China's One Child Policy - Success or Failure

In 1979 led by Deng Xioping The People’s Republic of China, located in South East Asia, implanted what is called China’s one child policy or (as referred to by the Chinese government) the family planning policy. This policy restricts married, urban couples to bearing only one child and 35. 9% of China’s population is subject to these restrictions, mainly those in urban areas as couples living in rural areas are allowed to have two children, especially if the first child is female or disable, as well as this ethnic minorities are exempt from the policy.

However today 90% of all urban children and over 60% of rural children are growing up without any siblings. During Mao Zedong’s rule, the policy in China was “the more people, the stronger we are” which led to extreme over population (a population verging on 1 billion during 1979/1980) and famines. However when Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, his policies concentrated on strengthening the Chinese economy and he saw China’s overpopulation as a obstruction in the way of economic development.

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As well as this the policy hoped to alleviate social and environmental problems (such as stretched resources in certain regions) within the country, however the primary objective of the policy was to decelerate the rate of population growth. The initial goal of the policy was to limit China’s population to 1. 2 billion people by the year 2000. Enforcing the Policy Many of the prevailing criticisms of the One-Child Policy is that it is an abuse of Human rights, and many oppose the core principle of the policy, claiming a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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On a provincial and regional level, government agents police the situation, enforcing the regulations. Theoretically speaking, the policy is voluntary, but the government impose punishments and heavy fines on those who do not follow the rules. Parents with extra children can be fined from $370 to $12,800 depending on the region and if this fine goes unpaid, even stricter rules have been enforced in some cases, such as the removal of land, loss of jobs, destruction of homes and not allowing a child to attend school.

In one extreme case, a woman in the 1980s pregnant with a second child, was fired from, had a forced abortion, and was then sent to a psychiatric hospital, and was still in a labour camp in the early 2000s. Although this seems extreme, it should be assumed that since this incident, which occurred in the early stages of the policy, most of this behaviour has died out now. However similar, though less brutal cases have been noted.

As although the policy is supposed to involve eugenic testing which is policed and enforced through a system of economic disincentives and fines, there have been numerous reports of forced abortion, forced sterilization and infanticide, even in the last decade, for example it was reported that in 2001 an annual quota of 20,000 forced sterilizations and forced abortions were set for Huaiji in the Gundang Province for those who did not adhere to the policy of one child only.

However, China banned the use of physical force to for abortions or sterilizations in 2002, but it seems even official law cannot stop the brutalities, as there have been continuing reports of violence against women pregnant with a second or third child. However it’s not just the women who are in danger, if families hide from officials, their relatives were thrown into jail until the white flag was shown; even women with permission for a second child have been subject to violence.

In some places the enforcement has been so harsh that the FPA (Family Planning Association) had to give out brochures that detailed the “seven don’ts” of the policy, which included things such as not beating up people who have unplanned births and don’t burn down their houses. Despite these horrific stories, the enforcement of the policy does vary greatly from place to place, so these stories cannot be generalised to the whole of China. Some provinces contain families with four or five children and can get away with it because the policy is either ignored or the fines can be easily paid.

Propaganda: These are just a couple of the examples of hundreds of uses of propaganda used in China to help enforce the one child policy. The first one uses the word “him” which suggests that as well as advocating the one-child policy, some of the propaganda advocates a son instead of a daughter. Although these are examples of the tamer slogans and statues, there have been ones which bring across a much harsher message; Slogans painted on walls by the roadside have been both terrifying and unsubtle, such as 'Kill all your family members if you don't follow the rule! and 'We would rather scrape your womb than allow you to have a second child'.

However the FPC is now saying that a shift is needed in the tone of this propaganda, more towards the one’s shown above. Instead of intimidation, persuasion and encouragement are the new tactics to be adopted, so as to avoid offending the public and causing violence. Impacts of the Policy: This policy was set out to reduce the social, economic and environmental problems that plagued China in the 1970s/80s however has the policy actually performed as well as predicted?

When the policy was first introduced, a 1. 2 billion target population was set for the year 2000, however in this year the population was at 1. 27 billion and even this was regarded as an underestimation. The Chinese authorities claim that the policy has prevented over 400 million births since it was introduced over 30 years ago; this is also shown through the declining fertility rate, which has fallen from 2. 9% to around 1. % (recent figures show). However despite this drop, it is difficult to ignore the parallels China has with many other countries around the world that have also experienced significant drops in fertility rates, which leads to speculation around whether the policy is the reason for the decline, or that the government policy that encouraged later marriages and longer intervals between birth and further children had more of an impact.

