July 19, 2011

The Hidden Truths Behind China's One Child Policy

China, a country that began its escalade toward a major world power within the last thirty years, started its struggle for prominence dealing with an exceedingly significant problem of over population. With one in five people in the world living in China, the far eastern nation currently houses the largest population of any country on the globe. During the fifties and sixties, as birth rates swelled, drastic measures were needed by the government to prevent a widespread economic crash. Chinese authorities therefore proposed and passed a “One couple, one child” family planning policy in 1979. China’s “one child policy”, as it is commonly referred to, is the largest population control effort in the history of the world. Although effective in achieving reduced birth rates and gaining control over China’s booming population, the one child policy’s inhumane enforcement methods, circumstantial exceptions, and social and economical effects cause concern for the future of the country.

China’s history with population and its promotion by influential figures, suggests the causes that led to numbers being a major problem. Historically China has had contradicting notions about large population. In one sense it signifies power and strength surpassing that of surrounding countries. On the contrary, a booming population has also foreshadowed national catastrophe. Mao Zedong, predecessor of Deng, encouraged population growth. He held true to his Marxist faith, believing in maximum economic growth and modernization through the proletariat. Mao pioneered for the peasant masses with the ideal of “two hands to feed one mouth,” and never foresaw the magnitude of overpopulation as a problem. In August 1958 Mao Zedong proclaimed, “Our views on population should change. In the past I said we could manage with 800 million. Now I think 1 billion would be no cause for alarm.” Mao even gave special benefits to women who bore many children, called “model mothers.” He also believed that larger numbers equaled a superior threat to any opposing countries so that even if a massive group of people perished in a nuclear attack, a large fraction of Chinese would still remain. China’s population of 542 million in 1949 expanded to 947 million in 1976, the year of Mao’s death. This was a remarkable 395 million increase in only 27 years. When Mao died, he left the responsibility of resolving the population problem, which he had heavily pioneered for, to his successors.

Recognizing the extent of overpopulation as a national crisis, Deng Xiaoping, a renowned Chinese politician, initiated key reforms within China. He passed the one child reform in hope to plateau the growth rate by the 21st century. Working with other officials, Deng helped to devise and execute a nationwide effort to reduce the population to a manageable number. They hoped for a gradual reduction of family size with each new generation. The government’s goal can be summarized as an “eight-four two-one” plan, meaning eight great grandparents, four grandparents, two parents, and one child. In addition the government aimed to reduce the annual birth rate. Their target of 1.6 children per family assumed that some couples would have multiple children.

To further promote a reduced number of births, Chinese officials instated other polices to control family aspects. Later marriage was encouraged through the passing of a revised marriage law that set the minimal ages of when both men and women could get married. Chinese officials also encouraged a longer span of time between pregnancies of about four years. To strengthen their argument for implementing the one child policy, officials considered additional benefits for the nation. China’s government argued that the benefits of a reduced population included an increased number of jobs, more health service availability, and more food per person. They also insisted that women who underwent fewer pregnancies enjoyed an economically and socially richer life. Their firm beliefs transformed into to even firmer enforcement methods.

Strictly enforcing birth rate guidelines, many law officers crossed personal lines, taking inhumane or corrupt actions. To strengthen the campaign into a state family planning institution, the state council’s leading group for birth planning changed into the State Population and Family Planning Commission in 1981. In each county, bureaus for family planning were created as mediums between government and the people. One strategy to get families to comply involved granting incentives to compliant couples and punishments for those defiant of the policies. Families with only one child were rewarded with privileges such as preferred healthcare, education, and housing. Many also received bonuses continuously given until the child grew to 14 years of age. Bonuses were usually a five to ten percent salary raise for single child families.Those who did not adhere to the policy were penalized with lowered incomes and higher health insurance rates. Violation of the policy usually resulted in a ten percent pay cut.

Under the one-child policy, families were also economically burdened by providing schooling and healthcare with their own income for any other children they had.

