China’s One Child Policy, Its Contemporary Challenges

26 Mar

China’s ‘One Child Policy’ has become the figurative poster child of modern Chinese legislation, proving to be both a contemptuous yet thought provoking issue since its implementation in 1979. In light of China’s burgeoning population growth, government policies were paramount in shifting the demographics of the country in order to quell poverty and nurture future economic growth. As such, Festini and de Martino (2004) comment that ‘250-300 million’ Chinese births have been prevented, reducing the fertility rate to ‘1.8 in 2001’ which is below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.



Fertility and Family

Beyond the initial human rights issues, some unforeseen issues have arisen from the policy, particularly concerning discrimination against girls, changing demographics and social difficulties. Research has questioned the discrepancies present  between the Chinese birth ratio of 117 males to 100 females (Gu and  Roy, 1995) commenting that archaic cultures of son preference (Poston, 1997)  still permeate society,  often being blamed for the practised (yet illegal) action of aborting female foetuses. In addition, many girls die due to neglect.

Following this trend, China now faces a social backlash from millions of single men without spouses (Branigan, 2011) in rural areas. To some extent, the disparity between males and females may create an oppressive environment for men whom are denied wives and families. Further anecdotal evidence suggests women are increasingly being kidnapped or trafficked into rural marriages, where eligible women are sparse. Moreover, it is common for women to suffer tremendous pressure to bear a son (Kane and Choi, 1999) which has led to rising suicide rates amongst women .It suggests that future demographics of the Chinese population may change, as men may emigrate and women immigrate in order to seek relationships. Particularly as the Chinese ethos centres so fiercely on marriage, children, the home and supporting ones elders.

 It could therefore be evident that older generations may suffer into old age without adequate support, as their only child struggles financially to support himself and his elders. Furthermore, the traditional process of wives moving into the husbands’ family may become transgressed as men often travel away from their locales and settle elsewhere with a spouse.

Critiques Of The Policy

Potts (2006) provides a reflective analysis on China’s One Child Policy, noting that its modern day success in guiding the population away from socio-economic disaster is now reaching our own doorsteps. This being evident through China’s rapid industrialisation, and fervent consumption of raw materials. The consequences of which are putting strain on demands for oil and staple crops that ultimately drive up global prices.

One may then ask whether the policy has been detrimental to the Global South, as 1.351 billion ( World Bank, 2012) Chinese put pressure on staple crops like maize (Delgado, 2003). This crop feeds livestock, the products of which are deemed luxurious to China’s rising middle classes. Others then argue that the One Child Policy has inadvertently created a myriad of socio-economic deficits on a global scale which influence consumers’ struggle to afford basic foods and energy. Some may discuss that the policy was not strict enough, as ‘Fig 1’ demonstrates a scenario where the policy affects everyone without exceptions (The Economist, 2011). The forecast shows a dramatic difference in population, even by 2030 compared to the UN prediction.


Figure 1: Projections for a strict ‘blanket approach’ to the policy (The Economist, 2011)

Other critics argue that despite these disadvantages, benefits are clear within the domestic sphere of single child families. The policy has essentially removed 150 million people from abject poverty and arguably enabled the economy to grow ‘7-8%’ a year (Potts, 2006).


These innovations in living standards as a whole are examples of the delayed benefits of abstaining from large families, particularly as only child’s are privy to greater access to resources, especially girls who would otherwise lose out to the culture of son preference (Festini and de Martino, 2004). Other scholars too, are quick to point out that the “小皇帝” (Little emperor syndrome) is often unproven by recent psychological assessments by Hesketh et al (2003).  Finding that, although spoiled during childhood, many children without siblings often excel at social interaction. Goh (2011) finds that multiple caregivers have direct access and attention to the one child and will share their resources.


Demographic Shift: Its Complications

The policy has coincided with China’s progression into an aging population, as Festini and de Martino (2004) estimate that by 2050, a quarter of China’s population will be over 65. This is beginning to show a discrepancy between the working population (limited by the policy) and the now surviving parents and grandparents of the one child generation.

In economic terms, the typically youthful labour driven market that has forged China’s success in recent years is likely to grow into a predominantly aging population, one that increasingly relies on the capital of their children. Single children therefore suffer from what some demographers have coined the ‘4-2-1 problem’ which depicts a child having to support his or hers parents, grandparents and those of their spouse.

This socially constructed dilemma is likely to bestow negative aspects both financially and psychologically on the sole ‘breadwinner’ of an extended family. Especially as older generations in rural China are traditionally poorer and likely to remain so (Cai et al, 2012). Suggesting that as China advances further with healthcare and infrastructure, its aging population will become increasingly reliant on their children as they live longer.




China’s rapid growth and ongoing economic success has arguably been enabled by policies like ‘One Child’. Chiefly those resources have been better distributed amongst the population, within a more stable economy. By removing the predicted exponential growth of China’s population, it has helped avoid issues facing other countries like India that are seeing unstable predictions in population.

The balance of ‘greater good’ and individual sacrifice, although politically entrenched and disputed is evidently a working success for the Chinese.  The policy has however become troublesome within the realms of family structure and discrimination. One must ask whether these personal sacrifices have been a temporary fix, or will be proven successful within future population cohorts.

Word count (without captions and references) : 996


·         Branigan, T. 2011, ‘China’s village of the bachelors: no wives in sight in remote settlement, The Guardian, 2 September [Online]. Available:            [accessed 2014,  March 2].


·         Cai, F., Giles, J., O’Keefe, P., and Wang, D. 2012, The Elderly and Old Age Support in Rural China, World Bank Publications.


  •          Delgado, C. L. 2003,  ‘Rising consumption of meat and milk in developing countries has created a new food revolution’, The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 133, no. 11, pp. 3907-3910.



  •          Festini, F. and de Martino, M. 2004, ’Twenty five years of the one child family policy  in China’. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, vol. 58, pp. 358-60.


  •          Goh, E. 2011, China’s one-child policy and multiple caregiving: raising little suns in  Xiamen, Routledge, London.



  •          Gu, B and Roy, K. 1995, ‘Sex ratio at birth in China, with reference to other areas in East Asia: what we know’,  Asia Pac Popul , vol. 10, pp. 17–42.


  •          Hesketh, T., Qu, J. D., and Tomkins, A. 2003, ‘Health effects of family size: cross sectional survey in Chinese adolescents’, Archives of disease in childhood, vol. 88, no. 6, pp. 467-471.

·         Kane, P. and Choi, C.Y. 1999, ‘China’s one child family policy’, British Medical Journal, vol. 319, pp. 992-4.

·         Krishnan, A. 2012, ‘China battles the 421 problem’, The Hindu, 7 October [online]. Available:  [accessed 2014, March 16].


  •          Poston Jr, D. L., Gu, B., Liu, P. P., and McDaniel, T. 1997, ‘Son preference and the sex ratio at birth in China: A provincial level analysis’,  Biodemography and Social Biology, vol. 44, no. 1-2, pp. 55-76.


  •          Potts, M. 2006, ‘China’s one child policy. The policy that changed the world’. British Medical Journal vol. 333, pp. 361-2.

·         The Economist Online. 2011,‘O brother where art thou?’, The Economist, 2 August [Online], Available: [accessed 2014, March 16].


·  World Bank Population Data China, [Online], 2012, Available: [accessed 2014, March 15].


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