Charting Cultural Change in China

Last month, China announced it would close all “re-education through labor” camps and ease the policy that has limited most urban Chinese to having one child. Questioning Authority spoke with Professor of Asian Studies Ying Wang about the changes.

Questioning Authority: In the West, we’ve heard about the horrors the labor camps inflicted on those sent there. What isn’t as well known about them?

YW: That the labor camp system has been shrinking and disappearing for years. The labor camp was an historical phenomenon used mainly for “political enemies" before the 1980s. China has since learned from the West how to control behavior through methods such as community support and probation rather than using prisons. Beijing was trying the Western probation model a decade ago. And now universities train people not for the labor camp model but for the new model.

QA: You lived in China until your early twenties; did you know anyone who was sent to a labor camp?

Ying Wang: Most people sent to camps were those labeled “political enemies” rather than criminals, but a high school classmate of mine spent three years in a labor camp in the 1970s for cutting off women’s hair with a razor.

QA: Since most camp inmates were political dissidents, will closing the camps lead to an upsurge in political protests?

YW: I don’t expect large demonstrations; today you hear more political protests online rather than in the streets. People are already quite daring and outspoken, though you wouldn’t know that unless you look at Chinese Internet sites.

QA: Under the old policy, urban Chinese were allowed to have only one child unless both parents were themselves only children. The revised policy lets urban couples have two children if one parent was an only child. Is this a positive change?

YW: Opening this up will be a good thing for Chinese society. The policy started in the 1970s to slow down population growth, and that’s worked, but it caused unexpected problems too. Because fewer babies were born, a smaller group of young people now needs to provide for a larger group of elders. There’s a gender imbalance, with 121 boys born for every 100 girls, so a huge group of young men may not find wives. Parents whose only child dies young suffer psychological problems. And only children are usually totally spoiled, yet also feel highly pressured to meet their parents’ expectations.

QA: Will permitting more couples to have two children make overpopulation worse?

YW: I wouldn’t worry too much about a huge baby boom, because in China raising children is very expensive. Even under the old one-child policy, only about 10 percent of those who could have another child did so. And it’s not uncommon for Chinese couples to decide not to have children; I don’t have any.

QA: Do Westerners see this phenomenon differently than Chinese?

YW: China has been severely criticized by Western countries for this policy, for human-rights reasons primarily. I belong to the generation affected by the [old] policy. Why should we be criticized when we are the ones who have made the sacrifice? I feel that’s what my generation had to do for the betterment of Chinese society and the whole world.

QA: What’s the biggest way Chinese society has changed because of the one-child policy?

YW: Chinese used to believe totally that happiness meant having kids who would take care of you when you’re old. Now older people are healthier and live longer, but they no longer can expect to be cared for by their children. This is a huge cultural change.

—Interview by Emily Harrison Weir