China’s One Child Policy: Past, Present, and Future

In light of the changes to the One Child Policy that will be in effect soon, I thought I would post this paper I wrote about the roots of the policy, its implications for the people in China, and the progress made.

China’s One Child Policy: Past, Present, and Future

 As the world’s population rises, issues of scarcity, resource distribution, hunger and health management, and sustainability are more pressing than ever. The UN estimates that by the end of the century, the world population will reach 11 billion. No country has taken it upon itself to curtail population growth to the same magnitude as China through it’s One Child Policy. Similarly, no country’s methods of population reduction have been so criticized or condemned. Though the One Child Policy has been in place for over thirty years, it remains a source of confusion for many people. In mid-November of this year, the BBC was one of the first western news sources to headline, “China reforms: One-child policy to be relaxed.” This got many people around the globe excited, particularly those involved in human rights activism and in the Chinese adoption community. Conversely, that same day, The Shanghai Daily released an article titled, “Authorities Dismiss Report of One Child Policy Change.” In it, Mao Qun’an, spokesman for the commission, said that “the nation would be sticking to its family planning policy for “a long time.” As one of China’s displaced girls, I feel very passionately about ending this policy that has separated families, inflicted forced abortions on women, skewed the gender balance and ultimately hindered the country’s emerging status. Through analyzing the unintended social consequences brought by this policy and looking at the current activism and state of the country, I argue that it is finally time to bring an end to the One Child Policy.

This paper will begin by establishing a framework around which to discuss the One Child Policy. I will first provide a brief historical context of the time in which the One Child Policy was created. Next I will draw upon the research of Cai Gong, a population expert, to address the unnecessariness of the policy. I will add the works of esteemed scholars Susan Greenhagh and Vanessa Hong to the discussion, in order to relay the many unanticipated social consequences of the policy. The last section of this paper will provide a view of the One Child Policy in contemporary China, as well as the critical lessons that I believe should be taken away from this significant cultural hinderance.

The One Child Policy falls under the category of a strict family planning program that limits many families to one child. Exceptions allowing two children per family were set for ethnic minorities in China, couples who live in rural China, couples in which both members engage is dangerous work (such as mining), couples whose livelihood is agrarian, and couples whose first child is physically or mentally disabled. With changes in the last decade, exceptions now also include couples whose first child is a daughter and couples in which both members come from only child families. In order to birth subsequent second and third children, parents may pay a harsh fine equivalent to $13,000. Failure to comply with these terms result in seriously devastating consequences including more fines, confiscation of belongings, dismissal from work, and eviction from home. In some cases the second child would be denied the right to an education, and parents who tried to hide an unapproved pregnancy could be jailed.

The One Child Policy was first introduced as a short-term nation wide policy in 1980. In this era, China was just coming out of the Maoist regime and beginning to open it’s doors to the rest of the world. The Mao years had held back the country’s development significantly, and the government was willing to do whatever it took to mobilize, at whatever cost. Under Chairman Mao, most social sciences were banned, and natural sciences were obliterated. Military science was needed, however, to ward off any potential attacks from the anti-Communist United States. These defense scientists had access to modern facilities and equipment, like computers, to aid them in their data analysis. They were given access to the highest levels of government and input in some of the most important policy decisions. One of these appraised military scientists was Song Jian, a key informant and facilitator in the creation of the One Child Policy. China’s population problem of growing population was framed as a threat to national security, and Song knew of cybernetic techniques that could potentially solve it. The confidence he put forth aired a superior knowledge of the would-be One Child Policy being the absolute right thing to do. His presentations instilled a sense of fear, questioning the country’s very survival if the population surpassed 1.6 billion. His data placed the population problem in more urgent state, needing a more radical solution, and tougher strategy of enforcement. Song’s idea was that the country would enforce one child per family for twenty to forty years, and slowly start raising the birthrate to 2.1 children per woman after that time period. This is exactly how the One Child Policy has been carried out. Although Song personally benefited after the implementation of the policy, by gaining more research positions and higher political offices, the country did not necessarily benefit from his faulty research.

