Hong Jiang dreamed of having a second child, a sister for her daughter, two little girls who could comb one another’s hair and giggle on the way to school. But China had a one-child policy, so Jiang had only one.
On Thursday, Jiang was among those overwhelmed by joy and regret as Beijing, after years of criticism, abruptly changed its decades-long policy: Families in China now can have two children.
“Before they didn’t listen to the people,” said Jiang, president of the Boston Sichuan Association. “This is progress.”
The ruling Communist Party said Thursday that the decision to allow all couples to have two children responds to concerns about China’s aging population and its imbalanced gender ratio. The one-child policy enacted in 1979 aimed to control the birth rate of the world’s largest population, now 1.4 billon. The government granted exceptions to families in rural areas whose first child was a girl, minority groups, and others.
But the policy also had multiple side effects, some horrifying. In a society that favors sons, many parents abandoned an infant daughter in order to have the chance for a boy. Now the population is so imbalanced that many males fear they will not be able to marry and raise children. Others worry about a generation raised as only children who are perhaps spoiled or who struggle to work in groups.
“China wanted to figure out a way to slow population growth and think about food and other sustainability. In a way that’s an important question still,” said Lydia Lowe, the co-director of the Chinese Progressive Association in Boston, and who adopted a girl who was left at a factory in China. “But the problem was that it was an authoritarian, top-down policy that didn’t take into account where are the people at. . . . In real life it led to the abandonment of girls.”
Human-rights groups and researchers have criticized the way China imposed the policy for years, with forced sterilizations or abortions that prompted many families to flee China for the United States and other lands. Others hid their children or paid fines if they violated the policy.
Hampshire College professor Kay Ann Johnson, the author of a forthcoming book on China’s one-child policy, said allowing families to have two children is a significant step, but she would rather see China end the restrictions entirely, given how low its birth rate has fallen. The new policy raises questions about future penalties for people who have more than two children.
“These things are bad for children,” she said, adding, “There will always be some children that aren’t born according to these rules.”
The policy shift is jarring for families whose lives were deeply affected by the one-child rule, which was enforced most strictly in urban areas.
Many children were abandoned by their parents during the 35-plus years the one family, one child policy was in effect. Johnson estimates that more than 120,000 children, mostly girls, have left China through adoption since then, and 85,000 of them went to the United States.
Adopted children struggle with the loss of their birth families, and with growing up as a minority in the United States.
“A lot of adoptees are feeling, ‘I don’t know how to feel about this,’ ” said Emily Curran, who adopted a daughter from China and is president of Families with Children from China New England, a regional support network with more than 1,000 members. “I’m sure that the same is true for families.”
Curran said the one-child policy drove adoptions in the 1990s and 2000s, but is less of a factor today since China’s birth rate has declined. She said she is happy for the change for people in China, but she is grateful for being able to adopt her daughter.
“Of course for me, my daughter’s the joy of my life,” she said.
Others say the one-child policy benefited them growing up in China.
Lingxi Yi, a 29-year-old from Sichuan province who now works in Boston, said her parents showered her with opportunities they might otherwise have been unable to afford, including piano lessons, a college education, and a chance to study in the United States.
“I felt fortunate that I was the only one,” said Yi. “If I have another sibling they probably could not do that.”
To compensate, Yi said, she treated her cousins like sisters and brothers, and had a strong network of friends.
But there are downsides. When she left for college, her parents were alone. Now, as they grow older, there is nobody but her to care for them.
Jiang, the president of the Boston Sichuan Association, shares the duty to care for her elderly mother with her younger sister in China.
“That’s why I think two children is good for the family,” said Jiang, 60, who came to America in 1991, sent her daughter to Harvard, and now lives in Newton. With just one child, she said, “it’s too heavy to take care of parents.”
Jiang and her sister each had one daughter. They told the girls to treat each other like sisters.