How Does China Enforce Its One-Baby Policy?

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tomwang11/iStock via Getty Images

Most people have heard that in China, you're only allowed to have one kid. But does that apply to everyone? And how is that enforced?

How did this whole thing start?

When Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, he envisioned China as a superpower. A great nation would need lots of manpower behind its army and economy, so Mao encouraged the Chinese to multiply. The new communist government condemned birth control and banned imports of contraceptives, and the population almost doubled under Mao's reign.

This growth quickly strained the country's food supply, and in 1955, the government reversed course and launched a campaign promoting birth control.

Over the next two decades, during which China went through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the government flip-flopped on population control and ran propaganda campaigns promoting or condemning it, depending on their need for a labor force. The population rose and fell accordingly, but by the mid 1970s, it had leveled off, and China had a quarter of the world's people living on just 7 percent of world's arable land. Growth was just around the corner, with the majority of the population under 30-years-old and getting ready to have children. Another Mao-style population boom would have been disastrous, straining resources and threatening standards of living. Birth control propaganda wouldn't cut it, and the government sought a more forceful method of population control. In 1979 they introduced a policy that limiting some families to having only one child.

Does it apply to all 1 billion+ Chinese?

No. The one-child policy (or, translated from the Chinese name, "policy of birth planning") only applies to 40% to 63% of the population, depending on whether you're talking to China's National Population and Family Planning Commission or American academics. Specifically, the policy applies to urban married couples who are part of the nation's Han ethnic majority.

Who gets an exemption?

Wang Feng, a sociologist at UC Irvine who's studied the policy and its effects, says that the system of exemptions is about as complex as the American tax code. Among those who pretty much have blanket immunity to the policy are all non-Han ethnic groups, anyone living in Hong Kong or Macau, and foreigners living in China, .

Since the policy is enforced at the provincial level, other groups can get exceptions in certain areas. In some rural areas, families are allowed a second if the first is a girl or is mentally or physically disabled. Some provinces allow couples to have two children if neither partner has siblings, or if either is a disabled military veteran. After an earthquake devastated the province of Sichuan on 2008, the provincial government extended an exception to parents who had lost children in the disaster.

Some provincial exemptions can get a little bizarre. The New York Times reports that couples in  Zhejiang can have two kids if the wife has one sister and her husband lives with her family to help take care of her parents. The sister doesn't get an exception, though. Beijing makes an exception for couples where the husband’s brother is infertile and does not adopt a child and both husbands have rural residence permits. In Fujian a couple can have a second kid if the provincial population density is less than 50 people per .38 square miles, or one person per 11 acres at the time, or if each spouse farms at least an acre and a half of land.

How is the policy enforced?

Population and Family Planning Commissions exist at the national, provincial and local levels of government to promote the policy, register births, and carry out family inspections. Provincial governments are responsible for enforcing the policy and do so through a mix of rewards and punishments doled out by local officials. In most provinces, having a an extra child gets you a fine, the amount of which varies across provinces. In some places, the fine is a set amount (usually in the thousands of dollars), and in others it's based on a percentage of the violator's annual income. In some provinces, policy violators can also have their property and/or belongings confiscated and lose their jobs.

Couples who delay having a child, or who voluntarily follow the policy even if they're exempt, get some perks for playing along.  Depending on the province where they live, they may receive a "Certificate of Honor for Single-Child Parents," a monthly stipend from the government, special pension benefits, preferential treatment when applying for government jobs, free water, tax breaks, or bonus points on the child's school entrance exams.

Are there any loopholes or workarounds?

Nature always finds a way, and in China, money helps nature along greatly. In many rural areas and even some urban ones, couples can pay a fee to the local government and receive a permit to have a second, third or even fourth child.

Couples can scam the government, too, and hide extra kids by registering the birth under a false name or in a different province. If a province allows second children in the event of the first being disabled, couples might be able to stretch the definition of "disabled" in their favor. In Hunan, for example, some people got exemptions because of first borns with problems as minor as nearsightedness.

Has the policy been effective?

This graph of the country's birth rate certainly suggests so, and Chinese authorities claim the policy has prevented roughly 400 million births between 1979 and 2011. The government says that the population controls have kept air and water pollution down and lessened the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by some 200 million tones (versus the amount that would have been released with an unchecked population).

When the government introduced the policy in 1979, they were shooting for a target population of 1.2 billion by the year 2000. That year's census recorded just over 1.29 billion people, which is pretty close. But studies both from China and the U.S. have suggested that the official numbers may be an underestimate because of unreported births and other policy violations and manipulation by government officials.

We'll be here answering questions all day.

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

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Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

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Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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