The One Child Policy: Friend or Foe?

Since we are approaching finals, in the spirit of education, I thought I would share a paper I wrote on the One Child Policy for my History of Modern China class last semester. Since I go to GW, the king of “real world practicality” and politics, we were told to write a policy brief on a current issue in China, using historical background to argue a policy position. Living in Beijing for a semester and traveling to the two other most populous cities in China, I find the One Child Policy very intriguing. I have seen the population issue, or “renkou wenti” as they say in China, first hand. The large population causes many issues, however, the One Child Policy has also caused issues in and of itself. Some I had learned about before entering China (the aging population and lack of girls), and others were a complete surprise to me (bride trafficking). Please keep in mind that this brief does not completely represent my own personal opinion; I am merely arguing a stance on the issue and providing a possible solution.

The policy briefing below is written to American policymakers to inform them of the serious consequences of the One Child Policy, and urge them to collaborate with Chinese government officials to loosen the One Child Policy, while simultaneously working towards creating a social security fund for the older generation. 

Chinese One Child Policy Brief

One of the most controversial government policies to date, China’s One Child Policy has led to major demographic challenges and vast human rights issues. In an effort to develop Chinese people of “quality over quantity”, the Chinese Communist Party has created many serious problems such as human trafficking, the largest gender distribution gap in the world, and a lack of funds to aid the retiring population. Because of this, it is pertinent to the stability of China and the future global economy that the Chinese Communist Party loosen their restrictions on the One Child Policy, and begin to work towards creating a Social Security system.

The One Child Policy, implemented by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, is not the first attempt China has made to control its ballooning population. Between 1970 and 1979, Mao Zedong’s “late, long, few” policy, which called for later childbearing, greater spacing between children, and fewer children, had already resulted in a halving of the total fertility rate, from 5.9 to 2.9 births per woman. However, Deng Xiaoping, worried that this voluntary initiative was not strong enough to reverse population trends, developed the One Child Policy. Two years after the implementation of the policy, China’s birthrate decreased to 2.3 births per woman. Deng Xiaoping’s reasoning in implementing the policy was to create Chinese people of “quality over quantity”, stressing that parents should invest their resources into one child, creating a society of well-educated, healthy, hardworking people.

While much of the world views the One Child Policy as a strict one-child rule, many families are allowed to have multiple children. If the first child has a disability or both parents are only children, the couple is allowed two children. In many rural areas, if the first child is a girl, families are permitted to “try again for a son”. In addition, many Chinese minorities are allotted two or even three children, to preserve ethnic groups and cultural diversity in China. Approximately seventy percent of Chinese people live in the countryside, meaning millions of families are allowed more than one child. Finally, in many areas of China, wealthy families are able to have multiple children by paying a heavy tax. There have been many concrete benefits of the One Child Policy, and if the policy stays in place, Richard Jackson, the author of “The Dimensions of China’s Aging Challenge”, predicts that India will surpass China as the world’s most populous country by 2020, and China’s population will peak by 2030 (10). This is why it is important not to abolish the policy entirely. However, these changes, while fulfilling the government’s goals to reduce population, have created many other serious issues that can be resolved only by restructuring the One Child Policy.

With the introduction of the One Child Policy, the desire to have a son became increasingly important. Since the time of Confucius in 500 BCE, respecting ones ancestors through continuing the family line is a man’s fundamental obligation and is considered a repayment to his ancestors. China’s traditional patrilineal descent system ensures that only males can pass on the family line. Because of this, a daughter is often considered an outsider from the moment of her birth because she will not bring economic value to her family once she marries into to her husband’s family. Even with Mao Zedong’s popular slogan “Women hold up half the sky”, traditional gendered values are still a large part of Chinese society, especially in the rural countryside. Currently, in the cities daughters have begun to provide support to their parents, but in the countryside, tradition stands. Therefore, it is important for rural Chinese families to have a son not only for lineage purposes, but also for social security. In rural China, sons come with a lifetime of security; they will work in the fields, support their parents and carry on the family line. Females, however, will be married off and will not continue to support their parents. In a country with no concrete social security system, families without sons face serious problems.

To solve this issue, the Chinese government has allowed many rural residents to “try again for a boy” if the first child is a girl. Following the birth of a girl, if the second pregnancy also results in a female, this pregnancy often “disappears,” allowing the couple another attempt to have a son. While the city has easily adapted to the One Child Policy, continued son preference in the countryside makes implementation difficult and leads to gender-ratio complications. In the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Survey, 75 percent of respondents in wealthy Jiangsu province were satisfied with their one child regardless of sex, whereas in poorer Yunnan province, 55 percent were satisfied with one male child, but only 30 percent were satisfied with one female child (Hesketh et al). This long-standing Confucian preference for male over female has led to a complete disruption of many aspects of Chinese society.

Selective abortions, adoption, infanticide and family planning have led to a vastly skewed sex ratio in China. The sex ratio at birth, defined as the proportion of male live births to female live births, ranges from 1.03 to 1.07 in industrialized countries. Since the onset of the One Child Policy, there has been a steady increase in the reported sex ratio, from 1.06 in 1979 to 1.17 in 2001(Hesketh et al). During Mao’s era, elderly citizens were supported by the government through the “Iron Rice bowl”, a government policy that acted as a form of social security, job protection and welfare for all citizens who worked in government industries or agricultural communes. With the disbanding of the Iron Rice Bowl and the implementation of the One Child Policy, Chinese families were forced to revert back to traditional methods of family support, leading to an resurgence of son preference. Most countries in Europe, the Americas and the Middle East all have what one would consider “normal” sex- ratios within the 1.03 to 1.07 range; however, currently the sex ratio in China is the most disproportionate in the world. Sex-selective abortion after ultrasonography accounts for a large proportion of the steep decline in female births; however, actual figures are impossible to obtain, because sex-selective abortion is technically illegal.

