On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explored the origins and negative effects of China’s “one child” policy, the government’s controversial restriction on family size. The host argued that even though the Communist Party ended the program in 2015, the unforeseen consequences will linger for decades.
The policy began in 1980 as a reaction to global concerns of overpopulation and as the Communist Party’s attempt to maintain power by boosting economic prospects and creating a higher standard of living. But Oliver said the concept was flawed from the beginning as military scientists — primarily male missile scientists — came up with the idea.
“Family planning isn’t rocket science — and that’s exactly why rocket scientists should not do it,” Oliver cracked. “It’s the same reason we don’t let OB/GYNs launch babies into space and land them on the moon. Experts should stay in their lane.”
The host explained how the policy was implemented on the national and local levels, resulting in a massive undertaking that involved millions of full-time staffers and widespread propaganda campaigns. Women were assigned birth planning workers, and local officials would issue families enormous fines — often multiple times more than their annual household incomes — for having more children than allowed.
“In China, there’s traditionally a very strong preference for boys, which is seen as, in a very real sense, an economic investment for old age as sons are expected to support their parents,” Oliver said. And parents often used extreme measures to ensure their child was male — abandoning girls altogether, having sex-selective abortions and committing female infanticide.
“I know that there are some who like to hold up China as a blanket argument against abortion in general, so just let me be clear on this,” Oliver said. “It is very easy to be both pro-choice and anti-forced abortion in the same way that you can be pro-drinking fountain and anti-waterboarding. The important thing really is: Who’s in control of the fucking process?”
The comedian also explored the consequences of the policy, noting a massive gender disparity (nearly 34 million more men than women) and an entire generation filled with many only children. In addition, as the New York Times reported in 2015, “at least 6.5 million Chinese had no official status because they were born outside the family planning rules.”
Oliver added that the gender imbalance has also led to a surge in human trafficking, with women and girls being sold as wives to Chinese men. And as China’s population has rapidly aged, the younger generation is set to face a daunting burden: Eventually, he host said, researchers estimate that each child will be responsible for caring for two parents and four grandparents.
“That’s a lot for someone to take on. And if you’ve seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you know the pressure of having four grandparents all relying on you,” Oliver joked. “Sure, best-case scenario: You win a chocolate contest and you end up impressing a slave owner by surviving his child murder factory. But that’s only gonna happen to, what, 12, 14 of them, tops? The rest are facing a big challenge here.”
From 2012 to 2017, Oliver noted, China’s working age population has shriveled by 25 million people — the equivalent of Australia’s entire population. And the government responded by ending the “one child” policy, increasing the allowed number of children to two. (As the New York Times reports, some provinces are now tightening access to abortions and making it more difficult to get a divorce.)
Oliver argued that, by continuing to restrict family size, the Chinese government still has failed to learn a “fundamental lesson”: that “people are not machines whose reproductive systems can be turned on or off at will.”