China’s One Child Policy – some background

There’s been a lot of press this week about China ending the One Child Policy. I’ve meant to write about this topic for months so now seems like a good time to get into it. The story is more complicated than most people realise, and as I started writing I realised it was too much for a single post. I have decided to arrange the information into three posts. This post will be about the history of the policy, and what it really entails. To begin with, many couples were never restricted to one child in the first place. It is more accurate to call it a “Family Planning” policy with many rules, not just one. In my next post I’ll write about how the rules are enforced, and in my third post I’ll cover the current situation, including the latest policy change.

When the People’s Republic of China was declared in 1949 it already had the largest population on earth, although it was then only (only!!) 500 million. Although the population was growing “dangerously fast” at 1.9% Mao Zedong ignored advice that population growth must be limited. Mao started out by encouraging women to have MORE children – likening them to aircraft carriers launching fighter planes. A lovely image for pregnancy and childbirth, right? The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) condemned birth control and banned the import of contraceptives. This didn’t last long, and by the mid 1950s the government was providing contraceptives and supporting abortion.

There was some encouragement for limiting births in the early 1960s, with Birth Control Offies set up around the country. They had success in cutting the birth rate in cities, but the Cultural Revolution interrupted this work. In the mid-1970s more widespread and public campaigns were put in place. A stronger network of birth control administrations were set up, population growth targets were set, and Mao himself was identified with the movement. The recommendation was a limit of two children for urban families, and three or four for rural families. In 1979, after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, a one child limit was recommended for the first time (with exceptions for certain circumstances).

The policy was formalised in 1980, starting with an expectation that all CCP members would limit themselves to a single child. The original policy was intended to be a short-term emergency measure, to be in place for around 20-30 years.  The Chinese government estimates that the policy has prevented 400 million births since its introduction (conservative figures by dissenting demographers still agree to a reduction of 100 million). China’s population has still increased by 350 million in that time. The goal was to limit the total population to 1.2 billion by 2000; the actual population in 2000 reported to be 1.263 billion – pretty close.

少生优生,幸福一生: a rural poster with a common slogan, meaning

少生优生,幸福一生: a billboard with a common slogan, meaning “Fewer births, healthier births, a happy life. “

Part of the policy was a requirement that couples apply for permission to have a child. This rule was revised in 2002 so couples now need not apply for permission for their first child. They must still receive permission before having a second child; an unauthorised child is illegal. Single women are not permitted to have a child. The legal age of marriage is 20 for women, 22 for men – so teenage pregnancy is illegal. Accidental pregnancies usually result in an abortion. Extra children are very much looked down upon among Communist Party members (about 10% of adults) who are expected to set a good example by obeying the law completely.

The Family Planning policies have never been a blanket “one child” allotment. The strict “one child” only ever applied to urban families. I’ve written about the hukou system before, and I mentioned that there are different rules based on whether one is registered as “rural” or “urban”. One of these differences is that a rural registered family is permitted to have a second child should their first be a girl. Fines will be required for any child after that (so the second after a boy, or the third otherwise).

A similar rule applies to anyone from an ethnic minority – more than 50 people groups who make up less than 10% of the total Chinese population. According to a policy put together in 1986, members of these people groups are allowed two children, or three in special circumstances. People groups with very small populations are not limited, and the rule is apparently very relaxed for ethnic Tibetans.

There are other exceptions, too – even for city families. Multiple births (twins, triplets) are considered as a single birth, and therefore are not penalised. (There are suggestions that some couples are turning to fertility treatments to induce a multiple birth.) If a child is born with a disability, the couple can apply for permission to have an extra child. After the devastating Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, families who lost their only child were granted permission to have another child. A child without Chinese citizenship (a child born overseas, or one parent is foreign and can give their citizenship to the child) is not counted in the quota for a couple. (This leads to “birth tourism” where Chinese women go overseas to give birth.) Chinese citizens returning from overseas are also permitted a second child – to encourage them to return. Although Hong Kong and Macau are technically part of China, they are governed differently – family planning policies do not apply there. Then there are a range of oddly specific exemptions that apply only in particular places.

All up, the “one child” part of China’s Family Planning policies have only ever applied to about 35% of the population (ethnic Han people with urban hukou). The “planning” part, and its enforcement, however, is a different story – one I’ll tell in my next post.


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