With immigration and reproductive rights as hot-button issues in upcoming U.S. elections, it’s worth considering how China’s one-child policy — recently expanded to a two-child limit — has affected its largest trading partner.
In a nutshell, the one-child policy has been great for America. The indirect benefits include a huge influx of Chinese students in U.S. educational institutions — more than one-quarter of 1 million at last count — to some 80,000 adoptees in American households. Most recently, a small but affluent wave of birth tourists have been swelling the coffers of American reproductive centers. Some come in search of treatments that are illegal or unregulated in China thanks to the one-child policy.
But while the one-child policy has indirectly benefited America, America, in turn, has been less than kind. We shut our doors to those suffering the worst excesses of the policy.
For years, U.S. lawmakers refused to recognize the one-child policy as a form of persecution worthy of asylum. In 1989, Congress voted post-Tiananmen Square for an Emergency Chinese Immigration Relief Act that would have allowed Chinese citizens to claim refugee status on the basis of the one-child policy, only to have the bill vetoed by George H.W. Bush.
It was not until 1996 that that the Illegal Immigration Reform Act made it possible for those fleeing the one-child policy to claim asylum in the United States. Unfortunately, numbers were capped at a mere 1,000 a year, a token amount.
In 2005, that cap was lifted. But two years later, America’s doors closed once more after a Department of Justice report that China’s one-child policy was enforced using “noncoercive” tactics. That decision essentially led to U.S. courts denying many one-child-related asylum petitions, even though mass-sterilization drives were going on as late as 2010, according to Amnesty International. Forced abortions were happening as recently as 2012, with the infamous case of Feng Jianmei, a woman from the countryside who had been seven months pregnant when officials dragged her to the hospital.
Americans have also reacted with hostility to a recent wave of birth tourists from China, even though the numbers are small — no more than about 1 percent of all Chinese tourists visiting the United States, estimates University of California, Riverside professor Karthick Ramakrishnan.
Nonetheless, Jeb Bush infamously said the derogatory term “anchor babies” applied to Asians, not Hispanics. Federal agents also launched a raid on several Chinese maternity birthing centers in Southern California in 2013, “likely to culminate in the biggest federal criminal case ever against the booming ‘anchor baby’ industry,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
It’s likely this crackdown will hurt America more. Chinese birth tourists, especially affluent ones, will simply go elsewhere. Meanwhile, such targeting puts at risk a robust and growing trend in Chinese tourism, expected to reach $81 billion by 2012, observes Ramakrishan.
Perhaps the only “refugees” of the one-child policy that America has welcomed with open arms are the 80,000 adoptees, mostly female children abandoned when the policy was launched. But those children served a purpose, filling a huge demand for healthy adoptable infants with no strings attached. That led to a general disinclination to question if these children were truly unwanted, even after a string of baby-trafficking scandals at Chinese orphanages starting from 2005. These incidents indicate some of these children were not merely abandoned, but bought or seized after supply of adoptable infants dwindled. Yet this is not recognized as trafficking by U.S. law since these children are not sold into slavery.
This means their birthparents in China have no legal recourse to getting their children back. Farmer Yang Libing’s daughter was seized by family-planning officials and put into an orphanage. With the help of a small U.S.-based organization that tracks Chinese adoptions, he believes she is now living in an Illinois suburb. Yet he has about as much hope of getting justice, or even initiating contact, as going to the moon.
America will struggle in 2016 with its own battles over immigration and reproductive rights, including a growing move to defund Planned Parenthood. With a looming demographic disaster in the form of a too-old, too-male and too-few population, China should be an object lesson on the dangers of state intervention into the womb.
The one-child policy’s effect on the United States is also a worthy reminder that part of America’s soft power — a magnet that draws individuals from across the world,and enriches the country — is the power it offers people to choose if, when and how many children they want to have.
By Mei Fong – Pulitzer Prize-winning former China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and author of “One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment.”