The impacts of China’s One Child Policy

14 Mar

The One Child Policy is seen as being one of the most significant social policies ever implemented in China. The policy, put into place in 1979, limited couples to only having one child and was in response to China’s extremely rapid population growth, which was perceived as a threat to the country’s future economic growth and living standards of the people (Festini & de Martino, 2004). At the time of being implemented, China’s population was around 970 million (United Nations, 2013), and due to the fact that this figure was nearing one billion, it was the Chinese government’s goal to limit natural population growth as well as to keep the total population targeted at around 1.2 billion for the year 2000 (Hao, 1988). China’s total population was around 1.26 billion in 2000 (World Bank, 2014), so the goal was achieved, but perhaps was slightly higher than what the government was aiming for.

The One Child Policy consisted of a set of regulations including restrictions on family size, late marriage and childbearing, however the policy was not standardized across the whole country. It was more strictly enforced in urban rather than rural areas due to the fact that those living in urban areas have more economic and social stability, but those living in rural areas tend to rely on their children for support. If a couple had a girl as their first child, after five years it may be possible for the couple to have another child in the hope of having a boy (Hesketh & Xing, 2005). There were other exceptions made, for example if the first child has a disability, or if both parents work in high-risk occupations such as mining (Hesketh & Xing, 2005).

In order for the policy to be successfully implemented, the government introduced incentives so that the population would comply with the regulations. These incentives have mainly been economic, including taxes and fines for those who do not comply, but there have also been social incentives for those who do comply, for example having preferred access to housing, healthcare and education (Festini & de Martino, 2004).


There have been both positive and negative impacts associated with the introduction of the One Child Policy. It has been successful in preventing between 250 million and 300 million births (Festini & de Martino, 2004), as well as reducing the total fertility rate (TFR) from 2.7 children per woman in 1980 to 1.7 in 2011 (World Bank, 2014). This reduction in TFR has led to the reduction of the total population of China therefore avoiding a population explosion, maintaining economic growth and improving living standards. However, there are now concerns that the current TFR, which is below the replacement level of 2.1, may result in a very different demographic situation in the future. This low TFR may reduce to an even lower level, possibly leading to a population decline if it reaches ‘lowest low’ fertility (TFR of 1.3 or below). If this happens there will be a lack of people in the working age population and the prospect of an ageing population. This would affect the dependency ratio of the country and put immense pressure on the government to provide economic and social support to the elderly population.

One of the most significant effects of the One Child Policy has been regarding China’s sex ratio and the “missing girls” phenomenon. China has experienced a skewed sex ratio for a long time, before the One Child Policy was introduced, however this problem has been exacerbated since the introduction of the policy. Traditionally in China, having sons is preferred over having daughters. This son preference is especially present in rural areas due to the fact that sons are responsible for supporting family members once they have reached old age, because usually once a daughter is married she leaves the family home to join her husband’s home, therefore families rely on their sons to give them personal and financial support (Riley, 2004). This son preference has led to an increased skew in the sex ratio at birth. Before the policy was introduced in 1979, the sex ratio was 106 males per 100 females, slightly higher than the world sex ratio of 105 males per 100 females. However, by 1988 the sex ratio had increased to 111 males per 100 females and by 2001 it was 117 males per 100 females (Kang & Wang, 2003). The extremely skewed sex ratio in China has led to the “missing girls” phenomenon, meaning millions of girls are ‘missing’ from China’s population registers. There are four main explanations for this: female infanticide, neglect or abandonment; underreporting of female births; adoption of female children; and sex-selective abortions (Riley, 2004). The main cause of the skewed sex ratio is most likely to be sex-selective abortions, which became more common as a result of the One Child Policy. Through the introduction of ultrasound B machines in the early 1980s (Riley, 2004), Chinese couples were able to illegally find out the sex of their child and then could carry out an abortion if their first child was a female, making it possible for them to try to have a son.


Recently, there have been plans by the Chinese government to relax the One Child Policy – if one member of a couple is an only child, the couple will be allowed to have two children (Kaiman, 2013). However, there is debate whether this will create a population boom within China. The economic burden of having a child has deterred many couples from having a second child, therefore this relaxation of the policy may not have an effect on the population growth of China. On the other hand, many couples from rural areas will be more likely to have a second child if they are eligible to do this, as they rely more on their children to support the family. There could even be a possibility of the One Child Policy being discontinued by 2020 (Kaiman, 2014), but this will depend on future demographic trends and if the government is willing to give up one of the biggest policies ever introduced in China.


Word count – 1020




Festini, F. and de Martino, M. (2004) Twenty five years of the one child family policy in China. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 58: 358-360.


Hao, Y. (1988) China’s 1.2 billion target for the year 2000: ‘Within’ or ‘Beyond’? The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, 19/20: 165-183.


Hesketh, T. and Xing, Z.W. (2005) The effect of China’s one-child family policy after 25 years. The New England Journal of Medicine, 353 (11): 1171-1176.


Kaiman, J. (2013) China’s one-child policy to be relaxed as part of reforms package, The Guardian [online] Available at: [Accessed 14/03/2014]


Kaiman, J. (2014) Time running out for China’s one-child policy after three decades, The Guardian [online] Available at: [Accessed 14/03/2014]


Kang, C. and Wang, Y. (2003) Sex Ratio at Birth In: Theses Collection of 2001 National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Survey. Beijing: China Population Publishing House, 88-98.


Riley, N.E. (2004) China’s Population: New Trends and Challenges. Population Bulletin 59(2) Population Reference Bureau: Washington DC


United Nations (2013) Total Population – Both Sexes (Excel table), World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision [online] Available at: [Accessed 11/03/2014]


World Bank (2014) Fertility rate, total (births per woman) World Bank Data [online] Available at: [Accessed 11/03/2014]


World Bank (2014) Population (Total), World Bank Data [online] Available at: [Accessed 11/03/2014]


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