Contracts were another method used to induce the family planning policies. Peasants were offered land contracts only if they signed a contract agreeing to abstain from bearing children. If they broke the contract they would be fined or the land would be taken away from them. The Shengyu Zheng or “Birth Permission Paper” became an official document that women needed in order to be allowed to become pregnant and give birth. Women were required to present this document to the hospital at both stages of diagnosis and labor. The Chinese government also wanted to influence younger new couples before they had children. Upon marriage a couple was strongly advised to sign a contract agreeing to the birth policies in exchange for a Birth Planning Honor Card. With this card families could receive preferred education, housing, food, and healthcare. Those who did not comply were harassed into doing so or suffered the consequences of imprisonment, fines or loss of jobs. Harassment was far from the harshest enforcement tactics the government used.

The invasion of people’s privacy, especially women, was a common way to make sure the regulations were adhered to. Surveillance cameras exposed women with irregular period cycles so that they may be interrogated for an explanation. Women’s periods were even recorded and analyzed in the work place. In apartment complexes, many elderly women formed “neighborhood committees” to keep an eye on couples and report anyone who defied the law. Social pressure, from relatives and neighboring families, has proved the most effective in enforcing the policy. The standards of upholding the law and family reputation are expected by both family and friends. Some families could be even more ruthless than the authorities who violated human rights.

Authorities would demand abortions or sterilization of women to enforce the one-child policy. The government forced IUD insertion to prevent women from further births. Inserted IUDs were regularly monitored using x-rays to check that they stayed where they were placed. The surgery was many times conducted in unhealthy environments, without proper rest and care, and at unconventional times proving detrimental to women’s health. Even late term abortions were forced upon women. Sterilization of either spouse was also demanded. Viewed as an effective form of birth control, forced sterilization was suggested as a 1991 law supplement of the one-child policy to reduce population growth. Between 1983 and 1991 over 300 million women were harassed into sterilization. Each province had sterilization “quotas” they must meet which they divided onto smaller local officials. Depending if they met their quota or not, officials were either rewarded or penalized. Boxes were placed in some population control institutes so that anonymous tips could be left about illicit pregnancies. Officials would even publicly hang posters listing those people who resisted the policies as enemies of the state. By humiliating disobedient families they hoped to influence other couples to comply. Some families would even flee to try to escape sterilization, leaving both family and friends behind. These “birth guerrillas” usually had to give birth unattended by medical personnel. Their children were also unable to gain hukou, or residence registration cards, and missed out on state benefits. The fugitives’ families were often hounded, and a pregnant woman caught was forced to abort her unborn child. Rebellious couples were so resistant that officials who administered the birth control would sometimes need armed escorts. Certain officers wanted to avoid conflict and fell victims to corruption and making many exceptions of the policy.

Many exceptions, especially as time progressed, were made for certain group of families meeting the right criteria. The one child policy is not a national law but rather varies from region to region, and province to province. Some areas allow two to three children, while some locations don’t have a restriction at all. In 1984 revisions were made to the policy as the government realized that a decreased population would not cause an improved economy, but rather decreased birthrates would result from a developed financial system. Six of the poorest regions were then allowed two children and in eighteen provinces couples were to follow the “one son, two child policy,” which allowed couples a second chance to try for a son. Only in major cities was a second child strictly forbidden. In all, only one third of fertile women are restricted to a single child. People undergoing a second marriage are allowed to have children with their current spouse even if they had children from a previous relationship. If both parents are single children in their own families they also are allowed to have a second child. According to the Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Chinese scholars who are able to receive a college education in a foreign country usually marry foreigners. If they return to China with a foreign passport they are then excused from the one child policy. Minorities within China often were exempt from the family planning policies as well. The government did not want to wipe out the rich diverse culture and history these groups added to the nation. The policy was more relaxed in the countryside. Contraceptives were not as readily available in rural farmlands as they were in urban areas. Couples especially in unpopulated rural areas were granted this exception because they often needed two or three children to help work the land. Though there were many exceptions, the detrimental effects the policy had on the nation were inevitable.

