The End of China’s One Child Policy: What and Why?

Posted on the 4th November 2015 by Aakanksha, Communications Coordinator


The Chinese government has decided to terminate its decades-long one child policy, permitting all couples to have two children. Although the numbers are contested, according to the Chinese government the one child policy prevented around 400 million births since its establishment in 1979.

Why was it introduced?

In the late 1970s China’s population was approaching 1 billion, and the Chinese government was becoming concerned with how the population increase would interfere with its future economic plans. Although previous efforts to lower the population rate, through voluntary family programs, had been made, it was not until 1979 when the Chinese leader Den Xiapong, decided to implement strict measurements, such as the one child policy. At first the policy was executed only in some provinces, but by 1980 it became a nationwide measurement.

How was it enforced?

The Chinese government enforced the policy through various financial incentives and preferential employment opportunities. Those who followed the policy received increased access to education and healthcare, while those who disobeyed the rule were fined. In some extreme cases, coercive measures, such as forced abortion and mass sterilization, were executed.

Even though it was a nationwide policy, it was enforced more effectively in urban areas where couples were more willing to follow the rule, than in rural areas where people had a long withstanding agrarian tradition of large families. Furthermore, rich families that could afford the fines were able to overcome the restrictions.

What was the impact?

The one child policy, however, produced consequences beyond the expected reduction in population rate, ultimately leading to the government’s choice to change it. First, due to the traditional preference for boys, China’s overall sex ratio became skewed towards males. This has lead to a great number of girls being abandoned and to sex selective abortions. In 2000, it was reported that 90 per cent of fetuses aborted in China were female. Second, if it continues to be enforced, experts warn that by 2050 more than a quarter of the population will be over 65. Hence, there will be fewer people of working age to support the increasing number of elderly dependents, interfering with China’s economic growth plans.

What amendments have been put in place since its first introduction?

Since 1979, the one-child policy has been submitted to three relaxations. First, ethnic minorities were never forced to follow the policy. Second, in the 1980s the policy was changed to allow families in rural areas to have another child if the first was a girl. Finally, since 2013, if one of the parents was a one child, the couple was allowed to have two children.

What are the personal costs?

Juliana Liu, Hong Kong Correspondent for BBC News, explained in a recent article about the personal costs to children caused by the one-child policy. As the only child of a family, Chinese children often carry the entire weight of family expectations. “To excel at school, to be well-behaved, to be filial, to have a prestigious career, to marry the right person - in short, to be perfect enough to justify the fact that there is only one of you”1 , Liu explains.

How did people react to the change?

In spite of the relaxation, rights activists argue that it still controls the reproductive right of women. William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International, said: “The move to change China’s one-child policy is not enough. Couples that have two children could still be subjected to coercive and intrusive forms of contraception, and even forced abortions – which amount to torture.2

By: Paula Garcia Domingo, Communications Team Member


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