The End of China's One-Child Policy?

Beijing seems to be considering a halt to its infamous family planning scheme, but is it too late? Part of an ongoing series of discussions with ChinaFile.

chinachildrentoilet.jpgWill they be allowed to have siblings soon? (Sheng Li/Reuters)

Dorinda Elliott:

China's recent decision to phase out the agency that oversees the One-Child Policy has raised questions about whether the policy itself will be dropped -- and whether it was a success or a failure.

Aside from the burdens only children feel when it comes to caring for their parents and parents-in-law, the long-term implications of having a country ruled by only-child emperors are hard to fathom -- and, in my view, a bit terrifying.

Most China watchers seem to have always taken for granted that the policy was a necessary evil. I know that I avoided thinking too much about the inconvenient forced abortion question. But at this point, it looks like the smartest thinkers are challenging the conventional wisdom. In a recent academic paper, Chinese demographers concluded:

"The One-Child Policy will be added to the other deadly errors in recent Chinese history, including the famine in 1959-61 ... and the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While those grave mistakes both cost tens of millions of lives, the harms done were relatively short-lived and were corrected quickly afterward. The One-Child Policy, in contrast, will surpass them in impact by its role in creating a society with a seriously undermined family and kin structure, and a whole generation of future elderly and their children whose well-being will be seriously jeopardized."

I wonder, what does it mean to have a country with no sisters, no brothers? Will those words one day be dropped from the Chinese language?

Alexa Olesen:

Experts and the public have been pushing for a phasing-out of the policy for years (it was never designed to be a permanent rule), so it's exciting to finally see movement in that direction. I find it curious that the government would tackle it this way. They are essentially taking power away from the family planning enforcers by merging them with the Ministry of Health and by putting the National Development and Reform Commission in charge of population policy -- but they are not yet changing the family planning rules.

At the grassroots level, this is bound to result in a lot of uncertainty and I'd be surprised if families didn't try to take advantage of that, to push back and test how much power the family planning officials still have.

And I think retribution for past abuses is something that could emerge and China would be smart to deal with this more directly. There is understandably a lot of pent up anger over the policy.

To respond to your question, Dinda: Chinese ideas about family and kinship have changed dramatically, in part because of the policy, but also because of urbanization, migration and economic growth. And not everyone is an only child. Around 35 percent of Chinese families are subject to a strict one-child rule. Fifty percent or so are allowed a second child if their first is a girl and then the rest are subject to a two or three child policy. What's always striking to me though is how supportive many Chinese are of such a radical policy. The constant lament heard across China is "Too many people! 人太多" This message has been internalized and many people, even those allowed to have two kids, are opting to have just one.

Dorinda Elliott:

I agree, Alexa: it's mindboggling that most Chinese still buy into the logic that the one child policy is necessary because "Too many people!" "人太多"!

It strikes me that the moral vacuum in China -- people chasing money above all, endemic corruption, etc -- stems in part from moral compromises people have had to make over the decades in the face of authoritarian policies.

One example: I had a chilling conversation on a recent trip to Zheijiang with a jolly, somewhat pudgy small-town propaganda official that made me think hard about the inherent cruelty of the One-Child Policy. In little more than one breath, he talked about his current work, which is to help build a "civilized society" (whatever that means), and then about his old job as a police officer, when he had to enforce the One-Child Policy.

I wonder, what does it mean to have a country with no sisters, no brothers?

I asked him what he did when someone didn't want to have an abortion. "We did work," he replied. And what does that mean, I asked. "Well," he said reluctantly, clearly embarrassed, "we used force."

Wow, I thought, and this is the fellow who is now enforcing the "civilized society" policy.

Nothing is too odd in China!

Alexa Olesen:

I had a similar experience interviewing a clinic official about a forced abortion case in 2006. The mother had been within weeks of her due date. The official confirmed that they aborted her baby because "she hadn't followed the rules." This was her first child but she had gotten pregnant before applying for the necessary birth permit. It was a horrifying story. Unsurprisingly, the victim's lawyer said he thought the real issue was an unpaid bribe.

I wanted to add something about whether this policy was in fact "a necessary evil." This is the essential question and its answer will determine how the policy is painted in history books, either as a measure that helped lift millions out of poverty and fast-track China to prosperity, or a cruel and unnecessary restriction that caused immeasurable heartache and suffering ... or, maddeningly, both those things.

Even if it is abandoned today, the One-Child Policy will produce long-term economic and strategic consequences that cannot be escaped.

It's a fascinating thought exercise. If China had never enacted the One-Child Policy in 1979, its population growth would almost certainly have slowed but at a less precipitous rate. (Economic growth leads to lower fertility and countries that had birth rates similar to China in the 1960's and 1970's have seen their population growth slow.) Because of its baby boom in the 1960's, China would still have an ageing problem today but it wouldn't be as dramatic. And the demographic dividend, the relatively large percentage of young workers in the population, would have lasted longer. The policy is widely blamed for worsening China's imbalanced sex ratio, resulting in too few girls and a surplus of boys because families that had one chance at having a kid aborted their daughters. Though other Asian countries with strong son preference and no strict family planning limits also have this problem, China's situation is extreme. The other side of that coin is that there is also a generation of young urban Chinese women who grew up as only children and never had to compete with brothers for education or other resources.

ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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