Laurent Shervington spoke with Mei Fong / 方凤美, author of ‘One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Social Experiment‘ ahead of her appearance at the Perth Writers Festival.
Laurent Shervington: When you began writing the book did you have a Chinese reader in mind?
Mei Fong: I did envision that this book would eventually make its way to China, yes. The days when a foreign correspondent could come in, write screeds about a country that most of its locals would never read about are gone now, and with it, a lot of bathos, exotica and misinformation. Knowing that I would face all kinds of readers–some who knew very little about China or the policy, as well as many who had lived this policy, kept me honest.
At the same time, I also wanted to broaden the appeal of the book, so that people who weren’t necessarily Sinophiles might find something engaging in it, which is why I wrestled with some universal questions like, What are the costs of parenthood? what motivates us to have children, and what happens when these impulses are thwarted by powerful forces?
Do you see this issue of censorship and political influence on the publication getting any better in the future?
No, certainly not in China and not in the United States, for the matter. There is a huge wave of anti-globalization that swept the world in 2016, culminating in Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election upset. An upshot of this is a backlash against openness, freedom of expression, the media. If 2016 had a metaphor, it would be a clam, buried on the ocean floor.
Just as a personal example, I could not get a Chinese-language publisher for my book because of China’s growing censorship, which has extended beyond its shores to the more traditionally free markets of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Last year several staff from a Hong Kong publisher that specialized in putting out books banned in China were kidnapped, taken over the border and made to surrender their buyers lists. This sent a chill through the entire Hong Kong book industry. So I had to resort to putting out a free Chinese version of my book, digitally, or else most of the people with the biggest stake in the one-child policy would not have been able to read my book at all.
You’ve mentioned that over the course of the One Child policy the concept of the ideal family has warped to be: Mother, Father and single child – do you think this concept will change under the new two-child policy?
To some extent, yes, it will evolve. We already see that reflected in advertisements. IKEA ran an ad in China featuring two kids in a family, which was unheard of before in public media. But this vast network of big Chinese clans are shrinking, and the words used to described complex family relationships, the different words we use for uncles and aunts and cousins–they will soon be as often-used as Latin. In the west, sociologists use the term “family fragility” to refer to families at risk of breaking up because of things like violence or addiction. In China, ‘family fragility’ refers to families at risk of breaking up because of the death of that precious only child.
Throughout the novel you refer to various works and authors of classic fiction, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Aldous Huxley, The Picture of Dorian Grey – during the time you were reporting and writing about such a radical social experiment – did you find it easier to view the events through the lens of such works of fiction?
I think all writers have a weakness for the picturesque. That’s good in capturing your reader and putting them in vivid landscapes. But it must be tempered, certainly in the case of non-fiction books, with a search for the truth, which isn’t always pretty or grotesque or extreme.
Looking more at the live conversation aspect of your work, how do you feel engaging in these international panels helps to convey your message as opposed to a sole book release?
I think the messages in the book–what happens when government entities attempt to control women’s fertility and women’s bodies, for example, are relevant and certainly applicable beyond the lens of the one-child policy. It’s not enough to just put a book out and sit back, and hope people will notice the many hidden truths in your text. If the message is important, it’s important enough to discuss and bring to as many people as possible.
As well, to offset the costs of my free Chinese book, I’ve put out a virtual tip jar on crowdfunding site GoFundMe. Talking on panels helps me raise awareness and raise funds to combat censorship.
What can people expect from your talk at the Perth International Arts Festival?
Not to fall asleep? Well, unless it’s mid-afternoon and they’ve consumed some of Perth’s excellent wines!
Interview by Laurent Shervington.
Mei Fong will be speaking at the Perth Writer’s Festival Thursday 23 to Sunday 26 February.