“You don’t need to worry, I’ll still be here,” said the driver, a sinewy but attractive Han Chinese lady. I left my bags – all of them – in the car as I went to the ATM. “There! I’ll even cut the engine,” she called after me, sensing my nerves. Despite thinking that I’d feel really stupid if she drove off, I went ahead and hurriedly took out some money (with a few glances over my shoulder), and returned to the cab.
“You’re right, you shouldn’t trust just anyone. There are too many bad people around,” she said as we drove off. “Back in 2008 when there was all that Tibetan unrest, I was afraid to work – I don’t want to stay here even now, but that’s the way it is.”
“Why don’t you leave?”
“Not enough money! My husband and I are helping our son to save up enough money to buy a flat so that he can get married. I’m getting old so I hope we’ll be able to move back east in a few years. My son’s not here in Qinghai though, he’s in Xi’an with his sister. First we had to make money for his education, and now his house.”
“Oh – so you have two children then?”
“No! I’ve had five, four girls and one boy – we kept going until my son came along. We were too poor to raise all of them though, so I had to give three of the girls away. We just kept the eldest girl, and all the others went to relatives. It’s lucky that my girls were pretty babies!”
“What? Do you ever see them? I asked, surprised by her breezy tone.
“No, I just hear how they’re doing when one of them gets married or something. That’s enough. I don’t need to see them.”
“Did you get fined even though you gave them away?”
“Of course we did! They took away our television and our washing machine when we couldn’t afford to pay the fines…”
“Was it your husband that wanted a boy so badly?” I said, for some reason half hoping that her husband would turn out to be the bad guy.
“No! He could see how tough it was on me having so many babies and getting fined all the time. He wanted to stop at two. It was me that wanted to have a boy – I just couldn’t respect myself if I didn’t have a boy. I’m like that – stubborn, and I know what I want.” She smiled. “Here we are, the bus station. Take care now…”
The one-child policy in its strictest sense has only ever been a fact of life for Han Chinese families. People who belong to ethnic minorities can have two children, and in some instances a couple may have up to three children legally. The fines for chaosheng (超生, having more children than officially allowed) are significant but not onerous. At around 10,000 RMB per extra child (approximately three months’ salary for the average worker), for many families having more children is worth the short-term financial burden. One girl I met earlier this trip was one of seven children, her father having wanted to keep going until they had a boy. The day after the long-awaited son was born, he had a vasectomy.
The taxi driver was in her mid-fifties. She grew up at a time when the traditional Chinese attitudes towards families (the bigger the better) and the cultural preference for sons mingled with an official approach from Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that can best be described as confused. At one point in the early 1950s imports of contraceptives were banned (“Even if China’s population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production” Mao, 1949), then – shortly afterwards – a campaign to lower fertility rates was launched before being abandoned during the Great Leap Forward when large families were encouraged once again – a pattern that continued throughout the 1960s and early 1970s as different factions in the CCP waxed and waned.
From my conversations with young Chinese people, I would say that attitudes seem to be shifting. Part of me wonders if this is due to the pressures heaped on only children by their parents – what my taxi driver’s son thinks of the sacrifices the rest of the family had made on his account will remain unknown. Whatever the reasons, many younger people seem happy to have smaller families and as happy to have girls as boys. There have been recent reports that the one-child policy will be dismantled soon. Whenever that eventually happens, the policy will already have left its mark on this generation, from headline figures such as the incredible gender imbalance down to individual cases like the driver’s family…