The end of China’s one child policy: the right to reproduce and the right to live well

China's one-child policy fundamentally changed the most intimate aspects of Chinese lives. It's removal last month may have been more welcome if structural forces did not remain that continue to stifle the ability of individuals and families to build lives of their own choosing.

Ting Guo
13 November 2015

On 29 October 2015, in wake of the fifth plenary session of 18th Chinese Communist Party central committee, China announced to demolish its mandatory one-child policy that had been in operation for more than three decades.

This breaking news on a policy that concerns the most intimate and essential aspect of human life—reproduction—did not seem to have met with enthusiasm from Chinese Netizens. As some of them commented, without an updated infrastructure and system that supports this policy that will change the lives of millions of women and families, the change of policy does not weigh much. More importantly, some families already began having more than one child, by attaining a different nationality or giving birth outside China—popular choices include Hong Kong, where one-child policy does not apply (which generated heated tension between local HongKongers and those mainland ‘birth tourists’ 雙非) and the US, which inspired a box office hit Finding Mr Right (2013; 北京遇上西雅图, literally ‘Beijing Meets Seattle’). Others pay fines (from 30% of household annual income). And for couples who were both born after the 1980s as the only child, they have been made allowed to have two children according to a policy introduced in 2009.

The biggest irony is perhaps how this policy contradicts the current constitution; as dissident writer Ma Jian writes on his Facebook page, that People’s Congress has not yet abolished or revised the Population and Family Planning Law of the People's Republic of China, or deleted Article 18, which states “the state maintains its current policy for reproduction, encouraging late marriage and childbearing and advocating one child per couple.”


One Child Policy propaganda poster. Photo: Kattebelletje via Flickr.

Ma Jian may not be an expert on legal interpretation, but he speaks for two generations of women whose biological ability were subject to state regulations (Mao era’s ‘more people, more strength’ policy, then the one-child policy in the 1980s). He further questions the rule by law in China and the Certificate for One-Child Parents by forcefully stating “those forcedly aborted babies still died for nothing, did those families receive compensation? Two generations of mothers who suffered from child-bearing policies, are now being repaid by other mothers’ ovaries. Let each family decide how to live their lives.” Hong Kong commentator Joseph Lian Yi-zheng also comments in his column for Hong Kong Economic Journal that the policies on reproduction reminds him of Nazi Germany, where women’s self-determination was denied and biological role as childbearers was targeted.

Family planning in Communist China

In their study on Chinese families in the post-Mao era, Deborah Davis and Steven Harrell note that in the decade after the Communist victory in 1949, state orthodoxy created a new institutional and moral environment for Chinese families. The influence on Chinese families did not simply lead to destruction or promotion, but contradictions. On the one hand, it undercut the power and authority of patriarchs and destroyed the economic logic of family farms and businesses. On the other hand, it created demographic and material conditions conducive to large, multigenerational households with extensive economic and social ties to nearby kin. In short, Chinese families between 1950 and 1976 survived and reproduced within a paradoxical environment: the often repressive ‘egalitarianism’ of communism permitted more Chinese parents and children than ever before to realise core ideals of traditional Chinese familism, while at the same time the revolution eliminated many of the original incentives for wanting to realise those ideals.

Although there is considerable disagreement about the fertility levels of the Chinese population before the early decades of the twentieth century, it is clear that from the 1920s through the 1950s virtually all Chinese couples considered it essential that they have enough sons to ensure that at least one would grow to maturity and continue the patriline. The government also encouraged families to have as many children as possible under the praise for “guangrong mama” (光荣妈妈 glorious mothers) and the slogan that that population growth would empower the country against Western imperialism. Mothers who gave birth to more than five children were rewarded for their contribution to the nation. The national population grew from around 540 million in 1949 to 684 million in 1960.

Realising the potential problems with an encouraging birth policy, the government saw strict population containment as essential to economic reform and began to promote birth control (first in cities) in the 1960s, followed with nation-wide implantation between 1978 and 1980. Statistics show that urban fertility began to diverge from national trends (table 1.1); however, the impact of the one-child policy is not clear-cut. While researchers such as Hill Gates have discovered a relationship between increased capital assets and decreased desire to have children among urban women in the 1980s, there are families, largely from rural areas (where approximately 70 percent of people live), for which a maximum number of sons are still desirable. Peasants with limited savings and without pensions needed children to support them in old age. As married daughters moved into their husbands’ families, a son was essential—and preferably more than one. Infant mortality had fallen greatly, but in 1980 it was still around 53 per 1000 live births nationally and higher than that in rural areas.

