they use, which range from the savage (a forced abortion at nine months is one example) to the everyday (making women publicly urinate bi-monthly). One former enforcer, Gao, was responsible for approximately 1,500 abortions, one-third in late-term. Now in the US, she looks back with remorse, describing her former self as a "monster".