The one-child policy in China introduced the world to a new form of population planning in 1979. Although this structure seemed to apply to all families in the country from an outside perspective, about 30% of households were restricted to having one child only. Violations of the policies involved fines, imprisonment or both.
The Chinese government claims that their one-child policy limited their population size by over 400 million in less 40 years. It was phased out as official legislation in 2015.
Using population planning techniques like the one-child policy are controversial on several levels.
- It required families to follow specific laws that may not suit their own wishes.
- The rules placed a greater emphasis on having boys (for inheritance purposes) over girls.
- There was a surge in unsafe abortion practices when unintended pregnancies occurred.
These Chinese one-child policy pros and cons take a look at the historical consequences of the policy, evaluating the advantages and disadvantages which came from this generational restriction. Here are the critical points to consider.
List of the Pros of China’s One-Child Policy
1. The policy exempted families who were experiencing a multiples birth.
If a woman became pregnant with multiples, usually twins or triplets, then the family was excluded from the one-child policy immediately. China Daily noted that families becoming pregnant with multiples more than doubled during the period when this legislation was actively enforced. When a couple wanted to have more than one child, they could “get around” the policy by using fertility medication. The cost of taking the medicine was usually lower than the fine would be for having a second child otherwise.
2. It altered the perception of women within Chinese society.
Because families were permitted one child only, the role of girls and women began evolving within China. Before the policy, boys and men were given a majority of the educational opportunities and career investments by a family. Girls and women were expected to take care of their homes and families unless exceptionally gifted in some way. After the policy, families with one girl enrolled their children into school more often. They sought vocational learning opportunities not allowed by the unwritten rules of the past.
That process allowed this generation of women to enjoy a quality of life much higher than seen in past decades – including the time before the Communist government took over control.
3. The expectations of the one-child policy were emphasized internally.
The China one-child policy was not an expectation placed on the rest of the world. It was used as a way to limit population growth to support economic improvements within their society. The country never attempted to leverage trade agreements or international purchasing decisions by demanding others try to follow their lead.
Even if others in the world disagreed with the one-child policy, a majority of the population reportedly agreed with it. As late as 2006, when dissent restrictions had eased, almost 80% of the population supported the legislation.
4. There are very few drawbacks to having an online child.
When parents have an only child, then they can afford a better way of life for their kids. They can attend better schools without sacrificing something else. It is easier to schedule vacations, manage schedules, and support each other financially. Although there are benefits to having a larger family too, much of the resistance against a one-child policy is that the children would be lonely.
According to Dr. Toni Falbo, Professor at the University of Texas, kids who are an only child are just as happy as those with siblings. “My research in China and the United States indicates that only children are no more lonely than those with siblings because most parents with one child promote peer interactions.
5. It increased the number of available job opportunities in China.
With fewer children being born because of the one-child policy, job openings became readily available as the generation born in 1979 and after began growing up. Fewer babies meant less competition for the best possible jobs. With men often taking the lead in earning income, families had more opportunities than before to change their financial circumstances. That also helped to lessen food shortages, reduce poverty, and improve educational opportunities for the next generation of children.
6. Families who complied with the one-child policy were rewarded.
In a 2011 report published by The Guardian, parents who followed the rules of having only one child could receive a monthly stipend from the government. They would be given preferential treatment at the hospital, extra land allowances, and even free homes in some circumstances. Some families were offered up to 1 ton of free water per month for their farming activities. Extra pension benefits and the first choice of a government job were part of the package.
The process even allowed students to receive extra points on their entrance exams when they reached middle-school age.
7. Rural families were often exempted from the policy.
Most married women in China during the one-child policy had the chance to have two offspring. Rural families were allowed a second child if their first was a girl. Women from an ethnic minority could have up to three children during the enforcement of the legislation. Almost a dozen exceptions were in place as well, including babies born with congenital disabilities or other health concerns.
If the father and the mother were both single children, then they could have a second child as well.
List of the Cons of China’s One-Child Policy
1. Catastrophe changes the family dynamic forever.
Families became over-protective of their children when the one-child policy was enforced in China. With only one child in the house, there is a genuine risk of losing that child to a young death, leaving the parents with no other children. Even though kids from one-child families see additional opportunities for community extra-curricular activities, they also run the same risks during a catastrophe. Losing both parents means they have no one in their immediate family left to connect with, unlike those who have siblings.
2. The results of the one-child policy in China are up for debate.
Societies which modernize see a natural decline in births over time. Even with China’s claim that 400 million births were prevented with this policy, that number fits in with the natural declines seen in the developed world. Japan experienced a total reduction in their population of 300,000 people in 2016 because there were fewer than 1 million births for the first time in the country’s history.