Many missing females simply go unreported, living with relatives or abandoned at orphanages. While these females are present in society, many do not survive to adulthood. Ninety five percent of children in Chinese orphanages are healthy girls, however, due to neglect, starvation and exposure, most will die in the orphanage as an infant or child. For example, an orphanage in Nanning, Guanxi reports that ninety percent of the fifty to sixty female infants that arrive on a monthly basis will die in the orphanage (Skalla, 347). While infanticide in China is illegal, neglectful orphanages are an institutionalized way of ridding China of its unwanted female population.

One main issue stemming from the “missing girls” phenomenon is the lack of available brides for young men. By 2020 there will be 30 million men unable to find spouses (Jackson, 14). This causes many fundamental issues within the Confucian traditional family structure of China. Without the ability to marry and produce an heir to the ancestral line, these men will bring great offense to their ancestors and will become a disgrace in the eyes of their family and the community. Many fear that an “army of bachelors”, unable to participate in traditional customs of marriage and family, may stir political unrest. According to Nicole Skalla, author of “China’s One Child Policy: Illegal Children and the Family Planning Law”, an unmarried man between the ages of 24 and 35 is three times more likely to murder a man of the same age (351). The aggression caused by lack of ability to marry and produce a family in a society in which marriage is not only expected, but required, will undoubtedly spark political unrest against the policy or even the government itself.

To solve the issue of missing women, China has developed a new system of underground bride trafficking. Hundreds of thousands of women have been abducted from their homes to be sold as brides to paying husbands. Many women even go voluntarily for the promise of a better life, but then are unable to reject a match once the money has exchanged hands. The lack of women has also resulted in increased numbers of commercial sex workers, with a potential resultant rise in human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV) and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The rapid reduction in births has also created another major issue known as the “aging population”. By 2020, China will be adding 10 million elderly to its population demographics each year while simultaneously losing 7 million working-age adults (Jackson, 7). While many developed countries are also undergoing this transition as families decide to have fewer children, these countries are much wealthier than China; this is known as China’s “premature aging problem”. In the 1960’s, only 7% of the population was elderly, however, now the percentage of elderly Chinese is roughly 33%. Similarly, in 1960 the median age was 20, however, China has now surpassed America in “age” with a median age of 47 (Jackson, 8-9). The main issue with this “prematurely” aging population is a lack of available funds to support these people. Currently, only government workers and employees of state-owned companies receive any sort of pension from the government, which is roughly only 31% of the population of elderly Chinese.

While the traditional family structure of sons supporting parents has been successful since the Song Dynasty, the One Child Policy is creating a strain on the system. Urban couples may attempt to support both sets of parents, however this creates a financial burden on the family. This problem is commonly referred to as the 4:2:1 phenomenon, meaning that increasing numbers of couples will be solely responsible for the care of one child and four parents. In the past, parents could rely on multiple sons to support themselves in old age; however, many rural families without sons are left with no children to care for them. Without government help, this creates a major social issue.

By restructuring the One Child Policy to create a “Two Child Policy”, many of the social problems created by the current policy will be solved. The Two Child Policy would encourage families to have one child with positive incentives such as better housing, but limit families to two children. Rural families would be allowed two children, but then would be allowed to “try again for a boy” if the first two children are female. Finally, the Two Child Policy would place no limit on ethnic minorities. The Two Child Policy would not only solve the 4-2-1 problem, but would also reduce the gender disparity gap. The preference for sons in the countryside is an issue that is deeply engrained in Chinese culture and history; now, the Two Child Policy will work to combat the gender disparity through practical means. If families in the countryside must produce two female children before they are allowed to “try again for a boy”, it will help increase the number of women in society.

While families in the city would be allowed two children with the Two Child Policy, studies show that over one third of Chinese families in major cities are satisfied with one child. This change in beliefs can be seen by the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Survey, which states that 35 percent of the urban women questioned preferred having only one child, 57 percent preferred having two children, but very few women (an average of 5.8 percent) wanted more than two (Hesketh et al). Even in areas like Tibet, where most couples are permitted to have three children, 65 percent of the women wanted only one or two children.

In addition to the Two Child Policy, other steps must be taken to reduce the gender disparity gap and aid the aging population. While the Two Child Policy will solve the 4-2-1 problem, as well as increase the female population, it will not solve the practical need for sons in the countryside. By implementing a social security system in China, the need for sons as a practical concern is no longer as dire. With the government caring for the elderly population, there will be less pressure for families to have male children. Allowing Chinese families to have more children will also solve the “premature aging problem”. With a larger young adult population, there will be more working members of society to contribute to the retiring population via social security taxes. While the son preference is a deeply engrained issue that dates back to the start of Confucianism in 500 BCE, by supporting the elderly population through Social Security, this alleviates much of the practical concern for rural families as well as the pressure on urban couples to support both parents.

Works Cited

  1. Hesketh, Therese, Li Lu, and Zhu Wei Xing. “The Effect of China’s One-

Child Family Policy after 25 Years.” New England Journal of Medicine 353.11 (2005): 1171-176. Print.

  1.  Jackson, Richard. et. al. “The Dimensions of China’s Aging Challenge.”

China’s Long March to Retirement Reform 4.22 (2009): 7-17. Print.

  1.  Skalla Nicole. M .”China’s One-Child Policy: Illegal Children and the Family

Planning Law;.” 30 Brook Journal International (2004): 329-55. Hein Online. Web.



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

5 comments on “The One Child Policy: Friend or Foe?

  1. Richelle, I have often wondered about the one-child policy in China and its effects on the Chinese people. Hadn’t realized many of the problems that it might create, so I really appreciate learning more about it. Thanks. Ruth

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