Song’s projections on population appeared precise but cannot be considered accurate, since there was no reliable data on the Chinese population during that time. Using more reputable population data, it can be disputed that The One Child Policy was needed at all. In the early 70s a population control movement was already underway. Partly due to the Wan, Xi, Shao program which encouraged couples to marry later and have fewer children and partly due to popular slogans that were tossed around, “one is not few, two are just right, three are too many,” the fertility rate nearly halved, from just under six to just under three children per woman in the 1970s. A few years later, the slogan then changed from “One is not few, two is best” to “One is best, two at most.” Keeping the already declining birthrate in mind, University of North Carolina’s population expert Cai Yong estimated what the country’s population growth would have been without the one-child policy. His findings suggest that China’s fertility would have declined at a similar rate without the one-child policy and would continue to decline even if the policy was discarded.

one child policy paper fig 1

Figure 1: China’s estimated fertility trends with and without the One Child Policy

Additionally, Cai looks at two specific provinces in China that had different levels of enforcement of the One-Child-Policy: Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Jiangsu implemented one of the most restrictive versions, while Zhejiang’s policy more accurately reflects a “1.5 Child Policy.” Considering the significant differences in the severity of the policy in the respective provinces, the difference between population reports is fairly minuscule. Zhejiang’s observed fertility is much lower than policy allowance. The question of why these figures are nearly the same for these two provinces can be answered through improved education, especially for women. Both of these provinces have very literate, educated constituents, and education has been shown to be a significant factor in reducing fertility rates. Industrialization and urbanization, as more people migrate from rural to urban settings, are other contributing factors to lowering fertility rates. Cai suggests, “if the linear relationship between economic development and fertility at the global level also applies to China, China should have reached a relatively low level of fertility even without the One-Child-Policy.”

This is strong statistical evidence against the One Child Policy, but the social practices that have come out of the One Child Policy, as well as the other unintended consequences should be convincing enough to put an end to this unnecessary policy. The severe gender imbalance in China, harm to women, and the burden placed on coming of age only children are all social consequences that should be considered in the continuation of such a devastating policy. The moral controversy of the policy started from the very beginning. To jump start the “one-childization,” there were 21 million forced sterilizations of parents who already had two or more children and 14 million abortions of unauthorized pregnancies. This invasive practice was not stopped during the initial phases of the policy; currently 10% of China’s abortions are forced by the government.

Though many abortions are forced, still many are by the choice of the prospective parents. This has led to another problem: sex selection. This along with several other factors have created the gender imbalance in China, as it exists today. According to the BBC, “by the end of the decade, demographers say China will have 24 million leftover men who, because of China’s gender imbalance, will not be able to find a wife.” In China, there has been a historical preference for sons, leaving many daughters abandoned on streets at birth. With the introduction of ultrasound technology, sex selected abortions were able to be performed. This meant that couples could have their coveted son and stay within the One Child Policy. When abortion is not available to parents, some parents resort to infanticide of their daughters. One disconcerting figure suggests that the difference in female-to-male mortality has increased by 60% since the implementation of the One Child Policy. Due to these two factors (sex selection and infanticide), the 2000 census has an estimated 9.2 million missing girls from ages 0-18. Some look to international adoption as another contributing factor to the gender imbalance, but fewer than 10,000 infants are sent abroad annually. Ebenstein argues that this is only a negligible number of the missing girls. His province specific research shows significant correlation between the level of enforcement of the One Child Policy and the percentages of male births. Increased levels of enforcement leads to an increased level of ultrasound technology. Similarly, what we find is that the lower the fines a province inflicts on second births, there is an overall lower preference for males. Better educated mothers appear less likely to have an additional child following daughters, possibly reflecting weaker son preference and lower dependence on sons for elderly support. The gender imbalance problem has only gotten worse in recent years. There are now 120 males for every 100 females in China. The shortage of women can be linked to increased levels of mental health problems and displays of aggressive behavior by men. Many are resorting to other Asian nations to find wives, and unfortunately some of this is through illegal trafficking for commercial sex workers or brides from Vietnam and North Korea. This drastic human rights violation is coming out of a place of desperation, and the cause is partially due to the One Child Policy. Ebenstein suggests that a relaxation of the One Child Policy could reduce the sex ratio by allowing parents to have a son without sex selection, and that this change is needed soon in order to create a more balanced population.

 one child policy paper fig 2

Another concerning problem with such low fertility is the rapid pace of aging in the country. At the time of the implementation of the One Child Policy, roughly two thirds of the population was under 30 years of age. Conversely, by the year 2050, more than a quarter of China’s population will be over 65 years old, and their care will fall into the hands of the younger generation. Because of a lack of adequate pension coverage and poorly funded social security, around 70% of the elderly in China are still cared for by family members. Only children from single child parents are placed in a particularly hard situation, known as the 4-2-1 phenomenon. By the time a child reaches working age, he or she could have to care for two parents and four grandparents in retirement, as well as supporting his or her own family.

one child policy paper 1

Figure 3:  Projected population chart for China in the year 2050, showing the rate at which the country is aging as well as the disproportionate number of males to females.

