Is Time Running out for China’s One Child Policy?

27 Feb

There are more than 1.3 billion people living, working and building families in China. Until three centuries ago, multiple generations of Chinese families would live under one roof. Today, though, this is no longer the norm. The one-child policy, officially named as the ‘family planning policy’, is the population control policy of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese government instituted the policy in 1979, as a humanitarian response to China’s overpopulation problem. The implementation of this policy was the result of too many people living in China versus limited resources available to cope for these vast populations. The policy was initially introduced as a temporary measure to curb population growth and aid economic development. While this policy was originally presented 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.

Until the 1960s, the government encouraged families to have as many children as possible. Chairman Mao believed in “the more the better”, meaning that a higher population would result in more workers, which meant a healthier, faster growing economy. In their eyes, population growth both empowered and stimulated the countries economy. Hence, this prevented the emergence of family planning programs at an earlier stage of Chinas development.

According to The World Population review, 2014, China’s population grew from around 540 million in 1949 to an astonishing 940 million in 1976. Beginning in 1970, citizens were encouraged to marry at later ages and have only two children. Although the fertility rate began to decline significantly, future population growth proved overwhelming and Chinese leaders soon announced the one-child policy.  Further increases to the population would lead to economic and social instabilities for China’s people, in terms of water, food, housing, education, employment, healthcare and a myriad of other requirements. More broadly speaking, the one child policy was designed to increase the capital per worker and output per worker, thus increasing economic growth. Furthermore, by reducing the dependency ratio, poverty would decrease and living standards would rise. 

The one-child policy has unquestionably caused fertility to decline more rapidly than it otherwise would have – and has therefore played a significant role in China’s demographic transition. ‘This transition may have delivered a substantial “demographic dividend” to the country, explaining up to one-quarter of its per capita GDP growth in the last three decades according to some estimates.’ (Jane Golley Researcher, 2013). Alongside such rapid GDP growth comes better nourishment, escalating levels of education, longer life expectancies, and higher living standards for the vast majority of Chinese people. The one-child policy, however controversial, should be given some of the credit for these favorable outcomes.

The scheme, which rewards couples that agree to have just one child with cash bonuses and better access to housing, has proved so successful that the ‘birth rate of 1.4 children per woman has fallen below the replenishment rate of 2.1 children per woman that is needed to maintain the level of population.’ (Review, 2014).

This is not to deny the substantial, and in many cases immeasurable, costs of the policy. Experts are now concerned that China’s low birth rate, combined with its aging population, will damage it’s future economic development. Ageing population’s present countries, such as China, with exceptionally unstable dependency ratios, causing significant strain on the working population to support the elderly. Equally, uneven sex ratios have raised many concerns over the topic of gender inequality, as well as constructing a mass range of other issues such as marriage and reproduction concerns, due to the Chinese culture embedding the belief that males are the more dominant and successful offspring. Over time, this has created abnormal ratios of male: female births, creating deficits in the female population.

The inability for the Chinese to determine their family sizes, be pressurised into terminating second pregnancies, and to be denied from enrolling their second children into a school or accessing the healthcare system are just some examples of the emotional costs commonly experienced by Chinese inhabitants. These costs challenge measurement by those who have never suffered such problems.

Much of China’s economic growth has been attributed to its abundant and cheap workforce, combined with its low social costs. But, with the number of young Chinese falling and the number of elderly Chinese increasing, it is not certain whether China’s economy can continue to grow at the same rapid rate, and the Government is facing increasing calls to abandon its one child policy.

China has succeeded in creating a controversial yet arguably successful way of dealing with a massively expanding population. Perhaps Chinese authorities were right to implement the policy to quickly disband the growing poverty and inequality. Research recovered from 1978 to 1998 has proven that the lower the birth rate, the faster the economic growth. The annual growth rate of the real per capital income during this period was as high as 8.1 percent. At the same time, the birth rate was very low—at only 2 percent. Undoubtedly, the rapid drop in population growth has also created a better quality of life for the Chinese citizens. The policy has often been critiqued due to the extreme nature of the policy. It still remains somewhat unclear on whether there will be any radical reforms to the policy. The rising concerns over China’s aging population, the ever increasing male populations and the international concern over the infringement of human rights really begs the question of how long the Chinese government hopes to retain this one-child policy? China now faces a wave of new challenges to contend with.


Jane Golley Researcher, A. C. O. A. A. T. P. A. A. N. U. 2013. The costs and benefits of China’s one-child policy. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 27 Feb 2014].

Review, W. 2014. China Population 2013 – World Population Review. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 27 Feb 2014].


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