Studying China’s one-child policy has long been my aspiration because of its unparalleled uniqueness to other population control policies. As a country with the world’s second-biggest economy and the largest population than any other nations existed in human history, China’s domestic affairs have tremendous effects also on international affairs (“GDP, current”). Therefore, understanding China’s demographic trend, as well as the reason behind the country’s recent decision to end the policy in 2015, not only enriches my learning of global demography but also educates me as a citizen of the international community.
This post explores China’s general demographic history and investigates the details of the one-child policy. In this post, I refer to the People’s Republic of China as “China” to narrow down the focus.
Preface to being the world’s first billion-population country
During the post-WWII recovery, China has experienced an increase in population at an unprecedented level. In the 17 years since 1953 to 1970, China has gained 250 million of an additional population; this is attributable to the falling mortality rates of infants, which was made possible by the increasing expansion of access to family planning services that supports the health of mothers and newborns since 1953 (Kane and Choi). The concern of overpopulation slowly permeated the ruling elites of the Chinese Communist Party, but due to Mao Zedong’s belief in the power of large population—exemplified in his famous saying “the more people, the stronger than we are”—it took many steps for the famous one-child policy to get officially implemented (Potts).
Approaches before the One-child policy era
In 1970, a looser version of the one-child policy was implemented to control the population increase. As the policy specified a target population growth rate of 1% in 1980, extensive contraceptive and abortion services were provided throughout the country, including rural regions. The policy also offered substantial grants for marriage at an older age and smaller families. The policy proved its effectiveness by lowering the population growth rate of 2.8% in 1970 to 1.8% in 1975 (Kane and Choi). It was, however, obvious that a more forceful plan is necessary to meet the initial 1% target; Deng Xiao-ping was a politician who had a reputation for his contribution to the economic reform of the country, and strongly endorsed more rigorous policies for controlling population growth in light of maintaining the country’s steady economic growth. He claimed that the dramatical economic growth China was experiencing at the time was mostly due to the demographic dividend (an economic growth solely from a population growth) and control of the country’s population was necessary to raise the quality of the citizens’ lives (Potts). The discussion on the necessity of the alternative policy continued, but shortly after the government started endorsing scholarly research on demography in 1975, the danger of the overgrowing population was statistically articulated; the government eventually started to work on the implementation of the One-child policy, especially after Mao’s death in 1976 (Kane and Choi; Feng et al.).
Propaganda of the One-child policy in rural China (One-child policy).
Though its necessity and ethics were disputed both domestically and internationally, the implementation of the policy dramatically reshaped the demography of the country. One of the things about the One-child policy that is not generally known is that the policy was never officially issued in a form of formal law by the government. Rather, the news and the details of the implementation were passed down to every corner throughout the country via the network of the Chinese Communist Party: “…announced in the form of an Open Letter to members of the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Youth League, in the language of “advocating such a policy” (Feng et al.). With Deng Xiao-ping’s leadership, the implementation was also designed to align with the economic target the country had (Feng et al.). The government hoped to encourage the trend through providing with various incentives for a household with only one child, such as monetary grants and priority access to health and childcare services; households with more than one child would receive the opposite, such as various sanctions and social pressure in local communities and workplaces (Potts). The implementation, however, faced many obstacles.
The crowded and dual-earner nature of an urban family life in China naturally forced couples to have only one child (Shenzhen, China).
What made the implementation difficult
The major difficulty in implementing the One-child policy was the huge divide between the lives of urban population and rural population. Many of urban families had only one child long before the implementation of the policy, due to the limited allocation of housing per household, as well as to the nature of an urban family: both parents being at work. Therefore, the policy rarely had any effect on urban families. On the other hand, rural families needed many children, not only for their farming but also to financially support aging parents with little pensions. Eventually, the local citizens of the rural areas found ways to negotiate with the government officials and many rural households ended up neglecting the policy: in 1990, 90% of women who had had their first child went on to have their second child (Potts). Another challenge posed by the divide between the city and the countryside was the presence of many domestic migrant workers. As they often did not register to a single municipality, it made the government difficult to accurately keep track of the effectiveness of their population control method (Potts). Also, underreporting of children to avoid sanctions had become a major social issue, and it was found that girls were twice as more likely to be underreported than boys. In China, like many other East Asian countries, the traditional gender role still perpetuates and many couples hoped to have a male child who has a higher likelihood of becoming financially dependable when they age (Potts).
