You have recently made your book One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment (One World/Pan Macmillan) available for free download in the Chinese language as a protest against the rising tide of censorship imposed by China. Was it a difficult decision to take?
It wasn’t an easy decision to make, because I knew it would entail a certain amount of cost — in terms of money and time, and opportunity cost. I also had to bear in mind this could impact any potential projects I might want to do in China. There’s always the possibility I might not be allowed back in the country, and that’s no small matter for someone whose career has relied, in part, on significant work experience there. But the risk is less for someone like me, who as a foreign citizen, is protected to some extent from Beijing’s reach. It’s far more dangerous for people like the Hong Kong booksellers, who were abducted and saw their livelihoods destroyed for publishing books critical of China, or writers and translators in China. So, in that sense, I felt I, from my more protected perch, should do something on behalf of others who are more constrained.
Censorship of the media has been on the rise in the last few years across the world. Do you see it as the beginning of the end of the liberal world order?
I think things come in cycles, and this is definitely a cycle of increased global repression, a shrinking in that we see in China, with Brexit in Britain, and the recent presidential elections in US. Which is why it’s ever more important to make a difference in whatever small ways we can. This is not a time to sit and cry.
How do you think journalists should cope with the obstacles they increasingly find in their way?
For a lot of the world, the idea of being a journalist is rather a low status — you respectfully and dutifully record what important people say. In Chinese, the word for journalist is dizhe — literally ‘recorder’. But journalism is not stenography. It’s truth-telling. We need to remember that.
How stringent was the censorship when you were posted in China as a journalist back in 2001?
Foreign correspondents don’t have as much of a problem as local reporters, who had all sorts of strictures on what they could say and how they could say it. For foreign reporters, these restraints lay more in official restrictions on our movements. There were rules that required us to seek permission from local authorities before going there to report, for example, which made it hard to cover fast-breaking stories, or anything of a sensitive nature. So, the trick was to go somewhere without waiting for permission, report the story and get out quick before authorities became aware of our presence. A couple of times I was detained briefly, or asked to leave protest areas. Once, local authorities chased my car down and tried to detain me, but I fobbed them off with a story of being late to interview some important official. I didn’t have it as difficult as some other folks, since I am ethnic Chinese and can blend in with the locals, unlike, say, a 6 ft tall, white guy with a big camera.
In your book, you talk about how you were the youngest of five daughters and that you were told that ‘you’d never have been born’ had your family not immigrated to Malaysia. Was engaging with the one-child policy on your mind when you first went to China?
Not really. The Wall Street Journal’s chief focus is economic and business stories, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when China’s economic engine was hitting its stride, things like the one-child policy had receded in the background. The focus was on how folks were, for the first time, owning their own homes and (were) able to buy cars and furniture and how they were drinking Starbucks and studying abroad. This was unimaginable even five years before. It was only gradually that I realised the more insidious effects of the one-child policy: factories complaining they were running out of workers to hire, or families with sons borrowing huge sums of money to make their single-child more eligible in a marriage market that had a significant shortage of women.
Population control was not unusual in the ’80s. India, for instance, also had a brief tryst with a fertility-control programme. Where do you think policy makers go wrong when they formulate plans for nations as large and diverse as India or China?
I think the big problem people have is equating population control with extreme programmes such as China’s one-child policy or Indira Gandhi’s forced sterilisation (campaign). They are not one and the same. It’s not a bad idea to reduce or slow population growth through giving women more work and educational opportunities, making access to contraception and abortion cheap and affordable. But big nations like India and China, with the pressure of huge populations, made the mistake of trying to impose stringent, coercive programmes that aimed at reducing population growth quickly. It’s like the difference between dieting sensibly to reduce weight or going on a crazy diet consuming nothing but lemon water. In the latter, you might shed a lot of weight quickly, but with long-term effects on your health. China was in a hurry to shed population quickly so it embarked on an extreme measure. The result is a hugely imbalanced population that’s too old, too male and too few, with huge implications on the future growth and happiness of its people.
Were there any redeeming features of China’s one-child policy?
Women born in cities after the imposition of the one-child policy were the chief beneficiaries — as the only child, with no male siblings to compete with, they receive all parental resources. So there were huge gains in terms of women in China getting into college and higher education. But you have to question if this gain could only have been accomplished with the one-child policy — after all, women in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore also made similar advancements, without anything as restrictive.
There has recently been a lot of outrage over the Chinese government’s offer to remove Intra Uterine Devices (IUD) at the state’s cost. In the year since the policy was reversed, allowing Chinese nationals to have two children, how do you see it playing out?
Giving people more choices in determining family size is never a bad thing, but recent history shows it’s very difficult for a country to reverse falling birth rates. The general trend today in modern countries with large urban populations is for smaller families. The only developed nations that, so far, have had some success in increasing population size have had to offer substantial benefits — subsidised schooling, child care, parental benefits. These are expensive to fund, and it’s unclear how far China is willing to expand on these services. There’s also the problem of having spent 30-plus years in ceaseless propaganda about how the one-child family is the ideal. Some of these ideas have stuck, and it will be very hard to dislodge quickly.
One of my favourite (and quite heartbreaking) characters from your book is Snow, who went every day to Tiananmen Square before the Beijing Olympics with a placard saying, ‘I want to go to school.’ Did she ever manage to get her hukou certificate? Are you in touch with some of the people who shared their stories with you?
After much difficulty, I heard Snow was able to obtain official status. But this process has eaten up her whole life, and she cannot get back the years when she wasn’t able to get formal schooling — it’s all gone. I do keep in touch with some of the folks I talked to, and am amazed at the twists and turns their lives have taken. Like, Liu Ting, the young man I wrote about, who is one of China’s most famous Little Emperors, because he took his mother to college with him. He’s now had gender assignment surgery, and has a promising career as a beauty queen and model. People have tremendous capacity to surprise you, and the stories of their resilience and ingenuity is what I wanted to capture in the book.
You weave in the personal with the political in your analysis of China’s one-child policy. How did it change you as a person?
They say writing is the best form of therapy. I think by raising some of the questions I raised in the book — why do we want children? What are the costs of parenthood? What gives meaning to life? — and, trying to answer them in a thoughtful fashion, helped me figure out what’s important
In your epilogue, you talk of how, one day, you intend to tell your sons the story of a country whose emperor decreed that its inhabitants have only one child and turned it into a nation of the old. Have you started on the stories yet?
That’s for the next book.