The last social atrocity that has come out of the One Child Policy that I will discuss is the violence against women. The number of women using contraception in China is much higher than those in other developing countries. Many were relying on long term/permanent methods such as intrauterine devices or sterilization. In 1992, as high as 42% of women were sterilized. Studies have shown that women were five times more likely to be sterilized than men, even though the procedure is more complicated and comes with more risks. When it comes to agency over their bodies, women have maintained a relatively powerless position. A survey conducted in the early 2000’s, 80% of women reported having no contraceptive choice and just agreed to whatever their family planning worker recommended. When couples have decided to go through with unsanctioned pregnancies, births typically take place at home without professional support. A report in 1990 found that the maternal mortality rate doubled at unapproved pregnancies.

With many economic pressures and development plans, women’s voices become a secondary concern. Recently though, women have been able to raise their voices in a feminist critique against the policy that turned their bodies into a politicized population control experiment. Events such as the Cairo conference and the Fourth World Conference on Women both aided in expanding the discourse around feminism and international reproductive health. The transnational networking from the conferences was absolutely critical in providing women new outside resources for support in pursuit of alternate agendas. Though outright criticism of the government and of the policy in China holds severe consequences, research against the policy is being conducted from within the country. Susan Greenhalgh had the privilege of interviewing three women committed to making a difference. Zhu Chuzhu is a population researcher and professor at Xi’an Jiaotong University. Her 1996 article titled The Dual Effects of the Family Planning Program on Chinese Women argued that the policy was politically risky and the bearer of serious consequences. The second woman is Liu Bohong, the assistant director of the Women’s Studies Institute in the Women’s Federation. She is responsible for the Chinese translation of Our Bodies, Ourselves and is in the pivotal position of external advisor to the birth planning commission’s reform projects. She finds writing about reproductive health herself too risky, but has encouraged the Women’s Federation and other groups to expand to discuss the topic. Last, Xie Lihua runs a women’s NGO and is the editor-in-chief of a monthly magazine. She has become a spokesperson and advocate for rural women facing life-threatening problems. She has published a book discussing the rising rate of suicide among rural women which has been tied to the One Child Policy.

Vanessa Hong and Li Xiaojiang see more positive elements of the one child policy. Both Li and Hong suggest that the policy has benefited women who might not otherwise have received so much attention and financial support to pursue education and professional ambitions, but it is important to note that this only applies to urban women. Unlike Li, Hong is willing to admit that while the policy may have empowered the daughters, it simultaneously harmed mothers. She admits that the freedom remains structured in gender and class inequalities. The new emerging narrative surrounding the One Child Policy closely mirrors Hong’s reflections, emphasizing the negative consequences while acknowledging its responsibility in opening up many new opportunities to women. The harm it caused greatly outweighs the positive elements. The program began, not in the interest of women, but of the state. Consequently, women have experienced mental, psychological and physical health issues. The physical changes caused by long term contraceptive methods, emotional trauma of forced abortions, and the constant fear of an unwanted pregnancy have haunted women’s bodies and minds.

Despite the advocacy and research coming out of China, it remains difficult to remove the One Child Policy because the Chinese government continues to believes the One Child Policy curtailed population growth, preventing 400 million extra births, added to China’s economic boom, and is one of the country’s greatest contributions to the battle against global warming. In light of all the evidence presented in this paper, it is clearly time to put an end to this devastating policy. Slight relaxations of certain aspects of the One Child Policy have gradually occurred during the past few decades. Couples now have choices when it comes to contraceptive methods and no longer need to obtain permission to have a first child. More people now are allowed to have two children than in the past 30 years, but many scholars have argued that further relaxation in the policy must happen soon. Elimination of the One Child Policy would not result in a huge baby boom. Neighboring countries in the east have demonstrated lowering fertility rates: 1.38 in Japan, 1.04 in Singapore, and as low as 0.91 in Hong Kong. This overall decline in family size suggests that China’s fertility would also remain small. A national survey showed that 35% of women said that they prefer having only one child, another 57% said they preferred having two children. Only 5.8% of women said they wanted more than two children. Not only is the country more accepting of a small family model, evidence also leads toward a less strong male preference. Nation wide, 37% of women claimed to have no sex preference, while 45% identified the ideal family consisting of one boy and one girl. In wealthier provinces such as Jiangsu, the numbers were as high as 75% of couples reporting that they would be fine with one child, regardless of sex.

In changing the One-Child-Policy, more initiative will have to come from the women of China to open the discourse to promote a general well-being for women and girls. The longer change to the policy is delayed, the more China will suffer. From the One Child Policy, the Chinese society should learn the lesson that female children are as capable as male children of filial piety. What kept men in this role in the past was more money ensuing from better paying jobs. Now, with women also obtaining high degrees of education and places of power in the workforce, the societal preference for boys is no long needed. Singleton daughters who have grown up have proven to the outside world that they are capable of taking care of their elderly family members.

