The term one-child policy (Chinese: 一孩政策) refers to a population planning initiative in China implemented between 1980 and 2015 to curb the country's population growth by restricting many families to a single child. That initiative was part of a much broader effort to control population growth that began in 1970 and ended in 2021, a half century program that included minimum ages at marriage and childbearing, two child limits for many couples, minimum time intervals between births, heavy surveillance, and stiff fines for non-compliance. The program had wide-ranging social, cultural, economic, and demographic effects, although the contribution of one-child restrictions to the broader program has been the subject of controversy.
- Was the policy a success? It depends on who you ask. Supporters say it worked: since the late 1970s, China’s economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. That would not have been possible, they say, without controlling population growth.
- But critics say the policy was unnecessary, and ultimately replaced one problem—too many people—with another—too few. Specifically, China now has too few females and will soon have too few young people. These imbalances are creating social tensions that will be difficult to un-do, even now that the one-child restriction has been replaced with a two-child policy. These tensions are felt at a very personal level, and are challenging long-held values in China about the importance of marriage, family, and children’s sense of duty to their parents.
- Some families defied the policy by having a second or third child. If the “population police” found out, they punished the parents by imposing fines that were well beyond most families’ ability to pay. Many such parents therefore kept their “above quota” children hidden from public view. Their official invisibility meant that these children were not given a residence permit, called a hukou, which meant they could not get health care, attend school, or even get a library card.
- Peer pressure and an extensive propaganda campaign were aimed at persuading Chinese people to embrace the ideal of a one-child family. Most Chinese did not own a television, and cell phones and the Internet did not exist during the policy’s first two decades, so the government made use of public spaces to display slogans and images depicting happy, healthy, and prosperous one-child families.
- Finally, the jury is still out on how Chinese people will respond to this loosening of the rules. One of the side-effects of the old policy is that there is now an expectation that parents will spend so much money and resources on a child, that even many middle class couples say they cannot comprehend being able to afford two children.5 China therefore may continue to have a generation of children who feel either lucky or lonely, or both.
- "China's One-Child Policy" in Asia Pacific Curriculum
- The one-child policy was designed in 1980 as a temporary measure to put a brake on China’s population growth and to facilitate economic growth under a planned economy that faced severe shortages of capital, natural resources, and consumer goods. However, the answer to China’s underdevelopment did not come from its extreme birth control measures, but from reform policies that loosened state control over the economy. China’s economic boom over the last few decades has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, sent almost 100 million young men and women to college, and inspired generations of Chinese, both young and old, to purse their economic goals. As observed in many other countries and societies, socioeconomic and cultural transformations accelerated the pace of fertility decline. By the turn of the new century, China’s fertility was well below the replacement level, and China began to face the mounting pressures associated with continued low fertility. To continue the one-child policy within such a demographic context was clearly no longer defensible.
- China’s one-child policy will be remembered as one of the costliest lessons of misguided public policymaking. Contrary to the claims of some Chinese officials, much of China’s fertility decline to date was realized prior to the launch of the one-child policy, under a much less strict policy in the 1970s calling for later marriage, longer birth intervals, and fewer births. In countries that had similar levels of fertility in the early 1970s without extreme measures such as the one-child policy, fertility also declined, and some achieved a level similar to China’s today. While playing a limited role in reducing China’s population growth, the one-child policy in the 35 years of its existence has created tens of millions, perhaps as many as 100 million, of China’s 150 million one-child families today. For these families, the harm caused by the policy is long-term and irreparable.
- "The end of China’s one-child policy" in Brookings (30 March 2016)
- Though often labeled one of China's most draconian laws, China's one-child policy, introduced at the end of the 1970s and abandoned at the beginning of 2016, achieved what it set out to do -- rein in growth of the country's already vast population. More than three decades on, as economic prosperity and nature have taken their course, the country faces a new demographic issue: it looks set to become old before it becomes rich.
- "One child or two? That is the question" in 'China Daily (5 January 2017)
- In families that already had one child, the births of additional children—in violation of the one-child policy—were often undocumented, leading to many problems later on for those children as they struggled to receive an education or find work.
- A consensus has emerged that the sex ratio distortion in China is due to prenatal discrimination against female conceptions. This consensus is based primarily on evidence from fertility surveys, field work and census data.
- In China, parents have historically preferred sons to daughters and in some circumstances discarded daughters upon birth. In the 1960s, when fertility was high and infant mortality was low, this pattern was temporarily muted by the fact that most mothers were likely to have at least one surviving son without resorting to sex selection. However, while the female deficit was reduced, high fertility and low infant mortality were contributing to unsustainable population growth.
- While the sex ratio distortion in China is a long-standing demo-graphic pattern, fertility policies instituted to slow population growth have exacerbated the female deficit. Under the One Child Policy, parents in China who exceed their fertility limit are forced to pay a fine and are subject to a variety of other monetary punishments, including the seizure of property and forced dismissal from government employment.
