FROM TOO MANY PEOPLE TO TOO FEW

Soon there will be more Chinese bachelors than Saudi Arabians, more Chinese retirees than Europeans. A review of Mei Fong's One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment, originally published in The Wall Street Journal in 2016.

Chinese culture is centered on the family. The parent-child relationship is the first of the five Confucian relationships that govern society and among the most important. Families in China were traditionally large, in part because children—particularly sons—are needed to perform ancestor rites. Even language reflects the importance of family: Chinese contains distinctive words for paternal and maternal uncles, aunts and grandparents, as well as for older and younger brothers and sisters. And so the Chinese Communist Party’s 1980 introduction of the one child policy reshaped a society once steeped in filial piety.

The grand experiment also proved grossly inhumane, yielding, to start with, countless forced abortions. Provincial officials were given birth quotas—at times absurd ones like “no births within the next hundred days”—and were demoted or dismissed if they didn’t meet them. In “One Child,” Mei Fong talks to one cigarette-puffing rural family-planning worker who recalls escorting a woman on the back of a bicycle to abort her third child. A family-planning official now in exile claims to the author that, to meet abortion quotas, some women were forced to undergo operations when they weren’t in fact pregnant.

Today the one-child policy has left in its wake a ballooning population of pensioners with few workers to support them and, thanks to sex-selective abortions by couples intent on getting a son, millions of men who are likely doomed to bachelorhood. In less than a decade, Ms. Fong writes, “there will be more Chinese bachelors than Saudi Arabians, more Chinese retirees than all Europeans.”

The Chinese government’s decision, this past fall, to loosen family-planning regulations was late in coming and disappointingly cautious; rather than scrap limits altogether, China simply moved to a two-child policy. Yet to Chinese people who had suffered under birth limits for decades, the change was hugely significant. Ms. Fong, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, has written a timely, important work that takes stock of the one-child policy’s damage.

At its adoption 35 years ago, the one-child policy was actually seen as a form of economic stimulus. Deng Xiaoping, the leader who introduced market reforms, had vowed to quadruple China’s per capita GDP by 2000. Reducing the denominator—the per capita part—was much easier than boosting production. Planners calculated that only a cap of one child per couple would enable China to reach Deng’s goal—even though they had only the sketchiest idea of China’s actual population size at the time. (The last census had been taken in 1964.) Although China’s per capita GDP skyrocketed, as planners hoped, unfettered growth brought with it numerous costs.

The Chinese government claims that the policy averted 400 million births. In fact, Ms. Fong says, that figure is “an exaggeration based on faulty math and wishful thinking.” Defenders of the one-child policy often say that the policy has been at least an environmental success. Such praise seems baffling considering that China’s feverish rate of industrialization has led to blackened rivers, polluted groundwater and cities thick with smog. The one-child policy had other far-reaching effects, which Ms. Fong details.

Traditionally, Chinese children are expected to revere parents and look after them in old age to repay them for their years of sacrifice—an expectation drilled into them by television and media. A medieval collection of tales still told to children features a son who tastes his father’s fecal matter to gauge how sick he is and a child who bares his skin to mosquitoes, encouraging the insects to bite him rather than his parents. Ms. Fong follows a 20-something man in a town outside Shanghai whose heroic efforts to care for his ailing mother while juggling school and work turned him into a national celebrity.

The coddling of China’s “little emperor” generation has shifted the traditional balance of power toward the young, however. Chinese parents raised under the hardship of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution have devoted unparalleled resources and energy to raising their only children—and saddled them with unparalleled expectations. There are too few children to support the elderly, and on top of this some choose not to: With an inadequate social safety net and no one to foot their bills, nearly a quarter of China’s 185 million retirees live on less than a dollar a day. Rural Chinese villages are filled with senior citizens who lack sufficient medical care, and rates of elder abuse and suicide among the aging are on the rise. In 2013, Beijing even passed a law requiring children to visit their aging parents frequently.

That law is of little help to China’s estimated one million parents who have lost their only child. Even nursing homes won’t take them, as Ms. Fong writes, “because they have no progeny to authorize treatments or act as payment guarantors.” Ms. Fong reminds us that, when we read of a shoddily constructed school collapsing in an earthquake or workers perishing in an industrial explosion, the people dying are often their parents’ only children.

The author spent over a decade reporting from Asia, and “One Child” is evocatively rendered and peppered with quirky characters, including a sex-doll salesman and a dating guru who claims that overly assertive women contract breast cancer. Ms. Fong’s description of a Kunming hospice that smells like “pork bone soup and instant noodles mingled with the occasional waft of urine from the toilets and a fug of cigarette smoke” immediately transported me to the hospitals I visited while living in China.

Ms. Fong writes of a village called New Peace where families have resorted to buying wives from other provinces for their sons. She rightly observes that most of the young people of working age—including unattached men—are off working in cities. The men’s parents arrange wives for them from afar. She also introduces us to a phosphate miner who, after losing his daughter in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake at age 50, reverses his vasectomy—a product of an era when such procedures were implemented forcefully and often in public spaces “as an advertisement for family planning.” A staff member at the clinic that the miner visits tells Ms. Fong that she often sees female patients who have difficulty conceiving because they have scarred their tubes through multiple abortions. Yet throughout the book, everyone from villagers to scholars echo a common Chinese idiom: Ren tai duo. Too many people.

“One Child” is, like the policy’s abolition, long overdue, and Ms. Fong was the perfect person to write it. Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, the fifth of five daughters conceived in the hope of a son, the author weaves into her book the story of her own journey to motherhood. After a miscarriage, she undergoes in vitro fertilization in Beijing, learning firsthand about a fertility industry that is, ironically, booming in the land of population control. (Because “multiples” are exempt from the policy, some shrewd parents use fertility drugs to have more than one child.) Unfortunately Ms. Fong’s personal story—that of a woman interviewing families shaped by the one-child policy as she is in the midst of her own difficult path to parenthood—drops off for whole chapters. Her path to IVF, along with her twin sons’ eventual birth in California, is overshadowed by her other reporting, producing a certain disjointedness.

But the eclipse of a personal story is forgivable in a book about a policy that has thoroughly altered the world’s largest nation. By 2100, according to one demographer, China’s population is projected to decline to around 500 million from 1.4 billion, and most scholars believe that the belated switch to a two-child policy is unlikely to spark a significant baby boom. “No other country has ever shed this much of its population without the aid of warfare or pestilence,” writes Ms. Fong. Ren tai duo? Not for long.