Society, Culture, and Security

The Never-Ending Legacy of China’s One-Child Policy

It has been two years since China officially discarded its infamous one-child policy in favour of a new two-child policy. Concerns of an aging and shrinking population were key factors in phasing out the policy in 2013, leading to its final demise in 2015. However, the effects of the decades-long population control method are still widely felt.


China’s one-child policy began in 1979 when the national population was rapidly expanding, which, in turn, created a fear of overpopulation and food shortages. The Communist Party created the policy to “reduce the number of mouths the People’s Republic needed to feed”. Penalties of noncompliance included large fines, as well as forced abortions and sterilizations. It is estimated that the policy prevented approximately 400 million births and caused the birth rate to be reduced from six children per woman in the 1960s to 1.5 today. In addition, the one-child policy has created an aging population as well as a gender imbalance due to the traditional preference for boys in Chinese society.


While initial data on China’s new two-child policy is being used to call a “success” by the Chinese government, some say it is “too little, too late”. The Communist Party’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) stated that there were 17.86 million births in China in 2016, which is an increase of 7.9% from the previous year. However, even with the new population growth China is currently experiencing, it will be very difficult to cancel out the effects that the one-child policy had on the population.


As previously mentioned, there is a large gender imbalance within the younger generation. It is estimated that there are 33 million more men than women in China. In a society where women are expected to move out of their parents’ home and into their husband’s household, raising a girl can seem like an act of “pure charity” to some. With the one-child law in place, many female babies were aborted, neglected, or murdered, adding to the long legacy of “gendercide” in patriarchal societies.


Individuals without siblings become solely responsible for supporting their aging parents as they enter the workforce. Xiaodan Zhang describes this intense loyalty Chinese children feel towards their parents as a result of the Confucian philosophy of xiao, which is the virtue of respect for one’s parents. This hinders any decision one may have about pursuing a career or life far from where they grew up. This is illustrated through the situation of Yihan Bao, an international student who got a job at Ernst & Young in New York after graduation. After five years in the U.S., she is considering giving up her life in New York to move home to be near her parents. She also states that her parents wish they had a second child to live with them when she is living in the U.S. This is a common dilemma for much of the young population, as the number of Chinese students attending American universities has increased from 50,000 in 2000 to 304,000 in 2015. However, only about 30 percent of these students stay in the U.S. post-graduation.


The “invisible children” of China and their parents, however, arguably bear the greatest burden. Due to the threats of non-compliance with the one-child policy, many births in China were never officially recorded. This has left thousands of children and their families living in the shadows in an effort not to be caught by the government. These children were never able to attend school or obtain a passport, and those who do try to get their identity recognized by the state find themselves consumed by endless paperwork.


A recent BBC interview shows that many of these issues are still present within the two-child policy. A local man and his family left their village and went into hiding because his wife had just given birth to their third child. The man talks about how their local government carries out pregnancy examinations every three months, so they would have been faced with large fines or a persuaded abortion had they stayed. This is a situation not uncommon to many families in China, particularly those in rural areas that are less wealthy. While wealthier families could possibly choose to have another child and pay a fine, this is not an option for most.


Even though the new two-child policy has improved China’s population growth, the moral and ethical concerns surrounding the population control method still remain. The Chinese government’s discarding of the one-child policy was not a moment of realization that women should be able to freely choose what to do with their bodies and fertility. Rather, it was a decision based on numerical data and economic concerns. Even with the new two-child policy, it will be hard to accelerate the population growth due to the lack of women of childbearing age and the rising death rate of the elderly population. In addition, the one-child policy has made small families somewhat of a social norm.


After decades of this treatment, it can cause many to lose faith in their government, especially considering that the new two-child policy still contains many of the same coercive measures as the previous policy, such as fines, constant pregnancy examinations, and abortion threats. While the full effects of the new two-child policy won’t be known for decades, there is no doubt that there is much more work to be done for Chinese policymakers to combat a lack of workers, gender imbalance, and the social and healthcare needs of an aging population.


Cover Photo: Cropped image of “Panoramic View of Shanghai” (2015), by Jannes Glas via Flickr. Listed under CC BY 2.0.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Jacqueline Hicks
Jacqueline Hicks recently graduated from Western University with a Honours Specialization Degree in International Relations. During her undergraduate degree, Jacqueline spent a semester abroad in Singapore studying global affairs and public policy. Her research interests include gender issues, women in security, globalization, and the history of the Middle East. Jacqueline volunteers at the legal aid clinic Justice for Children and Youth, as well as helps to create the social media content for War Child Canada. In the future, Jacqueline hopes to pursue a law degree, with a focus in human rights and social justice law. You can contact Jacqueline at