- The fertility policy in China is enforced by a complex system of financial disincentives for excess fertility, including reduction of land allotments, denial of public services, and fines for unauthorized births.
- Avraham Ebenstein, "The “Missing Girls” of China and the Unintended Consequences of the One Child Policy" (2008)
- When you create a system where you would shrink the size of a family and people would have to choose, then people would ... choose sons.
- The one-child policy drastically reshaped the composition of China's people. So now they have a population that's basically too old and too male and down the line, maybe too few. So the too old issue is that right now China has a dependency ratio of about five working adults to support one retiree. That's pretty good, that's a very healthy ratio. In about 20 years that's going to jump to about 1.6 working adults to support one retiree, and that's because that big population boom that we talked about, that big cohort of people are all living longer and getting older and therefore hitting their 70s, 80s and 90s, so by the time 2050 comes around one in four Chinese people will be a retiree.
- Mei Fong, "How China's One-Child Policy Led To Forced Abortions, 30 Million Bachelors" in NPR (1 February 2016)
- For 36 years, the ruling Communist Party enforced an extreme form of social engineering to regulate birthrates. It was part of a strategy to simultaneously grow the economy and improve living standards. It was easier to increase income per head, the policymakers decided, when there weren’t so many heads.
- Faced with a population that is shrinking and ageing, Chinese policymakers are attempting to engineer a baby boom after more than three decades of a Malthusian family planning regime better-known as the one-child policy. Central policy planners have loosened restrictions on family sizes, and now all married couples can have two children. There is talk of the limits being dropped altogether, and amid aggressive propaganda drives, local officials are experimenting with subsidies and incentives for parents.
- It has led to a huge gender imbalance in China, where there are now 34.9 million more males than females, according to the latest census data released in May. The census, conducted in 2020, showed that the sex ratio of the total population was 105.1 males to 100 females – about the same as a decade ago.
- Guo Rui, "‘We had no choice’: China’s one-child policy and the millions of ‘missing girls’" in South China Morning Post (7 August 2021)
- A boom in second children was exactly what the central government was hoping for when it announced the lifting of the world’s most controversial family planning scheme, commonly known as the “one-child policy” in October 2015.
- As of 2015, after 35 years of severe restrictions, the demographic implications for the 150 million families in China of having only one child were becoming increasingly apparent and the government was forced to act in an attempt to, at least in part, correct an upcoming demographic disaster for the rapidly ageing country.
- Casey Hall, "How has the end of its one-child policy affected China?" in Al Jazeera (2 February 2017)
- Critics often point out the damages to peasants’ welfare and to women’s reproductive health, the aggravated discrimination and violence to infant girls, imbalanced sex ratios, accelerated population aging, and other social suffering and trauma resulted from the One-Child Policy. Among international critics, the US shifted its focus from indicting the policy as a manifestation of communist coercion incriminating it as a violation of human rights.
- Lijing Jiang, "China's One-Child Policy" (31 March 2011)
- Although both male and female births are underreported, the birth of a girl is twice as likely to be ignored. Underreporting is believed to account for about half to two thirds of the difference in infant sex ratios, which by the early 1990s had risen to 114 boys for every 100 girls. Unrecorded daughters may be left with relatives, adopted out, or abandoned to orphanages,13 which are increasingly unable to cope with the influx. Sex ratios are further skewed by widespread abortion, after the illegal but lucrative use of ultrasound to identify fetal sex.
- Penny Kane, "China’s one child family policy" (1999)
- Western media outlets and politicians have criticized the family planning policy from the day it was implemented, alleging it is a violation of human rights. But to us, a generation which made a big sacrifice to control the national population, such accusations appear vacuous. Had the Chinese government allowed the population to grow and reach, say, 2 billion which would have drastically increased unemployment and poverty in the country, the very same Western outlets and politicians would have attacked China and its ruling party, accusing them of poor governance.
- As an old Chinese saying goes, none but the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. As a member of a generation that experienced and, in fact, sacrificed to make the family planning policy a success, we know only too well that it is a sacrifice that had to be made for the betterment of the country and the Chinese people.
- Kang Bing, "Amended family planning policy need of the hour" in China Daily (12 October 2021)
- It’s not just a problem of whether you permit ordinary people to have one or two kids. It’s about returning their reproductive rights to them. In over 200 countries and regions around the world, which of them nowadays controls people’s reproduction like this?
- Liang Zhongtang, "China Ends One-Child Policy, Allowing Families Two Children" (29 October 2015)
- The policy led to sex-selective abortions or infanticide targeting girls, because of a centuries-old social preference for boys.
- Andrew Mullen, "Explainer | China’s one-child policy: what was it and what impact did it have?" in South China Morning Post (1 January 2021)
- Female infanticide and sex-selective abortions are one of the many unintended consequences of the one-child policy. For every 118 boys in China, there are now only 100 girls.