The effects caused by the various family planning policies have heavily weighed upon China’s social and economical state. Many social alterations have led to economical tension. Cheaply made birth control has caused additional abortions. A second child has become a symbol of wealth and luxury for any urban middle-class families that can afford it. Since free schooling no longer exists in China, the cost of supporting a child is even higher, especially since education is greatly valued. “[This] may prove to be an even more effective tool for restricting population growth than any family planning policy,” says Meulenberg in her journal article in World Watch. With the policy, social connections must shift away from family because of the family’s reduced size and the tradition that family comes first. People must begin to make new social connections elsewhere besides at home. Socially, the ratio of elderly to the
working class within the total population will also present a problem. Helen Qiao, an economist, estimates that by 2050, ten working Chinese between the ages of fifteen and sixty-four will be economically responsible for seven others older or younger. By the 2030’s the ratio of elderly within China’s population will rise from one in twenty to one in four. Since the retirement age for women is fifty-five, and the retirement age for men is sixty, coupled with the fact that no state support exists, the shrinking working class will carry the burden of supporting their many elders. Usually this responsibility is given to the son amplifying the pressure to have males. It will be especially difficult for rural families where less than one percent of retirees gain pensions. The policy has also further distanced the rural and urban economies. Rural families resist the policy while the urban population welcomes a smaller economical sized family.

Social effects have also resulted, ranging from minor issues of spoiled children to larger issues such as kidnapping women. Certain studies show that the one child policy has led to increased attention of the single child from both parents and grandparents. Since the social role of family is very important, children born under this policy are more pampered. The spoiling of single children has caused in increase in child obesity. Parents coddle their children so much that they lose a sense of moderation. Single child sons have come to be referred to as “little emperors.” Some reports back the policy by concluding that single children are more versatile and intelligent because resources are more readily available for them. An even larger problem plaguing China has been the imbalance of males to females.

China’s gender imbalance, a result of the one child policy, tradition, and female prejudice, has caused national social crisis within the country. In an average Chinese classroom of 39 children, 28 of them are boys. Males culturally are valued more than daughters because girls will marry and join their husband’s family. On the contrary, sons will stay with their parents and care for them in old age. Also men have more job opportunities and generally earn more money. Desperate to try again for a son, mothers will suffocate, drown, or abandon their unwanted baby girls. In the 1980s the strict enforcement of the policy was loosened in rural areas due to the increasing number of infanticide cases. Although the 1992 Law on Protection of Rights and Interests of Women forbid infanticide and the prejudice against women bearing
daughters, women still face maltreatment in society. It is estimated that two hundred thousand female babies were victims of the practice of female infanticide in one year alone. Many parents also abandon their daughters in order to obey the one child policy. Chinese orphanages house over one hundred sixty thousand girls. Many mothers suffer emotionally when giving up their child but feel it’s the best way to ensure a better life for their daughter.  Some daughters also will be abandoned if they are gravely sick and the family can’t support them. Parents may also choose not to resister a birth of a child, especially if their child is female. This has resulted in inaccurate birth rate and population figures. Amniocentesis is a method that pregnant women can use to learn the sex of the unborn fetus. If the child is female they then
have the option of abortion. In 1994 China outlawed the use of ultrasounds for choosing the gender of their child, but corruption and abuse of the law continues today. Although illegal to use ultrasounds to determine an unborn child’s sex, hospitals and doctors market the service for extra profit. In 1988, instead of trying to eliminate female discrimination, the government loosened the one child policy to a “one son, two child” policy to give families a second chance at a son. As the multitude of males is now coming to marital age, many are struggling to find a life partner.

China’s bachelors cause additional social problems within the nation. It has been estimated that by 2020 China will have about forty million bachelors due to the preference for sons. Problems expected to arise with the magnitude of single men include an increase in prostitution, surrogate mothers, forced marriages, HIV, and the marketing of women. Since the gender imbalance is so great, many bachelors will never be able to marry because of the lack of girls. Some men even publish ads in the paper to try to find a partner. Men pressured to find a wife and carry on the family name become desperate and buy or kidnap a girl to marry. United Nations reported that in 2003 around two hundred and fifty thousand women and children were kidnapped. Sons are sold to couples lacking children while many daughters are sold as wives. Couples would sell female babies for other families to nurture and eventually become wives for that family’s son. A detective who works to rescue abducted and sold women says that many victims are raped, beaten, or have broken limbs to deter any plans of escape. Not all the effects were detrimental, as the one child policy has connected Chinese orphans with American families.

