The One-Child Warranty

The One-Child Warranty

The One-Child Warranty

Science, technology, and life.
May 29 2008 7:53 AM

The One-Child Warranty

A lot of people in China are angry. The earthquake that struck there two weeks ago has destroyed their entire stock of the country's most strictly rationed item: children.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Here's the background from the New York Times :

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Thousands of parents have openly challenged the government over why so many schools collapsed during the earthquake. An estimated 10,000 students are believed to have died. The anguish of parents and grandparents has been compounded by the one-child policy, which was introduced in 1979 to control population growth.

Imagine being one of these parents. The government has restricted you to one child, and now that child is dead. You've lost your whole family in one stroke.

But wait: The government has come up with a solution. You can replace your defunct child with a new one. The Associated Press explains the offer:

Chinese officials said Monday that the country's one-child policy exempts families with a child killed, severely injured or disabled in the country's devastating earthquake. Those families can obtain a certificate to have another child, the Chengdu Population and Family Planning Committee in the capital of hard-hit Sichuan province said. ... Chinese couples who have more than one child are commonly punished by fines. The announcement says that if a child born illegally was killed in the quake, the parents will no longer have to pay fines for that child-but the previously paid fines won't be refunded. If the couple's legally born child is killed and the couple is left with an illegally born child under the age of 18, that child can be registered as the legal child-an important move that gives the child previously denied rights including free nine years of compulsory education.

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Got that? If your child is broken, you can apply for a certificate to get a replacement child. Or you can substitute a used child and transfer the license from your previous child, with all the attendant financial rights. However, there will be no refunds.

It reads like a warranty or a software agreement. Except we're not talking about consumer electronics. We're talking about children. This is what happens when you ration people like commodities.

A few years ago, I lambasted the one-child policy as a forced-abortion machine . Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about global warming, and it occurred to me that the single most effective thing anybody has done to slow that process over the last 30 years is probably the one-child policy. I still think it's a colossal offense against human rights. And in the present context, it's a case study in the regulation of human beings as a kind of property. If you lose your quota through no fault of your own, you can get a coupon to refill it. Half of me is grateful to the Chinese government for giving these bereft couples a second chance. The other half is revolted that the government controls such things.

If you're going to replace children like broken toasters, one per customer, then you'd better standardize the warranty. When I looked for the earthquake exemption report on Xinhua , the state news agency, I couldn't find it. Then I realized why. It was granted by the authorities in Chengdu. It's a local exemption. The last thing the national government wants is to broadcast it in other provinces, where people are still being held to the one-child policy.

Sorry, but that won't do. Why should the warranty apply only to this earthquake? What about the floods of 1991 and 1998? What about the drought of 1988? How many couples lost their only kids in those calamities? Where's their compensation?

Forget it. You can't replace children like toasters. You shouldn't ration them like toasters, either.