Couples start families when there are good opportunities for young people in the economy. When those chances are not present, then the birth rate goes down. Even coupling rates go down in those circumstances. The results achieved by China may have more to do with their government or economic structure than an expectation to have just one child per family.
3. The one-child policy in China caused families to want boys over girls.
Although girls in China received better opportunities because of the one-child policy, there are fewer women in the country today because of it. The country saw a disparity in the number of boys being born compared to girls. There are 30 million more men in China today compared to women, which may lead to future economic instability.
At its peak in the 1990s, 117 boys were being born in China for every 100 girls. That is above the maximum ratio of 111 to 100 which happens naturally for both boys and girls in a society. Because of this issue, more men are seeking mates outside of their border, which will also have future impacts on Chinese society that were unintended at the time the legislation was first enforced.
4. Adoptions costs increased because of the Chinese one-child policy.
Parents could not adopt other children if they already had a child because of the legislation passed for the one-child policy. That left numerous children to be cared for in state-run institutions, including orphanages, even if they had family nearby to care for them. Up to 90% of the children in these institutions were girls, and few of them were orphans. They were there because they’d been abandoned due to the one-child policy.
Even when international families attempted adoption, China increased the price to make it unfeasible except for the wealthiest few. With mortality rates often climbing above 50% in rural facilities, this policy caused needless harm to children who would have otherwise had loving families at home caring for them.
5. The one-child policy created a care burden for aging parents.
This disadvantage to the China one-child policy was one of the primary reasons why the legislation was abandoned in 2015 for good. Experts studying the issue found that as parents and grandparents aged, their one child was forced to support up to four grandparents and their parents at the same time. Referred to as the “4-2-1 Problem,” the structure forced families to seek out charitable support more often than in the past to meet basic needs.
There was also a surge in dependency program applications in China as the results of the one-child policy became known. Some regions permitted families to have additional children if their financial situation predicted the 4-2-1 Problem in the future up to a decade before formal removal of the one-child-only legislation.
6. China’s one-child policy was never equally enforced.
The reality of the one-child policy in China is that about 70% of households in the country were never required to follow it. Several examples were made public involving when it should have been enforced but was not. In one province, over 2,000 officials violated the policy without consequence.
Those who were consequenced for their actions did not suffer the same extensive penalty as others.
Then there was the case of Zhang Yimou, who is an internationally respected filmmaker, producer, writer, and actor. He has four children. The government fined him the equivalent of $1.2 million for violations of the one-child policy. Rumors were that he’d fathered seven children with four different women and faced additional fines, but he eventually settled in 2014.
7. It violates the reproductive rights of individuals.
Governments do have responsibilities for social planning. They are also charged with the protection of fundamental human rights, one of them being reproduction. Some of the darkest hours of human history involve a government dictating what people are permitted to do as they plan their families.
The International Conference of Human Rights declared in 1968 that family planning is a basic human right. Even decisions involving when children should be born, or the age gap between siblings, was included in that ruling. China looked at sterilization, genetic manipulation, and other forms of permanent birth control to enforce their policy over time.
8. The China one-child policy encouraged out-of-country births.
According to a 2015 article published by Vice, Chinese women were paying up to $50,000, not including medical expenses, to give birth to a second child in the United States during enforcement of the one-child policy. The U.S. was the most-desired location because any child born in the country automatically became a citizen, earning a passport which could help reduce or eliminate the fine of having an extra child.
For one father named Lianghui, he’d already paid double his annual income for a second daughter in China. He would be asked to pay three times his annual salary to have a third child, the son he’d always wanted. “Rather than paying the fine,” he told Vice, “we registered him to my brother who lives in Canada and isn’t planning on coming back.”
9. China’s one-child policy came at a high financial cost.
Provincial governments were responsible for setting the budget when enforcing the one-child policy at the local level. Henan registered their 100 millionth resident during the decade of the 2010s while the policy was still enforced. They were paying about 4 billion yuan per year, the equivalent of $650 million, to implement the policy. That represented 4% of provincial spending, which is a similar figure throughout the rest of China.
10. It targeted the poor more than the rich.
Wealthy families in Beijing and Shanghai could easily pay the penalties for having additional children. In the poor provinces, families were at risk of having their property confiscated because they could not pay when violating the one-child quota.
China’s one-child policy offered several pros and cons to consider in retrospect. There were certainly family-planning benefits to consider, along with societal assistance in the reduction of population growth rates. The disadvantages were also profound, often sacrificing the health and lives of children to maintain a political status quo. It also creates an important question which societies must answer: should the government have the right to plan the future of your family without your consent?
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.