“One is best, at most two, never a third”: Evaluating the Legitimacy of China’s One Child Policy

By: Ritika Rao, Pitzer ’17


The failed planning of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), a massive economic and social campaign aimed to ramp up development in China’s agricultural and industrial sectors, and the escalation of birthrates to over 4 children per family led to a further decline in Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s political legitimacy and ultimately gave way to a new direction of public policy planning in China. Even though China’s birthrate eventually fell below three children per family by 1980, a new regime of Chinese leaders including Li Xiannian and Chen Yun believed that forcibly restricting population growth would lead to greater economic prosperity.[1]

Introduced in 1978, the One Child policy was initially summarized by the slogan “one is best, at most two, never a third.”[2] It was created to control the then-surging population and limit the demands for water and other resources as well as to alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems in China.[3]

Incentives were given to couples who pledged to limit their families to one child, while punishing those who had three or four births. Different forms of coercion were utilized, including the hiring of more than one million part-time and full-time workers to ensure women used birth control. Abortions and sterilizations were also encouraged if women were found pregnant with more than one child.

By tracing the intentions of the One Child policy and proceeding to analyze its results, this paper aims to address the fundamental questions of what the policy entails, why it derailed, if it was ever really necessary, and what its recent termination means to China’s society today.


Origins and Results of the One Child Policy

The One Child policy represents an extraordinary attempt to engineer national wealth, power, and global standing by drastically braking population growth. It was also believed that, as a leader among developing nations, China had an obligation to provide other developing countries with a model for population control that will enable them to maintain an ecological balance between the environment, available food supply, and population size.[4]

Although the steps leading to the decision to move to a One Child policy remain obscure, a precipitating factor was the government’s realization that the young age structure of the population would generate growth for decades if couples were permitted two or more children.[5]

Chinese authorities claim that the policy has prevented over 400 million births from 1979 to 2011[6]. This prevention has apparently resulted in less pressure on worldwide food supplies and in less pollution in major Chinese cities. Despite this “success”, the UN and other research organizations have anticipated that this policy has caused irreversible damage to the structure of population growth in China.[7]


Negative Consequences

The One Child policy takes many shapes. Forced abortions and sterilizations, as well as financial penalties and a rise in suicide rates, are all-too-real situations faced by couples in China during the administration of this policy.

According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China Annual Report (2008), “Violators of the [One Child] Policy are routinely punished with exorbitant fines and in some cases subjected to force sterilization, forced abortion, arbitrary detention, and torture.”[8]

With a determined drive and long-term populations goal in mind, China’s government did far more than offer economic incentives to limit families to having One Child. Each locality had a birth control worker – typically a woman – who visited other women regularly to keep a check on their menstrual cycles.[9] Population workers and other local officials received large bonuses if no women in their jurisdiction have unauthorized babies, so they have a strong incentive to be persuasive.

For instance, a reported effort to meet local targets for sterilization in the Tongwei Country led authorities to forcibly sterilize and detain a Tibetan woman. The Tongwei County also utilizes a system of paid informants – friends, neighbors, and co-workers – to report on “unsterilized households” with two children, so that the women in these households can be coerced into sterilization.[10]

Coercion and pressure upon couples and the strict regulation of women’s reproductive decisions by government officials for future “societal benefits” raises the questions: To what extent is it the purview of the state to mandate contraceptive use or other reproductive behavior? And what, if any, conditions make such a mandate justifiable?


Transformation of Chinese Society: The ‘One Son’ policy
Masculinity is the crux of Chinese society – sons not only carry on the family line, they are also expected to provide for their parents in old age, based on Confucian philosophy. A daughter, once married off, is obligated only to her husband’s family. This traditional dynamic paired with the unnerving One Child policy, as well as the disadvantaged economic realities of rural Chinese villages, helped create an abnormal gender imbalance in China.[11]

Early stories emerging from the rural villages focused on coercive practices, including forced late-term abortions and involuntary sterilization as well as reporting on pregnant couples who dared to conceive a second child. Backlash in rural communities throughout China led to modification of the policy in the mid 1980s, allowing a second child in families whose first child was either a girl or disabled.

