China’s one-child policy is infamous the world-over. It’s divided the country, created countless social difficulties, and brought into question China’s human rights record once again. And yet it has survived for over 30 years, preventing the birth of an estimated 400 million children. Experts have increasingly made know their concerns with the continuation of the policy, and their hopes that the recent alterations made may be a sign that further reform is in sight, possibly even resulting in the end of the policy altogether.
The policy was established in 1979, following concerns regarding the speed of population growth, and the scarcity of resources it was causing. Previous Chinese governments had encouraged couples to have large families as a means of increasing the labour force, but by 1950 the rate of population change was 1.9% each year, and 1970 saw an average 6 children born to every Chinese woman. Considering that a growth rate of just 3% would’ve caused the population to double in less than 24 years, it was clear that such high rates of fertility and population growth were unsustainable – something needed to be done.
Whether a policy as drastic as that established was necessary has been much discussed, yet it certainly worked. Enforced by the ‘National Population and Family Planning Commission of China’, it became an aggressive effort to improve standards of living and the economy through population control, rewarding those that followed the rules and harshly sanctioning those that didn’t. Current rewards for good behaviour include a “Certificate of Honour for Single-Child Parents”, and benefits such as loans, social assistance, and other assistance depending on the family’s socio-economic status. Those who don’t comply on the other hand are subject to penalties including fines (ranging from half the local average household income to more than 10 times that level), confiscation of belongings, and administrative sanctions for government employees. Even the “excess” children themselves may be sanctioned, with restricted access to health care and education.
The policy has certainly made a visible impact on society. Prior to the policy’s introduction, a typical Chinese home contained a sprawling family of many generations, whereas now the average household contains a husband, wife and only-child. The fertility rate has been falling since 1979, and currently hovers around 1.8 on average, but in areas such as Beijing and Shanghai is as low as 0.7. The rate of population growth has also fallen, now standing at 0.7%. Furthermore, contraceptive rates are now unusually high in China, as high as 89% for married women, much higher than the 59% average for other developing countries.
Although the policy has therefore had the desired effect, there has been constant concern surrounding it, internally and globally. Claims that women have been forced/coerced into abortions and in some cases sterilisation by family planning clinics, has attracted horror from the worldwide community, as well as accusations of human and reproductive right issues. There have also been accusations of female infanticide and discrimination against women, due to family planning policies and the traditional preference of males in society, reinforced by the economic restrictions placed upon women by poor governmental policies affecting the labour force, and the small amount of old-age support from the state, creating a need for a child that can earn enough money to support parents when they are no longer able to work. This has meant large numbers of female babies have ended up homeless or in orphanages, and in some cases, murdered. It was reported in 2000 that 90% of aborted foetuses were female, and in rural parts of the country, infant mortality rates were as much as 27% higher for girls than boys, often due to neglect.
Faced by such disturbing figures, it is unsurprising that alterations to the policy have been made throughout its 30 years of existence, particularly in the past decade. The NPFFPC have launched a campaign named ‘Girl Care’ in rural regions, and have made it illegal to discriminate against women who give birth to baby girls, as well as prohibiting ultrasounds to determine gender and sex-selective abortions after an ultrasound. There are also some new exceptions to the one-child rule, whereby couples are able to apply for a permit to have more children. Couples are allowed up to three children if they are an ethnic minority, and any couple whose child is disabled or killed in an accident may be allowed to have a second child. Also, couples can now apply to have a second child if their first is a girl, or if one of the parents are only children themselves. This new alteration was introduced only last year, and now means that a 1/3rd of couples can apply for a second-child permit.
But are these changes too little too late? China’s population may be rising more slowly now, but it still has a huge total population of 1.3 billion, and it faces difficult challenges. The birth rate is falling, creating an ageing population who are unsupported due to the limited people of working age. It is estimated that around 194 million Chinese over the age of 60 have no or too few children to care for them. This has been caused by the smaller workforce comprised of singleton children, who are unable to financially support two ageing parents. Such filial support is necessary due to China’s lack of social welfare system. The second big problem in China is the large gender imbalance that has existed for some years, with reports saying that men now outnumber women by more than 60 million, forcing them into a lifetime of bachelorhood.
With these implications considered, what is the future for China’s one-child policy? The alterations made in recent years aim to ease the strain of the gender imbalance and ageing population that have been created. For example, the 2013 policy allowing couples where either parent is an only-child to have two children, is expected to create a minor population boost of about 1 to 2 million additional children born every year. This has been viewed by many as opening the door to further reform, with a senior family planning official saying China may in the future allow every couple to have two children. Experts say it is not a question of if, but when. Currently, the impact of such a change is being researched by the NPFFPC, with Ma Xu, head of research within the organisation, saying that the population would increase by an estimated 10 million every year if such a policy was introduced. For a long time experts and officials have been lobbying for this alteration, with some seeing it as a step towards ending birth control policies entirely, and side-stepping the demographic timebomb that lies ahead if China continues on its path of population control.
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