Life After China’s One-Child Policy

By Claire Li (CMC ’19)

China, the most populous country in the world, is concerned with its stagnant population growth caused in large part by its one-child policy. Formally launched in 1980 by the Communist Party,[1] the one-child policy succeeded in bringing the soaring population growth during the post-Mao era under control as well as preventing problems such as the deterioration of healthcare services and over-exploitation of natural resources. Although the policy was reversed due to the demographic issues it created, the Chinese government is having difficulty encouraging families to have multiple children.

One of the primary factors behind the repeal of the one-child policy was the growth of China’s elderly population. The percentage of population aging 65 and above in China has soared from 4.5% in 1980 to 9.5% in 2015, which is higher than the world average of 8.27%. If this trend is not countered by the birth of more children, China’s aging society will threaten to stifle the country’s ambitious economic growth goals by putting a dent in China’s labor force. 2009 witnessed the first time in two decades that the growth of the country’s approximately 930 million-person labor force slowed.[2] The aging population has also increased the burden on the country’s pension programs that struggle to cover the growing number of old people. In 2012, 55% of the elderly population were covered by a public pension plan, but the other predominantly rural half were not.[3] Moreover, with more parents retiring and in need of financial support, the only child of each household becomes the only source of family income, facing the difficult tasks of sustaining both their parents and their own children.

Having repealed the one-child policy in 2015, the Chinese government is now actively encouraging families to have more children to solve these issues. It seems, however, that the practice of having one child has become ingrained in the Chinese society. According to Han Jing and Zhang Pengzhi, who, like many others, are raising their single child in Beijing, it is very costly to have a child today because of the increasingly competitive education system and professional fields that require significant investments in education from the child’s early stages of development. Earning $35,000 a year while spending $10,000 annually on after-school classes, Han and Zhang have experienced great difficulty raising one child alone – let alone more, had they opted for more children after the relaxation of the one-child policy.[4] Moreover, soaring living expenses in cities such as Beijing have consumed the budget of many couples that could have otherwise been spent raising a second child. Indeed, having one child has now become the most economically viable option for many Chinese families.

Apart from the economic reasons, it is also likely that the decades-long one-child policy itself has contributed to this changing perception of family size. As the only child in his or her own family, a typical Chinese youth today would likely have grown up with the perception of a single-child family rather than a larger one and likely be accustomed to constantly receiving undivided attention from their parents. It is possible that the lack of knowledge and experience of growing up with siblings plays a role in a couple’s reluctance to have multiple children.

While it is debatable whether or not the one-child policy or the ever increasing costs of living in China have lead the population to favor having one child, it is without question that the one-child policy has played an important role in shaping the public perception of family size. Either way, the Chinese government now faces an additional barrier to mobilize the Chinese population to have more children and expand the labor force.



[1]  Whyte, Martin King. “Modifying China’s One-Child Policy.” E-International Relations Publishing (2014): 1. Web.

[2]  Pasick, Adam. “Six Consequences of One-Child Policy Reform – The Atlantic.” The Atlantic. N.p., 15 Nov. 2013. Web.

[3]  Wee, Darren. “China’s Rocketing Elderly Population Prompts a Rethink on Pensions” The Guardian. N.p., 1 Oct. 2012. Web.

[4]  Denyer, Simon, and Congcong Zhang. “China Drops One-child Policy, but ‘exhausted’ Tiger Moms …” The Washington Post. N.p., 16 Oct. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.


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