The Truth About China’s One Child Policy

Politics, Rights

China is in the news frequently as the country grows wealthier and more powerful. Any examination of Chinese economics, politics or history usually includes a mention of China’s “one-child” policy, the government’s official population control method.

But what is it, really? How and why does the government of China control the country’s birth rate, and what affect does it have on the people and future of the world’s most populous nation?


Rapid industrialization in the 1950s and 1960s, with many farms collectivized and converted to steel production, resulted in a food supply unable to keep up with China’s rapid population growth. Famines killed at least 30 million people in the early 1960s. After various campaigns to limit population growth were unsuccessful, the Chinese government established the one-child policy, which took effect in 1978.


Chinese authorities claim the policy prevented more than 200 million births in the three decades since its implementation. There are exceptions: China’s ethnic minorities, currently about nine percent of the total population, have never been subject to the policy. More recently exemptions have been allowed for families in which both parents are themselves only children. In some rural areas there is a tacit “one boy or two children” understanding. Incentives for compliance include finanacial bonuses and longer maternity leaves, as well as lower school and medical fees, for those who marry later and delay child-bearing.

Since the policy is enforced primarily at the provencial level, enforcement is subject to local interpretation. Some provinces are traditionally far more rigid than others. The official consequence of having a second child is a fine levied by the government, which is calculated according to the family’s annual income. Fees are also steeper for education and health care for families with more than one child. There have been widespread reports of forced sterilizations and abortions. Although China officially outlawed this practice in 2002, there is little doubt that it continues in rural areas, at least.

Positive and Negative Effects

China’s population explosion of the mid-20th century certainly slowed due at least in part to widespread compliance with the one-child policy. The Chinese government considers it a success, the strain on China’s health and educational systems has been minimized, environmental and economic resources are recovering, and China’s rise as a world power reflects the impact of slowed population growth.

However, the policy has been harshly criticized for several reasons, not the least of which is that many feel it violates a basic human right to choose the size of one’s own family. There are possible social problems looming for a nation populated by only children now in their 20s and 30s; referred to in the media as “little emperors” many of these children are perceived as having been pampered and over-indulged. Moreover, enforcement has never been equal and reinforces the growing gap between rural and urban China.

Too Few Women

Perhaps the greatest negative effect of the one-child policy is its impact on China’s female population. There is a long history in China of a preference for sons, and when families found themselves limited to just one child having a boy became almost a necessity for many families. China has no social security system and limited public welfare; it is understood that boys are obligated to care for their aging parents as they grow up, while a girl traditionally helps care for her husband’s family.

The preference for boys has resulted in a gender imbalance among China’s children. Female infanticide and abandonment was traditionally practiced in rural areas for unwanted baby girls; modern technology has skewed the sex ratio even more by allowing for the selective abortions of female fetuses. The natural ratio of males to females at birth is approximately 103-107 boys for every 100 girls; in China the ration of male to female infants in 2009 was 119 boys to 100 girls. Population experts predict there will be 30 million more men than women in China by 2020. Some of these “missing” girls are not dead but elsewhere; more than 50,000 Chinese children, most around one year old, were adopted out of Chinese orphanages by American citizens between 2002 and 2009. Ninety-one percent of these children were girls.

The Chinese government is aware of the problem and is attempting to combat it with publicity campaigns emphasizing the importance of girls. Recent surveys have shown some minimal impact; in one 37 percent of Chinese women said they had no gender preference for their first child.