Is the One Child Policy Finished—And Was It a Failure?

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?


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. 

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 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!

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.

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.

Finally, there’s no doubt that China would have a lot more people today if it hadn’t launched the one-child rule. The government says the policy prevented as many as 400 million births, though experts argue half that number is closer to the truth. Is China better off because it didn’t have those hundreds of millions? Was it worth it? Obviously it’s a question for the Chinese who lived through it to answer.

Even if it is abandoned today, the one-child policy will produce long-term economic and strategic consequences that cannot be escaped. Although all of Asia is aging, over the next few decades China will become one of the more age-heavy societies in the region. A forthcoming study from the Asian Development Bank projects that by 2050, 23.3% of China's population will be over 65, compared to 13.7% in India, 18.6% in Indonesia, and 20.0% in Vietnam. Only the richest societies -- Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong -- will be older. A high percentage of retired people is a big disadvantage for long-term economic and strategic competition, because it reduces the economically productive proportion of the population and increases the burden on the working population to support the elderly. It also generates social strife -- especially in countries that are not very rich -- by forcing the government to redistribute income from workers to the elderly to pay for their health care and living expenses. The problem can be slightly alleviated but not fixed by increasing the retirement age. Another palliative -- used by the U.S. -- is to allow immigration of working-age people, but it is hard to imagine China doing this. Allowing families to have more children would make the situation worse in the short run by increasing the ratio of dependents to workers, and would help fix the population imbalance only in the very long run.

The work I am citing is Donghyun Park, Sang-Hyop Lee, and Andrew Mason, eds.,Aging, Economic Growth, and Old-Age Security in Asia; Co-publication of the Asian Development Bank and Edward Elgar Publishing, 2012.

Though the Chinese government can't manufacture the perfect population balance, it would win points with the public if it switched to a two-child policy or lifted the restrictions altogether. Why the Hu-Wen leadership didn't do that is a mystery. Getting rid of a problematic and unpopular policy not of their devising (and leaving the details to the next slate of leaders) seems like a no-brainer. Any thoughts, Andrew, on why it got passed to Xi-Li?   

My grandparents have seven children—that's really a big family. I still remember when I was a child, the Spring Festival was always such a joyous gathering. So many uncles, aunts, their in-laws and their children, and more importantly, so much “Lucky Money” (压岁钱, people give to kids in the Spring Festival as blessing and good wishes). This, to me, is what a “family with Chinese characteristics” should be. But my parents only have me because of the One-Child policy. Although I don't think I am socially awkward, and I don't think I was a “Little Emperor” (小皇帝, often used to describe the spoiled only child), the Spring Festival is not as appealing to me anymore. Aside from all of other big theories, I oppose the “One-Child” policy only because I don't think it is the government's right or authority to tell me how many children I should have.

Alexa’s and Bin’s comments point to a current, rather than a future, cost of this policy, which is the resistance to it by many married couples who, for one reason or another, want more than one child. Many couples are satisfied with one child, as is the case elsewhere in the world. But some want more - perhaps for pragmatic reasons, as rural Chinese still depend chiefly on their male offspring for support in old age (indeed I believe it’s the case that it remains a crime in Chinese law not to support one's elderly parents), perhaps for emotional reasons, and in some communities where “house” Christianity is strong, for religious reasons. Thus there are always a significant number of resisters. And that’s why Chinese population planning officials have had to use force to make sure they meet their population growth limits each year. It was for fighting such human rights abuses that the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng ran afoul of the Party officials in his local village, Dongshigu in Shandong province.  In short, the population planning policy has set the state against “society” and has done so in the most personal, painful, and offensive way -- against women's bodies. Always a bad idea.

So why has it taken so long to change the policy? Why has it taken so long to change the labor reeducation (laojiao) policy? To change the household registration (hukou) policy that gives unequal citizenship to rural residents? The policy of using “retrievers” to put petitioners in “black jails” so they don't have a chance to seek justice in Beijing? I guess the generic answer is that it's a slow process to turn a big ship. More concretely, an overload of issues that have to be attended to at the center, and resistance to change on the part of the huge bureaucracy down to the most local level that enforces (and no doubt believes in) the population planning policy.


Yes, Bin put it quite well saying that the social fabric was woven around so many uncles and aunts. I actually had trouble remembering what exactly to call them. For example you have to call your dad’s older brother Bobo (伯伯) and younger brother Shushu (叔叔), and so on. I enjoyed all their company, despite all the problems associated with the competition for attention and at times money etc.

I have to admit that when I was young, I bought into the government line that the one-child policy helped the world by reducing the world’s burden with 400 million unborn people (figures vary as experts above have pointed out). My partiality was largely based on the fact that I wasn’t told about all the horrific cruelty that has accompanied the policy. Maybe this is too naive or hypothetical but I wonder what if Mao hadn’t encouraged our grand parents’ generation to multiply so fast. China would have avoided one grave mistake after another, and there might have been no one-child policy at all. First, we had “the more children the stronger the nation (人多力量大)”. Then later we were told “have less children, plant more trees (少生孩子多种树)”. It would have been much better off if we had avoided the first “have more children” mistake.

The consequences of the policy were highlighted after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, when a lot of, if not most, of the mourning parents not only lost their children but lost the opportunity to ever have offspring. In many cases, it was too late already to have a second child. This is doubly devastating when you factor in the lack of a well-estabished social welfare net that might have kicked in to help take care of these parents when they are old.

I hope for the best for all the millions of victims of China’s one-child policy, but I am certain that the problems just keep piling up. It will be a daunting task to undo all the damage racked up over all these decades.