MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, though, we're going global to talk about how families in China are changing. The country recently announced that it will ease its one-child policy. The policy was instituted in 1980 to slow population growth, and it has dramatically. But critics have long said it is the ultimate government overreach. It's contributed to the world's most unbalanced sex ratio at birth, with boys far outnumbering girls. And it's believed to have caused thousands of infant girls to be abandoned by their parents.
We wanted to hear more about all this and also talk about what the change means for Chinese families, as well as others around the world whose lives have been affected by the policy, as we shall see. So we're joined now by Jiayang Fan who lived in China until she was 8 years old. She's a freelance writer now, and she writes about China for The New Yorker online, as well as outlets like Slate and Foreign Policy. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
JIAYANG FAN: Great to be here.
MARTIN: Also with us, Meirong Liu. She's an assistant professor of social work at Howard University. She was born and raised in China. Welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.
MEIRONG LIU: Thank you for having me here.
MARTIN: And also with us, David Youtz. He is the dad of four daughters, all of them adopted from China. He's also a senior consultant with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He's been with us before in his role as a parent. Thank you so much for joining us, as well, once again.
DAVID YOUTZ: Good to be here.
MARTIN: So, Jiayang Fan, let me start with you because we need to be clear that the government didn't actually abandon the policy, they modified it. But you can have a second child if either of your parents is an only child, and there are already some exceptions. But as I understand it, the way you grew up, this was the norm. And I remember you're telling us that, you know, when you grew up, you grew up thinking that parents could biologically only have one child.
FAN: Yes, exactly. So as an 8-year-old, you do not feel like it's a restriction upon your liberties. You feel like this is the way that families are meant to be. And I would refer to my cousins as my sisters and brothers, and that seemed natural as well.
MARTIN: But, you know, you've been following this on Twitter - on Chinese Twitter. What are people saying about this?
FAN: You know, there was a questionnaire released, I believe earlier this week, asking micro bloggers what they think about this new measure. And I think two-thirds of the respondents said that they thought, in principle, they liked having the option of having another child if they so desired. But one-third said that the financial pressures were just too great. That, especially in urban centers, the cost of raising a child - health care, education, housing costs - would all deter them from considering having a second child, even if it is allowed by the government.
MARTIN: Interesting. Professor Liu, what about you? You were born and raised in China. Do you remember when you were growing up what you thought about it, or even if you did think about it?
LIU: Well, during the time I was growing up, I know, like, parents, young parents, are encouraged to support this national policy. And I remember many families who only had one child used to receive this incentives for only having one child. So at that time, of course, you think it's a very honored thing when they couldn't have one. Of course, later on, people started to comment about this little prince and little princess thing. But after going up, things got different.
MARTIN: What about your parents? I know each of your parents actually comes from a large family. And, you know, you were telling us earlier that their lives were also very much shaped by the Cultural Revolution...
MARTIN: ...To which we don't have time to go into. But have you had a chance to talk to them about it? Have they ever told you how they feel about it?
LIU: Yeah. I've been very curious about this policy, that it's very unique in the China society back in the last 30 years. So once, I guess I asked my mom, what's her opinion about this. She actually influenced by the collective thinking. Thinking is a reasonable, back in the 1970s, to curtail the population growth. And they were taught - this generation was taught to sacrifice personal choice to the societal good. That's their generation's thoughts on this one-child policy back then. But now, their opinions still are adopting the new change-up of the demographic needs of the China society right now.
MARTIN: Did you have a sense of how your schoolmates thought about it? Or was it really only when you came here that you kind of had a sense of just how much people resented or how terrible the (unintelligible) is?
LIU: It's actually - yeah, it's a very good question. It's actually, after you're grown up because when you're little, you kind of enjoyed all the attention and the resources you had, right. After you're grown up, you realized you also have all the expectation and responsibility on the single child to, you know, meet every needs of the parents. So...
MARTIN: Yeah. I see.
LIU: ...That's now changing.
