[Guest post by Aaron Worthing; if you have tips, please send them here. Or by Twitter @AaronWorthing.]
So Sunday the AP ran an article entitled “One-child policy a surprising boon for China girls [sic].” Now, on one level, this article is downright risible, where the author writes, for instance:
A Communist Youth League member at one of China’s top science universities, [Mia Wang] boasts enviable skills in calligraphy, piano, flute and ping pong.
Such gifted young women are increasingly common in China’s cities and make up the most educated generation of women in Chinese history. Never have so many been in college or graduate school, and never has their ratio to male students been more balanced.
To thank for this, experts say, is three decades of steady Chinese economic growth, heavy government spending on education and a third, surprising, factor: the one-child policy.
Now, there is a lot wrong with that. First, this article strikes me as more than a little gullible to what might be Chinese propaganda. The Chinese have a long history of presenting an extraordinary example of a thing to the world and telling the west that this is a “typical” example, and the west has a long history of swallowing that bullsh__. I remember, for instance, watching a “documentary” about the wonderful barefoot doctor program instituted under Mao in Chinese history class, our professor pointing out how perfect everyone’s teeth was. Later he showed us a documentary made without official state approval, and a much uglier reality was shown.*
But more fundamentally it is like writing an article about the positive side of the Holocaust. It’s not to say that no good came of even something as evil as the Holocaust. For instance, I think it is fair to say that the entire Civil Rights Movement might not have been successful but for the collective revulsion that Americans felt when learning of that atrocity. But the upbeat tone is positively repellant.
But at the same time, even with the filter of propaganda and the repellant tone something important is being hit on, here:
Since 1979, China’s family planning rules have barred nearly all urban families from having a second child in a bid to stem population growth. With no male heir competing for resources, parents have spent more on their daughters’ education and well-being, a groundbreaking shift after centuries of discrimination.
“They’ve basically gotten everything that used to only go to the boys,” said Vanessa Fong, a Harvard University professor and expert on China’s family planning policy.
Wang and many of her female classmates grew up with tutors and allowances, after-school classes and laptop computers. Though she is just one generation off the farm, she carries an iPad and a debit card, and shops for the latest fashions online.
Her purchases arrive at Tsinghua, where Wang’s all-girls dorm used to be jokingly called a “Panda House,” because women were so rarely seen on campus. They now make up a third of the student body, up from one-fifth a decade ago.
“In the past, girls were raised to be good wives and mothers,” Fong said. “They were going to marry out anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal if they didn’t want to study.”
Not so anymore. Fong says today’s urban Chinese parents “perceive their daughters as the family’s sole hope for the future,” and try to help them to outperform their classmates, regardless of gender.
This is of course one side of how China is responding to this shortage of women. Another side to it is considerably uglier: slave marriages. That is literally men desperate to have wives resort to buying them at slave markets, consigning these women (often abducted from other countries) to a life of continual rape. And the stories I have read about this were simply horrifying. For instance, there is one of a retarded girl being traded for a goat. Or in another story, a woman who was being kept in marital slavery saw a man in a police uniform and ran to him for aid. But when she approached him, she learned he was the cousin of her “husband,” disguised as a cop, testing her. The two men proceeded to beat and rape her, to teach her that she should never even risk seeking help (she had been subsequently rescued, however).
And it is difficult to get hard numbers on how widespread the problem was. For instance, in one rural county, officials admitted that 50% of the marriages were in fact slave marriages. One has to wonder how many more have not been discovered.
Both the success of individual Chinese women, portrayed in the article, and the enslavement of other (often non-Chinese) women in slave marriages represent not only two diametrically opposed responses to the demographic shifts caused by the one-child policy, but all of it, even the genocide of women both in and out of the womb highlights the essential problem in Chinese culture. In Metro Broadcasting v. FCC (1990), Justice O’Connor wrote that
At the heart of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection lies the simple command that the Government must treat citizens as individuals, not as simply components of a racial, religious, sexual or national class.
(Internal quotations omitted.) Indeed, if one understand the individualist focus of the Equal Protection Clause, it helps you to understand one of the mysteries that confuse many modern students: how could the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment be so racist, while clearly advocating for an amendment that prohibited racial discrimination? Mind you, there were exceptions, Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania being a vital example (I’ll probably talk a little more about him this weekend). But for the most part even the advocates of legal equality for African Americans were overwhelmingly racist. So what gives?
But while the founders generally agreed that as a group black people were inferior to whites, they also recognized that there were individual exceptions to the rule. And that was self-evidently true at the time. For instance, Frederick Douglass was clearly superior in intellect to many of the white people who lived at the time, and most people knew it. So they took an agnostic attitude about things. Where the discriminators would like to fix the game—to give their side an unfair advantage—the advocates of equal opportunity wanted to give everyone a fair shake, and whoever was best would do the best, be that person be black, white or whatever. So where the modern egalitarian feels it is necessary to insist on the equality of the races, at the time of the founding of the Fourteenth Amendment, it was only necessary to believe that some individual black persons might be equal to some individual whites, to justify granting equality of opportunity.
So at the core of the American approach to this has been a respect and recognition of the individual, and I dare say a reasonable sense of individualism underlies much of the American approach to civil and political rights generally. For instance, our insistence on freedom of speech is devoted to the idea that a view held by even one man should be allowed to be voiced.
But in China, there isn’t even a word for individualism. The closest term reads something more like “selfishness.” So it is difficult to even communicate the idea that an individual has inherent value.
But in the case of these successful girls in China, fate and the genocide of their sex, has guided their parents toward a concept they cannot articulate. They are forced to look at these girls as individuals, with hopes and dreams, and with inherent value. By contrast, those who abort female fetuses or commit infanticide against those girls fortunate enough to have escaped the birth canal, they were not seen as an individual with inherent value. And that is the fundamental divide in modern China—between this nascent respect for individuality, and collective horror.
* And I am not picking on the rural Chinese for having bad teeth, just using it as an example of how whitewashed the Chinese government can make things.
[Posted and authored by Aaron Worthing.]