Georgetown Journal's Guide to the 'One-Child' Policy by Jennifer Steffensen

Shortly after I moved to Beijing, I was on the subway with my Chinese friend and complaining about what was one of the most tightly packed subway cars I’d ever seen. My colleague turned to me an exclaimed, “So now you know why we have the one-child policy.”

China’s infamous family planning policy is simultaneously credited with drastically reducing China’s birth rate and chastised for trampling on individual rights. Within China, many view the policy as a necessary evil, an individual sacrifice for the collective good. Outside China, the policy is both widely condemned and poorly understood. Regardless of one’s feelings about the policy, it’s time for it to end.

China launched its “one-child-per-couple” policy in 1979 as an emergency measure to slow population growth after the launch of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and following the baby boom years under Mao Zedong. Proponents of the “one-child” policy argued that fast population growth would strip the country of its natural resources, constrain food supply, and decrease per capita income. For many, Chairman Mao’s legacy of promoting population growth and then allowing millions to starve during the disastrous Great Leap Forward was not a distant memory.

Yet the draconian policy has been controversial since its inception, and not just in the West. The policy’s initial implementation, accompanied by mass sterilization and abortion campaigns, sparked widespread protests in China, especially in rural areas. In response to the protests, authorities adjusted the policy in 1984 and 1986 to adopt a more localized approach. Authorities generally moved away from coercive measures that brought compliance through destruction of property, physical abuse, forced sterilization, and induced abortion, and began promoting voluntary compliance through greater access to a variety of contraceptive methods. Yet even as recently as 2012, “nasty” family planning slogans such as “Raise Fewer Babies, But More Piggies,” and “If you don’t have your tubes tied, your house will be demolished” were outlawed by the Chinese government due to anger about the policy and its implementation in rural areas.

Today, China’s family planning policy is both complex and decentralized, with a variety of exceptions at the local and provincial levels. Actually, the “one-child” rule only applies to roughly two-thirds of the Chinese population. About half the population falls under a “1.5 policy,” in which couples whose first child is a daughter may have a second child. In areas where the majority of the residents are ethnic minorities, couples are allowed to have a second or even third child.  In most provinces, if both parents have no siblings, they are permitted to have two children.  Other exemptions are in place for people living in severely impoverished areas. Enforcement of the policy varies, and the under-reporting of daughters to evade punishment has been a serious problem which came to the surface in China’s 2000 Census.

The Chinese government often claims the “one-child” policy as a great success in reducing China’s population growth rate. Since 1980, the country’s total fertility rate has declined from 2.6 to 1.56, well below the replacement level, and China’s population is projected to begin declining in this decade. Yet can the population decline be attributed to the one-child policy?

Wang Feng argues in an East West Center article that China experienced population decline not because of the state’s one-child policy, but because of institutional changes and economic reform. Evidence lies in China’s Asian neighbors—especially Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and more recently Vietnam—which have all experienced declining fertility rates on the heels of economic development, without fertility control programs. China’s one-child policy may have just accelerated a demographic transition that would have inevitably occurred.

Regardless of the causes, the policy has had real implications for Chinese society. There is now an entire generation of only children, often called “Little Emperors,” who have grown up, for better or worse, under the adulation of their parents and grandparents. The ‘one-child’ policy has also led to what Amartya Sen first called “Missing Women,” or the 100 million girls “missing” from the populations of China (and other developing countries) as a result of female infanticide, abandonment, and neglect. More recently, writers such as Mara Hvistendahl have pointed to sex-selective abortion as a leading cause of skewed sex ratios at birth in Asia, and a sign that discrimination starts in the womb.

Yet human rights arguments are not likely to persuade the Chinese government to end its 32-year-long family planning policy. Demographic arguments may be more persuasive. Currently, 120 males are reportedly born for every 100 females. At this ratio, one in five males will be unable to find a bride in 2020, and policymakers already fear the implications for China’s social stability. Perhaps even more concerning, today’s youth face the burden of caring for China’s burgeoning over-60 population, which will total 480 million by 2050.  While many Asian countries face a similar challenge, China is in a unique position in that its population will get old before it gets rich.  China must plan now for soaring health care and pension costs, shrinking workforce, and possibly, decreasing economic productivity.

The irony is that China’s one-child policy may have accelerated a demographic situation far more dire than the one it sought to prevent. Continuing the one-child policy is one sure way to ensure China will fail to meet the social and economic challenges that lie on its horizon. A demographic time bomb is ticking. It’s time for China’s leaders to diffuse it.

Jennifer Steffensen is a student in the Masters of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University and co-editor of the Georgtown Journal’s online content. She lived in Nanjing and Beijing, China from 2008-2011.