Pulitzer Prize–winning author Mei Fong’s new book One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment is a history of this infamous policy, instituted in 1980 and discontinued only last year.

In her book—and also at a discussion of her book I attended recently—Fong dwells on the inhumanity of the one-child policy. Among the horrors she recounts is that of a woman, heavily pregnant with an “out-of-plan” child, being dragged out of a pond, where she had sought to hide, in order to force her to submit to an abortion.

But the book goes far beyond recounting these horrors to describe the one-child policy’s very wide-ranging consequences for Chinese society. In particular, Fong describes how the state’s intrusion into the private space of the family also undermines the institutions of civil society. Consider:

But, most fundamentally, the one-child policy undermined civil society by undercutting the habits of freedom that are essential a robust civil society. As one demographer who opposed the one-child policy recounted to Fong:

I gradually realized it is not about giving birth to one or two children. It is about people making their own decisions (emphasis added).

The freedom of people to make their own decisions is the true root of a robust civil society. Today China has to contend with the many deleterious consequences of its one-child policy experiment, including the rapid aging of its population and the imbalance in the ratio of men to women, but also the damage to civil society.