MARTIN: David, what about you? I'm also curious about, you know, among the many expatriate families. I have to be honest, I only know parents of daughters. I don't know a single family who's adopted a son. So, you know, tell me what your feelings are about it. I understand that, in fact, kind of in your community of expatriates, people who are adoptive families, that this kind of -I don't know. I don't want to describe it for you, but kind of a love-hate thing with this policy?
YOUTZ: Yeah, I think love-hate's probably a good way to describe it. Not very much love, I think, for the policy, if I can speak for a very diverse community all across the U.S. There are now around 80,000 children who've been adopted from China into American families. So it's actually quite a sizable community. And yes, as you say, the great majority of those are girls. A few years back, we had a figure that floated in from somewhere that around 5 percent were boys. So you could say - I think up until the early, maybe 2005 - that our children were very much products of the one-child policy. But I think we've always felt that that was maybe the biggest of a number of different factors.
And then there were other factors that very much contributed - poverty because a great many of these children were coming from the countryside and were in social welfare institutes or orphanages out in the Chinese countryside. And then a whole complex array of traditional thinking and economic issues. The biggest one that I'm aware of I think is that lacking Social Security. The great majority of people, again out in the countryside, rely on boys to take care of parents in their old age. So I think our community has always been very shy about just simply blaming this on the one-child policy. We've always known that there were complex societal reasons going on.
MARTIN: Do you mind, David, if I ask you - and your oldest is now 18, and I know you've got the 9-year-old triplets.
MARTIN: So you wear the crown in this group. But have you ever had conversations with the girls about this?
YOUTZ: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: What do you say?
YOUTZ: I think it's...
YOUTZ: ...It's very hard to avoid. Any parent of adoptive children has these questions that constantly come up. And, of course, they usually come up when you're not expecting them - when you're in the middle of a grocery store or something. But in a way, talking about the one-child policy is sort of a perfect storm for adoptive parents with kids from China because it immediately goes to, who were my birth parents? What happened? Why couldn't they keep their baby? And, what was the place like where I came from? Is it a good place? Is it a bad place? So, you know, I think as parents, we struggle on how to talk about these things. They're very complicated. They can be very emotional.
But if you're trying to explain a national policy with all this complication to a 7-year-old, you have to try to bring it down to a very simple level without making it somehow extremely harsh or, you know. I think most of us, at the same time that we want to explain these things that are a bit dark, that are full of pain and, you know, difficulties for Chinese families, we also don't want to present China necessarily as a bad place. Most of us, of course, want our children growing up with a very positive sense of their identity as Chinese people, pride in their ethnicity. So these are actually quite complicated things to discuss with a 7-year-old or a 9-year-old.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about China's one-child policy. The government recently announced it will ease that policy and allow some couples to have more than one child or have two children. There are already some exceptions in place. But this is perceived as the biggest change in the policy since it was instituted. My guests are David Youtz. He's a dad of four and a China consultant. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Meirong Liu of Howard University's School of Social Work, was born and raised in China. And writer Jiayang Fan who lived in China until she was 8.
Professor, could you talk a little bit more about what - you were talking earlier about the little princes, little princesses that you said when you're a child, you kind of enjoyed the attention. But there have also been concerns that, you know, a generation of kids has been raised that don't really know how to share, you know, who have been - I want to ask you to wear both your hats now, and also as a professor of social work. Do you think that there's some truth to that, or you think that's overstated? What effect do you think it's had on the country do you think?
LIU: I think there's some truth on that. It's also because, in the 1980s, the Chinese government had some strategies for implementing the policy, right. So they have some slogans of, it's honor to have only one child. That one child is honored. They have the saying, like, it's honor to have one child, or you have - only one child you afford, you know, more food - something like that. So you feel honored, and then people give you more attention. It's a good thing, right, back then. And then - so of course there is all attention around you, and then you are called little prince and the little princess. But, you know, after, the societal problem comes out, in especially taking care of the elderly parents at their old age and etc. It's starting to change. So I wouldn't totally agree with the little prince, little princess thing because this generation, they have more attention when they're, you know, in the childhood, but they also have a lot of expectation and burden on their shoulders when they're grown up. So that's my conflict of feeling about this.
MARTIN: Jiayang, what do you think about that?