This argument is indeed plausible, as the fertility rate in China dropped from 5% to just below 2% even before the one child policy was introduced and as the graph above shows, the steepest decline was before 1979. Skewed age demographic: Although there is speculation about the cause of fertility rates, a large impact of the one child policy has been a rapid increase in the ageing population of China, it is expected that the population will become disproportionally older well into this century.

Today 10% of the urban population is already aged 65 and over, and this is thought to rise to over 15% in a decade, 20% by 2025 and 35% in 2050 if the fertility rates remain consistent. But how prepared is China to cope with such a rapidly ageing population? Before the decline of fertility, the elderly relied nearly exclusively on their children for support, however now the elderly in China will face a lack of young carers. At the time the one-child policy was introduced, the economy at the time still provided support in the way of communes in the countryside and organizations in urban areas.

However now that China’s economy has changed and developed this societal support has all but disappeared. This lack of support, coupled with the one-child policy means that extra social and financial pressure on a single child to support their grandparents and their parents. This is known as the 4:2:1 phenomenon, where the 4 represents the grandparents, the two represents the parents, and the one represents the child; this shows that increasing numbers of couples will end up with the sole responsibility of care for their child and their parents.

Despite this, the government does offer $6 to poor rural elderly with one child, although it can hardly be considered much help or a substitute for the support of more children. As well as this, over 60s have been reassured of extra provisions they may be able to receive, however many questions have been raised as to exactly how these new allowances will be funded. The imbalanced sex ratio: In 1982, the sex ratio was at 108. 5 boys to every 100 girls, which is already above the normal range, but in 2011 it had reached to 117. boys to every 100 girls and these ratios are not just confined to rural China. The policy has contributed to the sex ratio imbalance in several ways. Some couples who have not yet had a son resort to sex-selective abortions after ultrasound in order to have a child of the preferred gender. Despite the fact this is thought to account for a large proportion of the decline in female births, actual figures are difficult to calculate, as this kind of abortion is illegal, although it’s known to be very widely carried out.

At the same time as this, some females are uncounted, missing or have ‘disappeared’ as they are hidden from the government officials, or not officially registered at birth and this allows for couples to have a second child in an attempt to have a boy instead. Another explanation for the skewed ratio is the potential of infanticide, abandonment or deliberate neglect of baby girls.

Although female mortality rates had been declining since 1930, by 2000 this had reserved and excess female mortality has risen since the implementation of the one-child policy. This can be seen to be one of the failures of the olicy and the potentially disastrous social consequences of this ‘female shortage’ have been acknowledged. This shortage is thought to have increased male mental health problems as well as socially disruptive behaviour of the same gender. As well as this, a shortage of women mean the scarcity of brides, and this means that male marriage has once again become an indicator of social privilege, by 2000 27% of rural males were still unmarried at age 40. This scarcity of brides also leads to kidnapping and trafficking of women for marriage, as well as an increase in the numbers of commercial sex workers.

However despite this skewed ratio, there is evidence to show that this traditional preference for boys is shifting, as 37% of young urban women claim to have gender preference for their child, and in fact more women voiced a preference for a female than for a male. As well as this, new propaganda has been brought in the encourage families that having a girl is not a bad thing. Economic Impacts: One benefit that has seemed to arisen from the policy is that it has helped to fuel the economic change seen in China over the past decades, as there is not as much competition between citizens, which has allowed more wealth to be spread around.

It has also been noted that at the same time of the population growth slowing down, China’s GDP has risen from 550USD to 7000USD, and during this time the growth of the GDP was greater than that of the US, Europe, Japan and India. As well as this is has been noted that the lower fertility rates have enhanced female labour participation, despite this fact, this may be down to the policy that was implanted before the one child policy that encouraged later marriage among other suggestions.

It is also uncertain whether this correlation between the two factors necessarily means that the slowed population growth has led to an increase of the countries GDP. The policy is also thought to have a negative impact on the overall economic future of China due to the rapidly aging population, which means more financial dependency is put on adult children to provide for their parents and grandparents (see 4:2:1 phenomenon above). Despite this fact, many studies have concluded that the population transitions that have taken place since the policy was implemented are responsible for 1/6 to 2/5 of China’s economic growth.

As well as this, individual savings rates have increased as well since the policy was implemented, and this is thought to be because households have more money and resources that aren’t being spent on multiple children. As well as the strain on household resources being decreased, so has the strain on natural resources since 1980, as it has been estimated (as mentioned before) that there would have been 400 million extra people, which would have been a huge additional strain on resources.

