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How Does China Enforce Its One-Baby Policy?

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© Roy Hsu/Blend Images/Corbis

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.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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