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One-child policy: China's population control Virginia Marantidou “ Ren duo li liang da”( 人多力 量 大) , in few words, “More people means more power” was one of the most popular expressions of Chairman Mao amongst the Chinese people and the one that for decades motivated them to give birth to increasingly more and more children. In 1979, the Chinese government embarked on an ambitious programme of economic reforms, while at the same time it introduced a policy known as One-child policy. The main aim of the measure, according to the post-Mao Chinese leadership, was to create a small-family culture by containing the baby boom and the fast population growth in order to achieve economic modernization and to improve the living standards of the Chinese people. The policy includes a set of regulations according to which the government can regulate the size of the Chinese families including restrictions on family size, late marriage and childbearing, and sometimes the spacing of children in cases in which second children are permitted (this structure is also known as small, late and long). The law provides that the age limit for a couple to get married must be the 22nd year for the female and the 23rd for the male. In cases where a couple is allowed by law to have a second child then this child should have an age gap from its sibling at least 5 years. The policy imposed system of rewards and penalties including economic incentives for compliance and substantial fines, confiscation of belongings, and dismissal from work for non-compliance. However, most of the time the penalties are adjusted to the couple’s current financial and family situation, while nowadays they tend to be less strict at their implementation. Specifically, the fine for bearing a second child may start from three times a family’s annual income and it can be multiplied depending on the circumstances and on the offender’s income, belongings, property value etc.

The paradox The One-child policy, as it is already mentioned, was introduced in an effort to fight poverty, to improve people’s living standards and to create a viable economic system which was unlikely to happen due to the huge problems of overpopulation and unemployment. The paradox though goes like this; Despite its name, the population-control rule applies to a minority of the population: to urban residents and government employees. For them the policy is strictly enforced, with few exceptions. The exceptions mainly include families in which the first child has a disability or both parents work in high-risk occupations, such as mining, or are themselves from one-child families (in some areas). A second or a third child is allowed among some ethnic minorities and in underpopulated areas or disputed areas where the demography seems to be special, such as Tibet and Urumqi. In rural regions the law is looser. There people are usually allowed to have a second child

despite the fact that approximately 70% of the Chinese population lives in the countryside and they consist of the poorest and least educated part of the population. The paradox, therefore, is that despite the fact that the one-child policy had as its main target the war against poverty, if we take into consideration the huge social differences between the urban and the rural areas, the low income of the countryside people and the harsh living conditions there, the problem seems to be not solved but reproduced. There are many explanations why the law is not equally implemented throughout China. Some people argue that the main reason is that the people in rural areas, because of their low level of education, have difficulties in keeping up with the law concerning the fertility control and since they are very poor, imposing fines or confiscating their belongings produces no desirable results for the government. The government either has to confiscate non-existing belongings or to put the offenders in prison, a very difficult task since the offenders consist of the majority of its people. Another scenario maintains that the main reason for non compliance to the law in rural areas is the difficulty for the Family-planning committees at provincial and county levels, due to the huge territory that they have under their authority, to devise local strategies for implementation and control. A reason for not applying the one-child policy in rural areas may be found in the framework of a fight against urbanism and for decentralisation, as well. Nowadays urbanism is a strong phenomenon in contemporary China, which causes huge problems in the proper and viable function of the biggest Chinese cities. According to another argument, people in rural areas are poorer and most of the time don’t receive higher education. Thus, most of them, in a very young age, abandon school and they choose to work in the main industrial centres of Guangdong, Zhejiang province and Wenzhou city in Southern China, seeking for a better life and a way to earn a living. The supporters of this theory argue that high birth rates in poor regions are in the interest of the government in order to achieve a cheap labour force in the industrial regions, where hands are needed to preserve and reinforce Chinese industry. The corrupt administrative system enhances this situation. The “relationships society”, as Chinese society is often characterized by its own people, is the key factor in every aspect of the relations between the central government (the law) and the citizen. Thus, the one-child policy cannot be purely implemented since people can always escape the law if a family member or a friend works at the administrative sector.

The sex ratio Traditionally in Chinese society baby boys were the most welcomed and prefered, the ultimate goal of a married couple. The implementation of the one-child policy reinforced this belief, since Chinese people had only one attempt to have a son. The prenatal sex selection was encouraged by sex selection technology and medicine and led to a rise of sex ratio (males to females) at birth. Even nowadays many “illegal” births occur because of the couples’ desire to have a son. In many cases incidents of infanticide and girls trafficking have been also reported. In general, ultrasonography is not allowed, although it is not expressly prohibited,

especially for young couples, since it leads to a decision of abortion if the gender of the child proves to be female. However, many couples by going to private health centers and especially illegal backstreet hospitals manage to find out the gender of their child and to proceed to an abortion, with a very low cost. Consequently, in rural areas if the first-born child is a girl then the law permits the birth of a second child. In this way the government not only makes a clear acknowledgement of the traditional preference for boys but it also tries to balance this preference and protect the female births. Nevertheless, in many cases if the second child is also a girl, the pregnancy is “interrupted” allowing the family to have another try for a son. For two decades since the onset of the family control policy, the average sex ratio for all birth orders was 1.15, with a big gap between the first and the second child birth, 1.06 and 1.24, respectively (Kang & Wang, 2003, Sex ratio at birth) . The current trend, according to recent surveys, is that the sex ratio at birth reaches 1.13 (CIA, World Factbook).

