Is reform of the One-Child policy likely?

16 Apr

Chairman Mao believed in “the more the better”, meaning that a higher population meant more workers, which meant a healthier, faster growing economy. As a result of this belief the population of China reached a height of 800 million in the 1970’s, leading to worries that there would soon be a food shortage and forcing the government to take action to control the country’s population growth. Later, in 1979 the One Child policy was introduced by Deng Xiaoping as a temporary measure to curb population growth and aid economic development. While this policy was initially introduced as a temporary measure, it remains in place more than 30 years on and China is now starting to feel the economic and social consequences.

It has been estimated that population growth has decreased by about 300 million people over the first 20 years of the policy, which has now left China facing the problem of an ageing population. The total Chinese population over 65 is rising, at one of the fastest rates in the world; it is predicted that by 2050 there will be almost 400 million Chinese over 60 – a quarter of the population. This would put tremendous strain on economic growth in most developed countries, but may prove to be even worse for China, where it is traditionally for the young to care for the old and there is a lack of pension schemes for the elderly. This is made worse by the fact that the mainland’s labour force, which currently stands at 930 million, will begin to fall in 2025 at a rate of about 10 million a year, posing a great threat to China’s fast economic growth. As well as economic consequences the policy has caused many social consequences; “being an only child in a family often makes a person selfish and unable to face hardships of life.” A Russian scholar points out that there are two generations of Chinese adults who never had the benefits of growing up in the competitive environment of siblings; they instead grew up in a pampered environment that tends to create a society of self-centred people.

It is for these that there have been calls for a reform of the one child policy and signs that this may in fact be on the agenda. Former leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao both didn’t mention that they were looking to ‘maintain a low birth rate’ in their reports to the party congress last year, something that has been consistently mentioned by leaders for the last decade. Also the government has removed some power from the agency that oversees the one-child policy, sending strong signals that the highly controversial policy is being loosened. What’s more China has recently seen the removal of some family planning restrictions, for example Chinese couples are permitted to have a second child if both the father and the mother are only children. All of this points to the idea that the policy is being loosened, something that some people, such as Secondary school principal He Youlin believe would help reduce pressure on the labour force and lower retirement age, as well as allowing a happier family life and healthier child development. Professor Liang Jianzhang of Peking University pointed out that “if we do not adjust the policy now, we may lose the last chance to solve the issue of our aging population, which may lead to a series of serious economic and social problems.” As a result of the unexpected consequences of the policy that will affect the nation for decades, there is a belief that the new administration could eventually phase the one child policy out.

However, despite predictions that the policy may be coming to an end, there are many people who maintain that it will remain in place. Although the one-child policy has been in place for more than 30 years, China is still the world’s most heavily populated country, and according to the government, the increasing demands of its 1.34 billion citizens is putting strain on its resources. This idea is supported by senior politicians Song, who argues that China needs to maintain a low birth rate in order that economic development can continue. He believes that if this is not continued, the country would see a huge surge in population growth, resulting in resource shortages, such as food, stating that that by abandoning the one child policy there would be grain shortages of 150 million metric tons a year. Some, such as Song believe that zero population growth is the “ultimate goal of human society” and President Xi believes that the population but still be controlled for the reasons mentioned above, however while it is unclear at the moment whether or not there will be any major reform of the one child policy, many scholars believe that the President will have no choice but to create a two child policy soon. A retired family planning scholar said “this situation cannot remain unchanged” so as to avoid detrimental consequences and policy reform is already being discussed in Beijing.

In conclusion it appears that there are strong debates over the future of the one child policy and it is quite possible that things will soon change. While some argue that the policy should simply be removed, it is quite a sensitive issue that must be thought about carefully so as to avoid a population boom and bad economic and social consequences. While it remains unclear whether or not there will be any drastic reform to the policy, there are signs that the policy could be phased out Province by Province, as some remain less populated than others. However for the time being it seems that the debate over policy reform will continue for some time before any changes are made, despite the majority being in favour of reform.

Sources: (2012) China’s One Child Policy [Accessed: 15.04.13]

BBC (2013) China’s one-child policy impact analysed [Accessed: 15/04/13]

BBC (2010) China’s pension system waltzes into crisis [Accessed: 15.04.13]

The Epoch Times (2013) China’s One-Child Policy May Be Relaxed Province by Province [Accessed: 15.04.13]

Forbes (2013) Why China Is Finally Abandoning Its One Child Policy [Accessed: 15.04.13]

Reuters (2013) Insight: The backroom battle delaying reform of China’s one-child policy 15.04.13]

South China Morning Post (2013) Leadership torn over future of one-child policy in China [Accessed: 15.04.13]

The Voice of Russia (2013) One-child policy threatens China’s economy [Accessed: 15/04/13]

The Wall Street Journal (2013) One-Child Policy: Law Still in Effect, But Police, Judges Fired [Accessed:15.04.13]


