China's "One-Child Family" Policy

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China's "One-Child Family" Policy


By: Owen Franken

Date: April 1985

Source: © Owen Franken/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

About the Photographer: Owen Franken, the brother of political commentator, comedian, and author Al Franken, is a Paris-based photographer. Franken's work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, and National Geographic magazines.


In 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communist Party assumed power in China, annual population growth hovered at two percent. This trend continued for the next twenty-five years as Mao encouraged Chinese citizens to give birth to more children. In 1950, the average Chinese woman had six children; by 2005, the rate was 1.8 children, a dramatic drop in fifty-five years.

In 1979, the new leader of China, Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), instituted the "birth planning" program, limiting married couples to one child. Each town had a Birth Planning Commission with a Commissioner who monitors birth rates. The one-child policy is complex, with a variety of exceptions to the rule. In rural areas, if the first child is a girl, couples may have a second child three to four years after the first one. Chinese tradition holds that sons take care of their parents, while girls help with the care of their in-laws; as such, boys are favored over girls by many people in Chinese society, especially in rural areas where male labor is viewed as essential for farming.

In addition, if both members of a married couple are only children themselves, the couple may have two children. The Chinese policy permitting two children in these circumstances helps to resolve the "one-two-four" problem, with one son caring for and supporting two parents and four grandparents.

By the mid-1970s, before Deng Xiaoping implemented the one-child policy, birth rates had already declined from five per woman to approximately 2.5 children per woman. The one-child policy offered economic and educational incentives for families willing to sign a one-child pledge. The goal was zero population growth by the year 2000; in 1979, population growth was approximately 1.5%, down from a steady two percent rate from 1949 through 1974.



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The one-child policy was voluntary; couples in non-rural areas who wanted more than one child paid fines or lost economic incentives offered through a one-child pledge. Critics of the program claim that the policy, though voluntary, was coercive; fines were set at such high rates as to encourage abortions for couples unable to afford the fine. The Chinese government determined which form of birth control each woman could use. In many instances, sterilizations—with or without informed consent—were performed on women after giving birth to their second child. Unmarried women reportedly have been forced to undergo abortions; the one-child policy applies only to married couples, and unmarried women are not permitted to have children. In addition, couples were forced to apply for "birth permits" when they were ready to conceive.

The Chinese cultural preference for sons led to the abandonment and infanticide of baby girls in the initial years of the one-child policy. As prenatal technology such as ultrasounds became available in the 1980s, some women chose to abort female fetuses and to try again so that their one child would be a boy Such efforts brought China to a gender imbalance; for every 100 girls born in China there are approximately 118 boys born. The average worldwide is 105 boys for every 100 girls.

Human rights groups have criticized the Chinese government's approach to those who choose to have more than one child, citing forced abortions, forced sterilizations, and the creation of a climate in which infanticide and abandonment at orphanages are the result of oppressive policies. In 2002, China passed the Law on Population and Birth Planning, which updated the 1979 policy, encouraging family planning education for women and providing a legal framework to prevent abuses of the one-child policy.

China's population reduction program was heralded when the country held off projections of 1.3 billion people by three to four years. The one-child policy has reduced or maintained spending levels on social services and education for children, freeing up capital for other investments. In addition, women in the workforce face fewer absences with only one child, and the children in one-child families receive the benefit of their parents' full resources and attention. The darker side of such exclusive attention has been named the "little emperor" problem; with so many only children in China, many of them boys, these children become the sole focus of their parents' and grandparents' attention.

The United States has sharply criticized China's birth planning policies. In 2002, the United States withheld $34 million in United Nations family planning money, stating that programs in China violated the U.S. Kemp-Kasten provision, which prohibits the use of U.S. money on programs that include forced abortions or forced sterilizations. The United States has withheld that funding annually since 2002.



Fong, Vanessa. Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China's One-Child Policy. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004.

United States Congress. China: Human Rights Violations and Coercion in One-Child Policy Enforcement: Hearing Before the Committee on International Relations. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2005.


Greenhalgh, Susan. "Science, modernity, and the making of China's one-child policy: An article from: Population and Development Review." The Population Council, Inc. 29 (2003): 163.

Web sites

BBC News. "China steps up 'one child' policy." September 25, 2000. 〈〉 (accessed May 3, 2006).

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China's "One-Child Family" Policy

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