According to the State Family Planning Commission, coverage of tap water has increased, and so has the coverage of natural gases. Political Impacts: The Chinese government has had to pay a dear cost politically for the introduction of the one child policy. The reports of forced sterilization and induced abortion have invited hostility as well as resistance from the population and the government have received large amounts of criticisms from the international community, the US in particular have expressed their disapproval with Chinese leaders for their sterilization policies.

These physical abuses began to disappear by the end of the 1990s and China shifted its program towards encouraging contraception and providing couples with a wider selection of thee contraceptive methods. This shift in operation may have helped to ease the tension somewhat between the birth control officials and civilians. However by the 1990s, the birthing reporting system has all but collapsed and it is now difficult to trust demographic data that is collected and released from government agencies, as it was also reported that as many as 30% of births were not counted in some areas during the 1990s.

These problems with birth registrations have spread to other areas of demographic data-gathering operations such as the population census. The two main agencies responsible for collecting fertility information simply gave up their attempt to provide reliable and detailed information on fertility, and a rough estimate was used as an estimate instead. As well as this the government has required increasing amounts of financial resources to continue the birth control policy. During the 1990s alone, the budget allocation towards birth control programs increased 3. times, and has increased during the beginning of the 21st century.

As well as this, to initiate the policy an ‘army’ of birth control officials are needed, and this army has been rapidly increasing, with many on the government payroll. In addition to this, where fertility does not reach a low enough level, local officials are require to spend large amounts of time on the issue, as meeting these birth control goals are major benchmarks used in evaluating the performance and it affects the local officials’ political careers.

Success or Failure? – intrusive: Overall, the campaign has been more of a failure than of success. In terms of what it set out to do, the policy was in fact a success as in the years succeeding its introduction the fertility rates did indeed drop and it was thought that over 300 million births were prevented due to the policy (see above).

Although undeniably effective in these terms, it seems obvious that the policy has not caught on in other countries also facing overpopulation such as India, who have seen the one-child policy as too intrusive on their populations lives, which is justifiable considering the shocking stories mentioned above of using force to stop women having a second child in a country that advocates a seemingly ‘voluntary’ scheme of fewer offspring.

Densely populated countries such as India have used alternative schemes such as women advocacy groups, the increased availability of contraception, female empowerment and greater emphasis on sex education from an early age.

As the fertility rate in areas which have adopted these frames of population control have dropped even faster than in China, as well as there being no evidence to say that forced abortion and sterilization is widespread, it begs the question that if China had adopted other methods and used more effective government leadership, would the population growth have decreased faster than using methods which invade couples lives and lead many into a state of fear when they become pregnant?

However one problem with placing all the success in the hands of the one-child policy is that it may not just be that which has caused the drop in the fertility rates and in fact there are other significant factors, which were thought to of affected it. One factor that may have affected the fertility rates of women instead of the one-child policy in in China is the fact that with a new economy, many young Chinese had new economic opportunities and rising incomes, which would have directed their attention away from marriage and childbearing, this is backed up by the fact that the ge of first marriage rose in the 1990s, and this was evidence that the changing demographic was not down to the one-child policy.

As well as this, the general costs of childbearing also increased, and this may have quashed reproductive desires. However perhaps the most significant factor in this is that as mentioned above the fertility rate dropped more significantly in the years proceeding the policy due to the government’s “longer, later, fewer” policy which advocated later marriage, longer birth intervals and few births, it must be noted as well that in the policies early years the fertility level hardly affected the fertility rate.

If the previous policy had more impact on decreasing population growth then this policy can be seen to be a failure, as it had very little impact but very many negative consequences such as the tough policing of births which sometimes resulted in violent consequences.

Despite this, if we can blame the subsequent impacts of declining population growth on the “longer, later, fewer” policy, then we can say that the policy was not directly responsible for the skewing of the gender ratio and the rapidly increasing population, however this does not make the policy a success, as it is likely that the policy did have some effect on the gender ratio and aging population problems.

Despite these factors, it is hard to know for sure whether the one-child policy directly effected population growth decline, as there are many other situational factors, which had the possibility to affect it, in this respect we can deem the one-child policy a failure to a small extent, because it is likely that it did have some affect on the population growth decline.

Updated: Feb 23, 2021
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China's One Child Policy - Success or Failure. (2017, Jan 31). Retrieved from

China's One Child Policy - Success or Failure essay
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