FAN: I think that for, you know, my generation - I was born in '84 - my parents were both one of - you know, my mother was one of three, and my father was one of six. He was from the countryside, and one of his younger sisters had to be sold. So he, I think, was very aware of the reasons behind the one-child policy. But similarly, felt conflicted because he wanted a boy and I emerged a girl, and there was, you know, no recourse. But I think for this generation - for the first generation - raising only children - I mean, they were called little emperors, and many thought that they were spoiled. They had been given, you know, all the resources that their parents could gather.
But as they're coming of age, you know, into their early twenties, late twenties, in urban centers, they've become more career oriented and, in the words of some, self-absorbed. So you have this large aging population, who have traditionally been used to the idea of depending on their children, who are sort of left to their own devices, which is why a few months earlier, when China passed, you know, the absurdly named, you know, elderly citizens law to protect them and to force children really to visit their parents, it was greeted with just a mixture of, you know, the confusion. But I think it perversely an understanding for why it was implemented. You do have an aging population who do not have a safety net, and who, you know, do not understand really nursing homes, and have nowhere to go as, you know, they become - as they are aged out of the labor force and have, you know, no large families to take care of them.
MARTIN: Have your parents ever expressed the desire to have more children?
FAN: Yes. I mean, as I've grown older - you know, my mother has this very poignant story about she was a doctor in China. And soon after I was born, she saw a child placed on the, you know, steps of her hospital. And she remembered just thinking at the time - she had this kind of moment of ambivalence - do I take this child home? I mean, she knew that - you know, I lived in Chongqing, and we were close to, you know, nearby countrysides. And she thought that, you know, probably some, you know, country girl who could not afford to bring up the child had just left it at this hospital thinking that, you know, this as good a place as any for the child to find a parent. And she has often in, you know, recent years come to reflect on that moment of ambivalence. She has thought, you know, what if I brought that child home and risked the fine and dishonor? At least I would have two children now and a larger family. And isn't that so much worthier than, you know, any dishonor I could have experienced? That would have been, you know, fleeting.
MARTIN: Well, it does bring into account all the choices, the difficult choices that people have been making all these years, really wrenching choices. Now, Professor, do you envision a time you think - I know I'm maybe taking you out of your comfort zone here...
MARTIN: ...But do you think that they might actually abandon the policy altogether? And if so, why do you think they will?
LIU: Possible. I mean, I will say possible because - but let's see. I think many people view this adjustment this time - allowing, you know, some families to have another child - as adjustment for this important step for possibly having further adjustment for this policy itself. And then many people feel like this policy is going to be implemented pretty soon, and then it can be seen as a pilot to see how things go. China has the saying, feel the stone before crossing the river. So...
MARTIN: Test the waters.
LIU: Test the waters.
MARTIN: Test the waters.
MARTIN: I understand what you're saying. Yeah, I understand your point.
LIU: So there is expectation that we're going to make more adjustment for the policy itself, but let's see what's the impact for the society and economics right now.
MARTIN: And obviously, that's going to be one of the interesting questions as we go ahead was, how will this change the society? Will people be confronted with all the choices they've made over the years, and will there be regrets? And, David, do you want to give us a final thought, though, about - anything you want to share with us about your thoughts about this?
YOUTZ: Sure. Well, I think many in our community were disappointed that the policy wasn't dropped altogether. And there have been rumors over the last three years or so that something bold and significant might happen. I think in a way, this is bold, but the significance is far less. In a way, the lack of significance here is that the party is really acknowledging and making official something that's been happening for some time. We all know that out in the countryside, there's been a sort of de facto two-child policy for quite a long time. And many people, especially those with some money who can afford a fine, have found their way around the policy.
MARTIN: Well, David Youtz is the dad of four daughters, all adopted from China. He's a senior consultant with the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He was with us from NPR New York, along with Jiayang Fan. She's a freelancer who writes about China in a number of media outlets, including The New Yorker online. And Meirong Liu is an assistant professor of social work at Howard University. She was kind enough to join us from Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you all so much for joining us. I'm sure we'll be speaking about this again.
LIU: OK, thank you very much.
YOUTZ: Thank you.
FAN: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.