4 Responses to “Is reform of the One-Child policy likely?”

  1. pcm1c12 April 16, 2013 at 11:43 pm #

    This is an interesting discussion. I think influences of this debate arise with the tension between the standard of living of the Chinese people and economic aspects.
    As said above, the enormous Chinese economic growth of the past decades has been partly made possible by the surplus of manpower available in China. The laborers couldn’t demand anything because they were easily expendable. This kept wages low and with that, the products cheap, making it attractive for other countries to buy cheap Chinese products. However, especially if the one-child policy stays, this relation between employer and worker is probably going to change. If the one-child policy continues, the amount of workers will eventually be limited, giving the workers more power to, for example, demand higher wages. This will indirectly influence the standard of living of laborers. In an economic view, letting the one-child policy go might eventually help employers to keep wages low and products cheap.
    In this point of view, the one-child policy seems to be beneficial for the lower-class. Yet this is just one side of the story. An important argument against the one-child policy, which is not mentioned yet, is the imbalanced sex ratio at birth in China. For every 100 girls, there are about 113 boys born. Since boys are more likely to earn money and provide for the family, It is argued this imbalanced ratio is a result of the one-child policy. There is, in fact, evidence of sex-selective abortion, abandonment and other methods in order to get a boy as only child.

    • jc35g10 April 17, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

      As seen in the comment above, it is a complex argument as to whether the one child policy should be abolished or not. There are two competing arguments which make the issue a complex one to solve. On the one hand, workers will begin to receive more rights and become more empowered if there continue to be fewer labourers. This can only be seen as a positive outcome of the policy, as it allows a better quality of life for workers and their families and for China as a whole, as labour will not be so cheap and so other Western countries will not misuse and abuse their industries.
      However, in terms of being sex selective, the policy seems to be extremely wrong and disturbing. Traditionially, the Chinese have always preferred boys to girls, especially in rural areas, as they are seen to work harder and bring in more money for the family whereas girls support a different family network when married. However, with the introduction of the one child policy, the practice of foetal ultrasound exams became common in China allowing parents to be easily sex selective. The sex ratio at birth increased from 108.5 boys for every 100 girls in 1982, to 117.7 boys for every 100 girls in 2012. This ratio peaked in 2004 with 121.2 boys for every 100 girls. Girl’s infant mortality rate rose sharply in this period due to such preferences. Boy’s infant mortality rate remains relatively stationary at 35-36 per thousand in the period, subsequent to the introduction of the policy, but girls rose substantially from 30.78 in 1981, to 36.73 in 1989, to 50.19 in 1999 (Lai, 1999). The imbalance remains problematic and has resulted in generations of ‘Missing Women’ which is shocking, disturbing and worrying.
      The choice of boys over girls is not simply an economic one within China. According to UNDP statistics the highest levels of female infanticide have occurred in some of the wealthiest and most open provinces, such as Guangdong in south China. Gender discrimination persists even with economic growth as traditional values within a patriarchal system remain prominent. The One Child Policy has, however, exacerbated discriminative practices based upon gender as boys remained more valued within the family system.


  2. iyh1g10 April 17, 2013 at 12:42 am #

    Despite the ‘one child’ policy having been enforced for years, there still remain loopholes in ensuring its enforcement due to certain arbitrary rulings. In 2007, a family-planning official estimated that the one-child policy applied to less than 40% of population. This can be seen in regards to couples living in the countryside who can have a second child should the first be a girl. Although this is an unfortunate degrading form of gender bias, it can be seen as a method to curb the abortion rate. Furthermore, in Shanghai, should either man or wife work in fishing and have been at sea for five years, a couple may have a second child without the need to pay the fine.

    Exploiting couples’ more desperate wishes, one could pose as a “fake husband” for a couple willing to divorce in order to have a second child. The rationale is that if one of two newlyweds has no children while the other has a child from a previous marriage, a second child, a half-sibling, it is not against the law. Hence, without any children of his own, another individual is in a position to help a woman who has already become a mother once.

    Starting a family should be something immensely personal and I am not sure the government should have a place in regulating childbirth, especially noting the horrific number of abortions that have taken place.

    Social psychologists have also identified a “little emperor” (known as xiao huangdi) problem amongst Chinese children as the result of being an only child. 27% of those born in China in 1975 being only children has since risen to 91% in 1983. In comparison to children in multiple-sibling households, being the only child, you’re bound to get the best of everything. The attention may be beneficial in a number of ways but it could also cause an overwhelming sense of self-importance and lack of discipline.

    Personally I find that the study, which suggests social implications, sounds a little far-fetched. However, growing up in a one-child policy environment where practically everyone in the country is an only child, could possibly provide a very different cultural setting. In the U.S. for example, this mindset doesn’t seem to exist amongst only children, arguably because those are kids who grow up in a culture with a whole mix of family types, who gain a better understanding of entitlement. In addition, by creating an entire generation of exclusively first born children, China would be limiting the development of unique familial personality types, thus restricting the diversity of personality types within the country.


    China’s One-Child Policy: Curse of the ‘Little Emperors’.

    Perils of Motherhood.

    The Unintended Consequences Of China’s One-child Policy.


  1. One Child Policy: Bane or Boon? | China Business Knowledge @ CUHK - May 27, 2013

    […] Is reform of the One-Child policy likely? ( […]

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