The complexities of living and raising children in China

State welfare and other supporting systems have not been sensitive enough to the social changes that come with reproductive policies and economic reform. The cost of raising a child in China, an officially Communist country, might surprise many who have fantasies of free education and state welfare. Raising a child from birth through to 18 years of age costs about 23,000 yuan ($3,745) a year, according to Credit Suisse Group AG, equivalent to 43 percent of the average household income in China. It has also led to what reporters refer to as a “demographic crisis” in China, as families that preferred male children would abort their female fetuses under the policy; as a result, gender imbalance has become a pervasive problem in China, with a current ratio of 117 boys to every 100 girls


Photo: vhines200 via Flickr.

As some observers have pointed out, in a culture like China’s, where the mainstream societal expectation continues to put heavy emphasis on progeny, family network strength and family unit establishment as a benefit to status-building, for these one in four adult Chinese males, being single adds extra dimensions of undesirability. Deep personal anger and frustrations must inevitably be a byproduct of these societal pressures. Furthermore, if these single men will be found predominantly in a single demographic – namely rural, poor and uneducated men, we might see the emergence of a new class of potentially angry, frustrated, relatively poor and uneducated single men, which can mean serious threats to societal stability, if this group builds a class identity that feels antagonized by society as a whole.  In regard to societal peace, studies have shown the increasing number of crimes including sex trafficking — as a way to provide brides and carry on family lines--in China as a result of gender imbalance.

And another demographic crisis is looming, as the population ages and there aren’t enough people in younger generations to care for the elderly. United Nations forecast that China will lose 67 million working-age people by 2030, while simultaneously doubling the number of elderly.

The one child policy has also unintended consequences for economic reforms. One of them is the imbalance of labour and economic development in rural and urban areas. Recent estimates suggest that up to 150 million Chinese—most of them adults in their 20s and 30s—form a floating population who leave their villages for longer or shorter periods. Earning cash wages, living in makeshift accommodation, moving between jobs and between cities and their home villages, these people are seldom eligible for state provided services. 80% of these migrants work as unskilled labourers and only 20% of them are able to bring their families with them. As a result, 61m children – one in five in China – are left behind in rural China, staying with grandparents or other relatives, which requisites psychological and health and safety issues. Another 29m children have accompanied their migrant worker parents to the cities, although according to the fifth national census, at least 10% of them have no schooling at all once they arrive.

In an earlier article appeared in ChinaFile in 2013, Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014), remarked that it was too soon to predict what the long-term demographic consequences of the change would be. Fincher also pointed out the contradictions and loopholes of the one child policy, where some rural couples would try two or even three more times to have that coveted boy, with no drastic consequences other than paying a fine; while in other areas the policy was sometimes used by local officials to force women to have late-term abortions. Currently in China, the cost of living has become so high that even if couples say they want two children, perhaps they will find that they can’t afford it in the end. And then there are many young Chinese people who say they don’t even want one child because housing and education are too expensive.

So the “two-child” policy may end up being of more symbolic importance than anything else. Vincent Ni, a BBC world producer, also expressed his concern for the issue of living cost and education. This all taps into what award-winning British journalist Isabel Hilton refers to as “the legacy of the one-child policy” that does not go away, either for the nation or for the many individuals whose lives have been conditioned by it.  For couples who have taken advantage of spells abroad to have a second child, that child is not entitled to access education or health services upon returning to China. Other couples who simply concealed the birth of officially prohibited infants created an unknown number of Chinese citizens – these children were born in secret and remain undocumented.

Those shadow citizens, along with those “glorious mothers” and their children who went through the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, economic reform and the one child policy, and the children of those who obeyed or dodged the one child policy, and the next generation of future reproductive regulations, weave into the large tapestry of the social development of China as unrecognisable threads. Population control has been an old practice in human history, but precisely because of its universal nature, it is imperative to demand a universal response and a set of ethics that can resist radical policies. As Betsy Hartmann, a scholar of development Studies at Hampshire College remarks in her book Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control (1995) that only through respect for basic human rights can family planning play a liberating role in the lives of women and men around the world—and, I would argue, in social development too.

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