CNN's Steven Jiang grew up as a member of the first generation of China's one-child policy
He says he didn't question the strict policy until he began covering an activist opposed to it
China's leaders hope to combat problems of aging society and economic slowdown, he says
Growing up in Shanghai in the 1980s, I never thought much of the fact that most of my classmates were only children.
Years later I realized that I belonged to the first generation of China’s strict one-child family planning policy, which started in the late 1970s and remained largely intact until the ruling Communist Party decided to scrap it Thursday to allow married couples nationwide to have two children.
READ: China one-child policy to end
My classmates and I all lived close to school – in narrow alleyways lined with three-story houses, each with multiple families packed in. We studied and played together all the time – none experiencing the loneliness that later generations of the single-child policy were said to suffer in high-rise apartments.
Jiang family photo
CNN's Steven Jiang aged about 2 with his mom and dad, Jane Zhang and Zhaorong Jiang.
It was a simpler time when almost everyone in China – even in its biggest city – was equally poor. Our parents looked way too preoccupied with juggling full-time jobs and full-time parenting to contemplate what life would be like with one more child.
We learned early on in our political education class that “one couple, one child” was a “fundamental national policy.” Most of us bought the party line – not just to pass the required exams – that millions of prevented births helped China develop its economy and improve its people’s living standard.
Jiang family photo
CNN's Steven Jiang, aged 6 in a school photo in 1982. Most of his classmates were also only children. He is front row, third from left.
To many Chinese of my age who grew up in the cities, the one-child policy was just the way it was, and everyone seemed to be fine with it.
It was much later in the United States that I began to stumble upon horror stories blamed on the policy – forced abortions and sterilizations, exorbitant fines slapped on violators and demolition of their homes.
READ: Why the policy update is no silver bullet for economy
After I started covering this issue as a journalist, one person more than anyone helped me put a face on the controversies surrounding the policy.
Chen Guangcheng was a blind human rights activist whose dramatic escape from 18 months of illegal house arrest in the Chinese countryside threw him – and his cause – into an international spotlight.
His supporters maintain his longtime legal advocacy for victims of brutal enforcement of the one-child policy by rural officials had led to his persecution and earlier imprisonment.
As I followed Chen from his village to Beijing and eventually the United States, his stories kept reminding me of the dark side of a policy that the party still credits for the country’s breakneck economic growth in the past three decades.
“One child or two children – the Communist Party has no rights to decide how many children people want to have,” Chen said from Washington, where he now lives, his voice showing no trace of joy about the end of a policy against which he had fought so hard.
“From the central government all the way to the village level, do you know how many family planning officials the system employs?” he asked rhetorically.
“They reap huge economic benefits from the brutal enforcement of this or any policy,” he added. “Too much entrenched interest – that’s why the party won’t scrap the entire family planning system.”
01:57 - Source: CNN
ICC to investigate alleged war crimes by Israel and Hamas
FILE- In this Nov. 7, 2019 file photo, the International Criminal Court, or ICC, is seen in The Hague, Netherlands. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Wednesday, March 3, 2021 that she has launched an investigation into alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories. Fatou Bensouda said in a statement the probe will be conducted "independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favor."(AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
ICC to investigate alleged war crimes by Israel and Hamas
Paul Kane/Getty Images
Attorney-General Christian Porter speaks during a media conference on March 03, 2021 in Perth, Australia. Attorney-General Christian Porter has publicly confirmed he is the cabinet minister named in a historical rape allegation from 1988 which came to light in the last week and has emphatically denied the allegations.
Australian Attorney General denies historical rape allegation
Cuba aims to produce its own Covid-19 vaccine
Police shoot stun grenades at Arab Israelis protesting an increase in gang violence in their towns.
Police shoot stun grenades at peaceful Arab-Israeli protesters
olcanological Survey of Indonesia via Reuters
Mount Sinabung in Indonesia erupted on March 2, launching a cloud of ash and dust several kilometers into the sky. No one was injured in the eruption but authorities have warned people to stay away from the crater.
See this volcano in Indonesia erupt
New satellite images taken by Maxar show that North Korea sometime in the past year built a structure that may be intended to obscure entrances to an underground facility where nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons components are stored.
See images US intelligence claims is a secret weapons site
nigeria kidnapped schoolgirls released Busari pkg intl ldn vpx_00000423.png
Tears of joy and relief as 279 Nigerian schoolgirls return home
STR/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Protesters take cover behind homemade shields as tear gas is fired during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 1, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Footage shows tear gas, flash bangs used on protesters in Myanmar
01 rivers migrants pkg 02282021
CNN correspondent speaks to migrants making dangerous journey to US
Kiran Ridley/Getty Images
PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 01: Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy leaves court after being found guilty of corruption and influence-peddling on March 01, 2021 in Paris, France. Mr. Sarkozy is only the second French president in modern times to have been convicted, after the conviction of former President Jacques Chirac in 2011. (Photo by Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)
'An earthquake in French politics': CNN reporter on Sarkozy sentence
Hear from schoolgirl who escaped abduction in Nigeria
UK police appealed for help Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, to find three teenage girls who are missing from their homes in London and are believed to be making their way to Syria.
The girls, two of them 15 and one 16, have not been seen since Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, when, police say, they took a flight to Istanbul. One has been named as Shamima Begum, 15, who may be traveling under the name of 17-year-old Aklima Begum, and a second as Kadiza Sultana, 16. The third girl is identified as Amira Abase, 15.
Shamima Begum loses legal bid to return home to appeal citizenship revocation
How a religious festival turned into a massacre
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 2018.
US intel report: Saudi Crown Prince responsible for approving Khashoggi operation
A Fijian rugby team serenaded workers in the Sydney hotel where they are quarantining.
See Fijian rugby team serenade quarantine staff in Australia
One thing Chen seems to agree with the Communist Party is that China is facing a double whammy of labor shortage and aging society amid an economic slowdown. The activist said he thinks the new policy is “too little, too late,” but the leaders are banking on it to address both of those challenges.
They tested it two years ago by allowing some couples – if at least one of the spouses is a single child – to have two children. By officials’ own admission in state media, however, their target audience – middle-class urbanites – largely failed to respond, citing the high cost of pregnancy and child rearing.
That picture doesn’t seem to have changed much, rendering the immediate impact of the latest policy change minimal.
My cousin Terry, a media executive in his early 30s living in Beijing with his civil servant wife and 6-year-old son, posted a screen grab of my CNN report on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform. Above the picture, he wrote: “Bro, even if what you said is true, I can’t afford to have a second one!”
READ: The big winner from China’s two-child policy is …
But the party can’t afford to let China get old before getting rich.
As the curtain falls on the one-child policy in China, I wonder just a little what it would be like to have a sibling.
READ: China’s one-child policy ends – too little, too late?