Coined the “missing women of China,” an already disparate sex ratio at birth in mainland China reached 117 to 100 male to female births, and remained steady between 2000 and 2013. This is far larger than the biological benchmark ratio, 105 males to 100 female births. Thus, given China’s traditional discrimination against women, rapid economic development went together with worsening female mortality.[12] The compulsory measures of the One Child policy hence resulted in the neglect of girls and, in some cases, female infanticide.[13]


Could China have achieved the same results without the one-child policy?

China’s fertility rate unquestionably declined since the advent of the one-child policy, but that decline is considered to be a continuation of a trend that was already well underway prior to the policy’s official implementation. The country’s total fertility rate was stagnant at nearly six births per woman in the 1960s, but by 1980, it had already fallen below three. As of 2013, the typical Chinese woman was expected to have about 1.6 children in her lifetime.

Urbanization and economic development are common factors in the fall of fertility rates, thus these elements are also likely explanations of the decline in the Chinese birthrate. Countries across Asia that do not have a one-child policy have experienced rapid declines in fertility rates in recent decades as well. For instance, the fertility rate in India has more than halved in the 1960-2009 period: From 5.7 in 1966, to 3.3 in 1997, down to 2.7 in 2009.[14]

However, other developing countries that have had extensive government investment in controlling population growth have shown even greater falls in fertility rate than China. For example, Iran has a fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman, and their government requires compulsory contraceptive counseling for all couples prior to marriage.[15]

By observing both natural trends and examples of less stringent government intervention, one can conclude that China’s birth rate would have remained stagnant or even declined without the One Child Policy.


Conclusion: Abolition and lasting effects of the One-Child Policy

2015 marked the end of the three-decade-old restriction. The move to allow two children for every couple was highly anticipated after the relaxing of the policy in early 2014. However, for China, three decades of the One Child policy proves hard to undo. The country is at risk of becoming home to the most elderly population (sixty years or older) on the planet in just 15 years.[16] This graying population potentially burdens health care and social services and may result in China struggling to maintain its growth. 

A lingering gender imbalance, caring for a rapidly aging population, and dangerously low fertility rates contribute to the long-term drawbacks China will be facing. Experts claim that because having one child has become the social norm in China, the policy change earlier this year will only have a limited impact, while the One Child policy legacy will be felt for decades to come.


[1] ‘History of the One-Child Policy’, http://www.allgirlsallowed.org/one-child-policy

[2] Banister, 1987

[3] 5 things to know about China’s one-child policy: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/5-things-to-know-about-china-s-1-child-policy-1.3294335;
da Silva, Pascal Rocha (2006). “La politique de l’enfant unique en République populaire de Chine” [The politics of one child in the People’s Republic of China] (PDF) (in French). University of Geneva. pp. 22–28

[4] Implementing social change: China and the one-child policy, 241

[5] An alternative to the one-child policy in china, 587

[6] http://www.newsweek.com/2015/11/13/its-one-child-policy-lifted-china-becoming-worlds-largest-old-age-home-389059.html

[7] http://laowaiblog.com/population-in-trouble/

[8] http://www.womensrightswithoutfrontiers.org/index.php?nav=forced_sterilization

[9] China’s population policy

[10] http://www.womensrightswithoutfrontiers.org/index.php?nav=forced_sterilization

[11] http://www.newsweek.com/2014/01/24/one-child-policy-one-big-problem-china-245118.html

[12] Sen, Amartya (December 20, 1990). “More than 100 million women are missing”. The New York Review of Books 37 (20)

[13] ibid.

[14] Arjun Adlakha (April 1997), Population Trends: India (PDF), U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census, retrieved 2009-12-05

[15] CIA, Country Comparison: Total Fertility Rate, The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, retrieved 2009-11-24

[16] http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/29/asia/china-one-child-policy/

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