A lesson is also to be learned from the implementation of various changes in the policies related to family planning. When the government lowered the marriage age suddenly, this caused many couples to rush into marriage creating a small baby boom. Similarly, when the One Child Policy changed to allow rural couples to have two children, this caused a rise in fertility and confusion on the local levels. Retaliation resulted in more violence and chaos. These stories, along with the recent November confusion whether or not the policy will be changing, suggest that when shifts do occur, the government must be more clear about the changes being implemented. The last lesson that can be learned is in protest and influence. Efforts to silence the loudest voices against the policy have been great. Susan Greenhalgh suggests that in China “if you are too critical, if you move too fast or push too hard, the government will close you down and deprive you of a voice. The most productive approach. . . is to propose ways to help the government, offering formulas it can accept. Given the continued power of the party and state, today one must work with the government, not against it. Tomorrow things might be different.”

As recently as December 8th, 2013, the China Daily released that the policy has a new change that will be effective starting in early 2014. This alteration is congruent with Wang Feng’s suggestion that changes must be made to the policy within the next ten years in order to avoid even greater consequences. Under the most recent changes, couples are allowed to have two children if only one of them comes from an only-child household. This is particularly interesting because in 1985 Susan Greenhalgh and John Bongaarts, as well as Wang Feng in 2006 proposed an alternative to the One Child Policy as the two child policy. This could meet the fertility desire of most couples, help the severely aging population, reduce the gender imbalance and release the government from the burden of supporting an unpopular policy. With the induction of this two child policy, an estimated 15-20 million couples could be now eligible to have a second child. According to Yang Wenzhuang, the director of the family planning instruction department of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, “about 2 million more babies are expected to be born each year due to the policy relaxation, but he says the increase ‘will not cause major pressure on healthcare, education and other public resources.'” This recent change in the policy shows that perhaps the government is finally recognizing the unanticipated consequences of the One Child Policy. This relaxation combined with continued education as to why smaller family sizes are ideal and more contraceptive freedom for women will not be able to reverse the previous atrocities committed under the One Child Policy, but it could certainly provide hope for the potential correction of some of the issues that have stemmed from the One Child Policy.


 Baily, Dominic, Mick Ruddy, and Marina Shchukina. “Ageing China: Changes and Challenges.” BBC News. BBC, 19 Sept. 2012. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <;.

Bongaarts, John, and Susan Greenhalgh. “An Alternative to the One-Child Policy in China.” Population and Development Review. 11.4 (1985): 585-617. Print.

Cai, Wenjun. “Authorities Dismiss Report of One-child Policy Change.” Shanghai Daily. N.p., 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. < dismiss-report-of-onechild-policy-change/shdaily.shtml>.

Cai, Yong. “China’s Below-Replacement Fertility: Government Policy or Socioeconomic Development?” Population and Development Review. 36.3 (2010): 419-440. Print.

Ebenstein, Avraham. “The Missing Girls of China and the Unintended Consequences of the One Child Policy.” Journal of Human Resources. 45.1 (2011): 87-115. Print.

 Fong, Vanessa.L. “Susan Greenhalgh Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China.”Contemporary Sociology. 38.5 (2009): 442-443. Print.

Fong, Vanessa L. “China’s One-Child Policy and the Empowerment of Urban Daughters.” American Anthropologist. 104.4 (2002): 1098-1109. Print.

Greenhalgh, Susan. “Controlling Births and Bodies in Village China.” American Ethnologist. 21.1 (1994): 3-30. Print.

Greenhalgh, Susan. “Fresh Winds in Beijing: Chinese Feminists Speak Out on the One-Child Policy and Women’s Lives.(family Planning Policy).” Signs. 26.3 (2001). Print.

Greenhalgh, Susan. “Population Science, Missile Science: the Origins of China’s One-Child Policy.” China Quarterly London. (2005): 253-276. Print.

Greenhalgh, Susan. “Science, Modernity, and the Making of China’s One-Child Policy.”Population and Development Review. 29.2 (2003). Print.

 Hatton, Celia. “China Reforms: One-child Policy to Be Relaxed.” BBC News. BBC, 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <;.

Hesketh, Therese, Lu Li, and Wei X. Zhu. “The Effect of China’s One-Child Family Policy After 25 Years.” The New England Journal of Medicine. 353.11 (2005). Print.

 Shan, Juan. “New ‘two-child’ Rules to Start from Early 2014.” China Daily USA. China Daily, 08 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. < 12/08/content_17160392.htm>.

Wang, Feng. Can China Afford to Continue Its One-Child Policy?Honolulu, HI: East-West Center, 2005. Print.

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30 responses to “China’s One Child Policy: Past, Present, and Future

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