Adoption has not been a great option for many Chinese couples to consider due to strict regulations but the popularity of international adoption of Chinese baby girls has increased. Up until 1999 families could not have their children adopted or fostered by family or friends as a way to avoid the consequences of multiple children. Previously adopted or fostered children were counted against a family’s quota which led to many orphaned girls unable to be adopted by Chinese couples. In the 1992 Adoption Law, non-disabled orphans were not allowed to be adopted within China. Only “genuine orphans” whose parents had died were eligible to join Chinese families. Since many abandoned girls could not enter Chinese households, China opened international adoption to the United States. One fourth of international adoptees in America are Chinese. The adoption process can take over a year and costs over eighteen thousand dollars. International adoption has both culturally enriched Caucasian families, and has provided couples with the gift of children.

Looking at the big picture, the one child policy was effective in achieving its initial goals but the government did not anticipate the additional problems that would also result. In its original cause, China’s one child policy accomplished its basic goal of lowering population and birth rates. Through the one child policy China has evaded at least 300 million births from its proposal in 2004. The rate of China’s annual population increase has dropped to about one percent since the one child policy was first implemented. This value is low especially for a rising nation. China hopes to level off its population by 2050 at 1.6 billion, which many experts consider the maximum population China can support. Though it may seem that China has reached many of its population targets, many births are unaccounted for. Local officials have altered their data to meet expectations, and some families never registered a birth to avoid
fines. Other factors have also interfered, preventing the policy from reaching its full potential.

Preventing the policies from being completely effective were both cultural and governmental aspects. Studies revealed that in 1981 about six million children were added to single child families, and that around 1.7 million babies were born into homes which already had five or more other sons and daughters, indicating violation of the one child law. Another aspect was that Deng’s population reforms contradicted his reforms for the free market. According to decollectivisation, labored land was divided among its workers, thus encouraging offspring. As welfare systems crumbled, sufficient funds were not available to reward one child families. Couples also became more open to paying the fines for additional children as enforcing policies became harder. Parents living on farmlands often disregarded the policy. Rural families placed higher importance on having multiple children to work the land and tend to them in their elder years, then strictly adhering to the policy.

Glancing at China’s future, many analysts predict new offspring problems linked directly and indirectly to the enforcement of the one child policy. Many demographers encourage china to relax or abandon the policy to avoid a huge economic crash. Others worry that the policy is needed to prevent the large population from depleting the country’s resources. China is now trying to promote family care over population control. Easier access to family counseling and modernized contraceptives such as birth control pills and condoms are encouraged over IUDs and sterilization. Foreshadowing the economical troubles to come is the statistic that around 72% of the Chinese population is of working age fueling China’s economic advancement. In time this group will replace the elderly, leaving the magnified responsibility of providing to their small families. The lack of women will further reduce the annual number of births as well. Experts are also concerned about men’s mental health connected with the struggle to find a spouse. With the excess of males it is predicted that the number of STDs, violence, and
criminal activity will increase. On the contrary experts also predict a more open and prevalent gay community especially if the policy is loosened. The most impending strain on gays in the Chinese culture is the expectation from their family to continue the family line. The one child policy had only emphasized this cultural tradition. Homosexuals without any siblings, due to the policy, feel the pressure even more. Many feel forced to keep their true sexuality hidden and marry otherwise. By 2010 the government hopes to achieve a much more stable ratio of men to women. In some provinces the government offers incentives such as improved housing, decreased educational fees, and pensions for older parents who do not have sons, to encourage having daughters. In 2004 Chinese officials initiated a campaign called “Year of the Girl” promoting daughters through posters reading, “Girls are as good as boys!” and showing daughters taking care of their parents in their old age.

Although it is evident that such a policy was needed to avoid economic and social issues, it remains controversial whether China’s approach to the issue was constituted or fashioned correctly. Today modern China faces new social and economic issues that impede its growth as a superpower. The reputation of China has also been stained by the reports of inhumanity and unjust exceptions to certain fractions of the population. The goal, in which the one child policy corrected, does not make up for the new unforeseen challenges that plague modern Chinese society. China must be innovative and proficient in their efforts to fix the mounting problems before national disaster strikes again.

~Hannah Leo


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  1. Fascinating to read. I'd love to read an updated version -- the cost and wait time for a Chinese adoption are clearly outdated. But, reading about the history of the policy and the effects was really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  2. FYI: This was written in the spring of 2009.

  3. Thanks - this was very informative. It is good to know about the detrimental effects of this law, when all I think about is the positive one (it lets us be adopted and be part of a family we feel we were destined for)