One-Child Policy

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The People's Republic of China (PRC) is the world's most populous country, comprising 21 percent of the global population. After almost three decades of radical Maoist Communism and nearly a decade of increasingly compulsory family planning, China, in 1978, launched both its market-oriented economic reform era and its unique one-child policy. These two plans appear to be contradictory in that the economic reforms loosen the prior meticulous government controls on people's lives under the planned economy, while the one-child policy micro-manages the most intimate parts of marital and family life. Yet China's political leaders and its educated elite generally saw both economic reform and the one-child policy as important, even essential, means toward the goal of rapidly raising per capita living standards in China. Market reforms partially unleashed the previously suppressed and frustrated entrepreneurial, ambitious spirit in Chinese culture, bringing about the world's most rapid macroeconomic growth, while the one-child policy sharply reduced population growth. Very rapid economic growth and unusually slow population growth in combination have yielded the remarkable upsurge in per capita income that China has experienced.

Origin of the One-Child Policy

Mao Zedong had suppressed the field of demography–and population studies in general–from the time of the founding of the PRC in 1949. In the late 1970s, after China tried to impose a two-child limit, a team of natural scientists (non-demographers) prepared a population projection showing, correctly, that China's population would continue to grow rapidly for decades even if all couples had no more than two children. This result shocked China's political leaders, who wanted to stop population growth immediately; they quickly announced a one-child limit for all urban and rural couples, except for the six percent of the population in non-Han Chinese minority groups. At the time, the leadership and scholars apparently were unaware that successful implementation of the one-child policy would speed the emergence of a new problem, the rapid aging of China's population structure.

Implementation of the One-Child Policy

The one-child policy was imposed in 1979 and was carried out with increasing coercion in urban and rural areas. The stated policy was (and, generally speaking, remained) that after one child, a woman was required to have an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted; if the couple already had two children, the woman (or, infrequently, the man) was required to be sterilized; and all pregnancies that had not received prior official approval were to be aborted. Coercive mass campaigns became widespread in the early 1980s and recorded their worst abuses in 1983. Statistics on birth control operations showed a sharp peak in sterilizations (1982: 5 million; 1983: 21 million), abortions (1981: 8.7 million; 1982: 12.4 million; 1983: 14.4 million), and IUD insertions (1981:10.3 million; 1982: 14.1 million; 1983: 17.8 million) that year.

The one-child policy, from its inception, has also included disincentives for births beyond the approved number. Disincentives vary by place and can include severe fines, appropriation or destruction of family homes or possessions, political or physical harassment, work penalties or loss of employment, and the required adoption of officially controllable and long-term birth control techniques. The one-child policy has also always included incentives reserved for couples who agree to stop childbearing after one child and who sign a one-child pledge. The incentives can take the form of regular payments to the couple for the single child's benefit, priority in access to health services and public childcare and education, hiring priority in desired job categories for the parents and single child, and political praise. However, penalties strongly overshadow incentives in the enforcement of birth restrictions in China.

The one-child policy remained in force in the early twenty-first century. The PRC government, in March 2000, issued a document mandating that there be no change in the overall population targets, fertility controls, or means of enforcement. In December 2001, the National People's Congress passed a law on population and birth planning, thus creating, after much delay, a formal legal basis for the policy.

Compliance and Non-Compliance

At the time the one-child policy was adopted in 1978, the urban population of China had been living with a strict two-child policy since the mid-1960s. Urban conditions such as overcrowding and the greater autonomy of women encouraged voluntary low fertility. In addition, the urban social safety net (allocated housing, free or inexpensive medical care, pensions, subsidies) made families less dependent on their children for old-age support than rural couples. Thus, the one-child policy, aggressively implemented throughout urban China, was successful from its inception. A large proportion of urban couples in childbearing ages sign the one-child pledge, even though China's urban couples, like their rural counterparts, usually say they would prefer two or more children if this were an option. The urban total fertility rate (TFR) is only 1.4 births per woman or lower, well below replacement level. The urban population constitutes 36 percent of the total population of the PRC.

Rural China has consistently resisted the one-child policy, because there is essentially no social support system for rural families to substitute for the support of children, and especially sons, when they are grown. Daughters marry out of their villages (the marriage system is patrilocal), while sons continue to live with or near their parents and each son brings in a wife who helps him support his parents in their old age. Accordingly, preference for male progeny remains strong. Given peasant resistance, the government modified the one-child policy for rural China starting in 1984. In 18 provinces (more than half the total), rural couples are allowed to bear a second child if the firstborn is a girl, but remain subject to the one-child policy if the firstborn is a boy. Five provinces allow all rural couples to have two children and the provinces with populations dominated by minority groups allow rural couples two or three children. The four province-level municipalities and also Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces continue the one-child limit for all urban and rural Han couples. China's exact rural TFR is not known, but it is estimated to be about 2.0 births per woman, slightly below replacement level or lower.

Effects of the One-Child Policy

China's one-child policy has held both urban and rural fertility down to levels well below what they would otherwise have been during the decades since 1978. This has reduced China's population growth rate and, all else being equal, has increased per capita income. Such low fertility has also reduced the number of pregnancies and births per woman, and thereby helped to reduce maternal mortality. The one-child policy has greatly changed family structure and raised the perceived value of each child as the number of children per couple has declined. In cities, the one-child policy may have helped elevate the status of daughters, because almost half the time an only child is a girl. But elsewhere, the one-child policy or its modifications have exacerbated life-threatening discrimination against female infants and very young girls, and brought about a worsening problem of sex-selective abortion of female fetuses. In addition, reproductive rights have been largely denied to China's women who, in most of the country, continue to bear the burden of required use of IUDs, frequent inspections to confirm that the IUD is still in place, required abortions of noncompliant pregnancies, compulsory sterilization, and often, harm to their marriages and family relations if they do not bear a son. Finally, the strong contraction of fertility has distorted China's age structure and set in motion a process of rapid and extreme population aging. China's one-child policy is, therefore, partly beneficial and partly detrimental to the quality of life of China's people.

See also: Communism, Population Aspects of; Population Policy.


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Judith Banister