The consequences Apart from the increase in the sex ratio, nowadays, there is also an increase in ratio between elderly parents and adult children. The new lifestyle of the Chinese people which led to a rise of the life expectancy in combination with the rapid decrease in the birth rate creates the phenomenon widely known as “4:2:1”. The 4:2:1 phenomenon is depicted as a couple to be solely responsible for the care of one child and four parents. The 4:2:1 phenomenon has become a real social problem since financial coverage of the elderly parents burdens their married child. If we consider that 70% of the elderly people in China do not receive adequate pension coverage and they are totally dependent on their only child, the problem seems even bigger. The chinese government tries to limit this problem, therefore, in some cases, in urban areas, couples which are themselves only children are allowed to have more than one child. The sex ratio problem has its own negative consequences, as well. The sex imbalance because of the shortage of women may result to increased mental health problems, sexual problems and disruptive behaviour among the chinese male population. Most of the times the scarcity of women has left some men unable to marry and have a family, social institutions which are considered to be the most important and sacred in Chinese culture and tradition. In addition, phenomena such as kidnapping and trafficking of females for marriage have occurred in some cases; an increase of commercial sex workers is also observed. Chinese authorities are much afraid that, in the future, sexually transmitted diseases and mental problems among the male population can indeed constitute a real threat to China’s stability. Maybe that is one of the reasons why people with HIV and sexually transmitted diseases are not granted a visa and therefore are not allowed to enter China.

As every policy sets targets, in the case of the one- child policy, when it was first introduced, the target was to reach China a population of 1,2 billion people by the year 2000. China reached the population target of 1,27 billion people in that year. The number shows that this policy met its expectations and for this reason it can be characterized as successful. This belief prevails in the majority of the Chinese people, who think that the family control policy is an inevitable and necessary evil. The population control policy was indeed successful but more in the framework of a state propaganda, where the population growth in China was presented and propagandized as the root of all evils, shifting public attention to overpopulation and away from the real political and social problems of the late socialist era. Unemployment, poverty, non-existent labour rights, housing problems, all according to the central government are the results of one major issue, overpopulation. Of course, overpopulation causes many problems especially in a developing country where institutions barely function and the law is hardly carried out, but definitely this problem is not the source of all others. While Chinese people study, do business and travel abroad, fill their pockets with money and interact with foreigners, inevitably they ameliorate their living standards and their social education. Due to these factors and not the birth-control policy the small-family culture starts being cultivated into the chinese mentality. The rising Chinese middle and upper classes seek a better future for their children and they choose not to bear many, in order to provide them with a better quality of education and a better family environment. Consequently, in the near future, probably the main argument of overpopulation will lose ground. Even if this will not be the case, the demand for more social reforms and liberalisation will affect the family planning domain and the cruel law of the one-child. which is one of the most serious thorns in contemporary Chinese society. Many people are also afraid that this rapid decrease in birth rates may harm the Chinese economy which is based on its huge and consequently cheap labour force. If the Chinese economy does not move from a labour- intensive economy to a technology/ innovations-intensive economy then its future appears quite problematic. In the ucoming years the Chinese regime will have to overcome the internal vibrations which cause deep cracks in its legitimacy. Dealing with the one-child policy is one of the most important issues for the Chinese central government since it is one of the contributing factors that will determine whether it will stay in power or not.


Brandt L. and Rawski T.G., 2008, China’s Great Economic Transformation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge CIA The World Factbook: EAST & SOUTHEAST ASIA: CHINA Hesketh T, Lu L., and Xing Zh., 2009, “China’s excess males, sex selective abortion, and one child policy: analysis of data from 2005 national intercensus survey”, BMJ 338:b1211, Hesketh T., Lu L., and Xing Zh. W., 2005, “The Effect of China's One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years”, Kang C, Wang Y., 2003, Sex ratio at birth. In: Theses Collection of 2001 National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Survey. Beijing: China Population Publishing House, 2003:88-98 Tao L. & Zhang X., 2009, “Ratio of males to females in China”, BMJ, 338:b483,

One-child policy: China's population control  

One-child policy. The main aim of the measure, according to the post-Mao Chinese leadership, was to create a small-family culture by contain...