- Ma Jian, "China's barbaric one-child policy" in The Guardian (6 May 2013)
- For China’s leaders, the controls were a triumphant demonstration of the party’s capacity to reshape even the most intimate dimensions of citizens’ lives. But they bred intense resentment over the brutal intrusions involved, including forced abortions and crippling fines, especially in the countryside.
- "China Ends One-Child Policy, Allowing Families Two Children" in The New York Times (29 October 2015)
- For more than 35 years, China enforced a controversial one-child policy initially imposed to halt a population explosion. Its replacement, a two-child limit, failed to result in a sustained surge in the number of births as the high cost of raising children in Chinese cities deterred many couples from starting families.
- Vincent Ni, "China announces three-child limit in major policy shift" in The Guardian (31 May 2021)
- The problem for China of not having children must be very painful, because the pyramid is then inverted and a child has to bear the burden of his father, mother, grandfather and grandmother. And this is exhausting, demanding, disorientating. It is not the natural way. I understand that China has opened up possibilities on this front.
- Pope Francis, "Pope Francis Calls China’s One-Child Policy “Not the Natural Way,” Applauds Its Relaxation" in Alteia (2 February 2016)
- In Guangxi Province, where family-planning regulations are strictly enforced, parents trying for sons sell their baby girls on the black market. At the time, 80 percent of trafficked babies were girls, according to a Chinese academic.
- Elizabeth Rosenthal, "Bias for Boys Leads to Sale of Baby Girls in China" in The New York Times (20 July 2003)
- As a result of the one-child policy and the tradition of male heirs, there is currently a national gender imbalance. In China, there are 30 million more men than women.
- The one-child policy, however, extends beyond the borders of mainland China. Throughout the globe, many children adopted from China have been trafficked into orphanages. Women are currently being trafficked from Myanmar, due to the gender imbalance, to marry Chinese men. The lesson from the impact of the one-child policy is that when a government regulates a woman’s reproductive rights, it is detrimental for the world.
- Kristal Sotamayor, "The One-child Policy Legacy on Women and Relationships in China" in PBS (5 February 2020)
- For thousands of years, sons have been highly revered in Chinese culture. Sons were expected to carry on the honor of the family name, wealth, and the expectation to provide for his parents. Males dominated all aspects of Chinese life. In 1979, China introduced one of the world's most extreme state mandated policies for population control, one in which all married couples were to be restricted to having only one child. Even immediately after its implementation, the Chinese continued to believe in this cultural value in males.
- After the signing of China's One-Child Policy in 1979, all married urban couples were allowed to only have one child. This creates a typical family of four grandparents and two parents to one singleton child (also referred to as an only child). This singleton child would therefore not be replacing the prior generations, dramatically reducing the expected population growth within the country. Enforcement of this policy is held at the provincial level. For any additional child, the couple must pay a fine based upon the province of residence, family income, etc.
- While some couples have complied with the government's family planning policy, others choose to avoid it. Some couples have found this population control policy to contradict their own beliefs; rather than adapting to the country's mandated policy, they move from Mainland China so that the policy does not apply to them anymore. Some immigrate to other nations where they are allowed more freedom in their reproductive choices. Others move to Chinese territories such as Hong Kong or Macau, who have been granted a 50-year grace period after the transfer of colonial rule to Chinese rule. While these territories will eventually come under Chinese rules and regulations, at this moment they have their own government and policies in place. The One-Child policy does not apply there; therefore, families are moving from Mainland China in order to have more children.
- Kristine Sudbeck, "The Effects of China's One-Child Policy: The Significance for Chinese Women" (2012)
- The situation in China is different from that overseas. Other countries also have families who have lost an only child, but not as many. Such parents comprise just a small segment in other countries, but since family-planning is a national policy in China, this demographic group has ballooned. Among the Chinese up to 25 years old, four out of every 10,000 die for various reasons every year. This translates into 76,000 deaths each year. Over the past few decades, some 10 million families have been affected by these deaths.
- Wang Xingjuan, "Life After Loss" in China Daily (2013)
- Why did we follow such a wrong policy for so long? The Chinese government doesn’t want to admit it’s wrong. It says the policy was right but now is the time to change. If it just says the policy was wrong, the public will become angry.
- Yi Fuxian, "Can China recover from its disastrous one-child policy?" in The Guardian (2 March 2019)
- Chinese officials say they will begin studying how to move away from the country’s one-child restriction, but caution that any changes would come gradually and would not mean an elimination of family-planning policies. Though enforcement of the policy has softened in many places, there are still reports of forced sterilizations and abortions.
- Jim Yardley, "China to Reconsider One-Child Limit" in The New York Times (29 February 2008)
- The purpose of the family-planning policy was not to make hundreds of families lose their only child, but this situation did occur. If the government does not address this, the situation will only get worse.
- Zhang Tiejun, "Life After Loss" in China Daily (2013)