The result of the policy
For a sole goal, which is to control the increasing population, China has sacrificed itself in numerous ways: increasing prevalence of sex-selective abortion, sudden aging in the population, the impending shortage of labor force and accompanying stagnation of the economy, and so on. Nevertheless, the Chinese government claims that the plan was an utter success. The Chinese government often claims that had the plan not been implemented, the country would have had 400 million additional people. The source of this statistics, however, remains unclear (Feng et al.). In discussing the policy’s effect on gender gap, some sources maintain that the policy has granted women a higher position in the society, in a way that women at reproductive age gained the access to more extensive health care and female children, as the only child of the household, has gained more concentrated access to education and other programs that help them succeed in the society. Other sources, however, say that this policy has undermined women’s rights; as mentioned in the section that discussed the issue of underreporting, markedly more girl faced the adversity of being abandoned. Moreover, increasing number of abortions put disproportionately heavy physical and emotional burden on women (Kane and Choi; Potts). The policy has certainly contributed to both the domestic and international concerns for overpopulation; however, given the many social issues now the country has to manage, it is tough to judge the true effectiveness of the policy in a collective sense.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China has the absolute authority over the country’s decision-making process. (Central Committee).
In October 2015, BBC reported that during the fifth Plenary Session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the end of One-child policy was officially announced (“China to end one-child”). The abolition had rather been a gradual one; in fact, the government had long been moderating the policy in provinces with notably unbalanced populations. Moreover, as reported by American media, the government had made a major revision of the policy in 2013 so that if at least one of the parents was raised in a single-child household, they would be allowed to have a second child with no penalty (Castillo). The reason for abolishing the policy is mainly to tackle the aging population and the decrease in the labor force. However, many point out that the culture of having only one child has now been embedded in the social norm and would take some time for the trend to be altered. Regardless of how people will react to the abolition of the policy from now on, the huge artificial dent on the country’s population pyramid carved for the past 35 years will inevitably threaten the country’s economy, social security, and labor force structure (“China to end one-child”).
It was clear that China had to do something to control their endlessly growing population in the 1970s. However, the immensity of the population, as well as the magnitude of the issue of overpopulation forced the government to take on this forceful method, causing many other grave social issues. The uniquely large scale of China’s population control also exhibits the difficulty of global population control at an even larger scale to find the “middle ground” between the excessively forceful methods of population control and those of loose, ineffective method, especially when the world as a whole has no central authoritative power such as the Chinese Communist Party. Unlike other case studies I have conducted so far, China’s unique approach, as well as the enormous size of the population was distinctive and provided me with a new insight into the issue of maintaining an appropriate level of fertility rates and demography as a whole.
Castillo, Mariano. “China to ease one-child policy, abolish labor camps, report says.” CNN, 16 Nov. 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/15/world/asia/china-one-child-policy/index.html. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.
Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The New York Times, 23 Oct. 2015, static01.nyt.com/images/2015/10/23/world/23sino-plenum04/23sino-plenum04-tmagArticle.jpg. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.
“China to end one-child policy and allow two.” BBC, 29 Oct. 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34665539. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.
Chinese family. SBS, 17 Aug. 2016, http://www.sbs.com.au/guide/sites/sbs.com.au.guide/files/styles/full/public/one_child.jpg?itok=2o97C-em&mtime=1470036760. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.
Feng, Wang, et al. “Population, Policy, and Politics: How Will History Judge China’s One-Child Policy?” Population and Development Review, vol. 38, 2013, pp. 115-29, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23655290.
“GDP, current prices, Billions of U.S. dollars.” IMF DataMapper, http://www.imf.org/ external/datamapper/NGDPD@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.
Kane, Penny, and Ching Y. Choi. “China’s One Child Family Policy.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 319, no. 7215, 1999, pp. 992-94, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25186043.
One-child policy propaganda. The Wall Street Journal, 2 Oct. 2015, si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/BN-JX841_OneChi_M_20150819183503.jpg. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.
Potts, Malcolm. “China’s One Child Policy.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 333, no. 7564, 2006, pp. 361-62, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40699586.
Shenzhen, China. Daily Hive, 22 Jan. 2018, images.dailyhive.com/20180122155106/shenzhen-china.jpg. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.