China’s One Child Policy – enforcing the rules

In my last post I wrote about the history of China’s so-called One China Policy, and why it is better known as a Family Planning policy. In this post I am going to write about how these policies are enforced, and in a final post I will address the latest news – a big change that news headlines say is the “end” of the policy.

The Chinese government uses slogans and other propaganda to convince people that family planning is a good idea – for them and for the country. Common ideology on the topic is that fewer births improves the country as a whole, and that everyone has a responsibility to build the nation by keeping the population down. (For more on that topic, Shanghaiist recently published an interesting collection of translated propaganda slogans relating to the family planning policy.) Slogans aside, however, rules are only rules if they are enforced.

There are several ways in which China’s Family Planning policies are enforced. Mostly they fall into two categories – giving (or withholding) special benefits, and fines for extra children. Couples who have a single child (and pledge to have no more) receive a “Certificate of Honor for Single-Child Parents” and are entitled to special benefits – an improved version of government services relating to healthcare, housing, school enrollment, and aged care. Government employees with only one child can get an extra month’s salary each year until the child turns 14; other special pensions are sometimes given to only child families. Couples who marry later (which in China means a woman waiting til after she is 25) are also eligible for special benefits when they have their first child, including longer maternity leave. In some places an only child gets extra marks on entrance exams, or a family can get a large interest-free loan.

The one real legal penalty associated with China’s Family Planning policy is financial fines for additional children. The amount of the fine differs from place to place, but is usually related to income. In Henan, for example, the fine equals triple the household’s net annual income; in Jiangsu it is up to four times. (China Elevator Stories records an interesting conversation of two Chinese people discussing fines and registrations.) Some instances have been reported where individuals refusing to pay the fine have had assets seized – such as the money out of their bank account, or even property. Government employees may lose their jobs, or at least lose the opportunity for future promotions.

A slogan from 2003:

A slogan from Henan in 2003: “Family planning regulations have been amended. Fines for additional children are not light. One additional child is 14,000 yuan, two additional children is 25,000 yuan”

Wealthy Chinese have been known to flaunt the policy and just cop the fine. One prominent example of multiple-birth fines is internationally acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, responsible for many well known movies (such as Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers) as well as directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. He and his wife (a lawyer) have three children, and paid a fine of 7.48 million RMB (1.7 million AUD) for the two “extra” births. It took them years to settle on the amount of the fine, and to get their two youngest children officially registered. Zhang Yimou was also required to make a public statement of apology for not respecting the policy, although he did also point to family pressure (his third child was the son Zhang’s father had wanted him to have). Overall, it is estimated that extra birth fines bring in about 20 billion yuan in revenue per year (4.5 billion AUD) and yes, that is “billion” with a “b”.

A lot of the international condemnation of China’s Family Planning policies is due to reports of harsh enforcement, with stories told of forced abortions and sterilisations, including kidnappings of pregnant women. I’ve heard these sorts of stories from several rural women. While the official policy does NOT include these sorts of provisions, local officials can be put under pressure to make sure their areas of influence comply with the policy – it may be one of the measures by which the competence of their overall work is assessed, affecting bonuses and promotions. The pressure to perform leads local officials (and those under their authority, on whom they exert influence) to resort to all sorts of horrible measures to keep down illegal births.

So what does one do with an accidental second pregnancy? In many cases, the couple does not want a second child (or can’t imagine living with the consequences) so they abort – I have had friends in this situation. In one case, a friend and her husband applied for permission to have a second child after having had an abortion; a few years later they had a legal second child, about 10 years behind their first. If a couple do not want to abort, things can get tricky.

To go ahead with an additional (unlicensed) pregnancy is to push against the weight of the National Population and Family Planning Commission – a huge organisation with over 300,000 full-time employees and a reported 80 million volunteers. To give birth in a hospital (in a country where it is illegal for medical professionals to attend a home birth) a pregnancy must be registered as either a first child or a permitted additional child. Officials responsible for registering an additional pregnancy may strongly urge that the pregnancy be terminated (even late term) especially if the couple is unable, or unwillling, to pay the required fine. Pressure may also come from one’s workplace or local community, each of which have officials who would be in trouble with their higher ups for a high rate of additional kids in their jurisdiction. This pressure was higher before the 2002 rule change which meant couples didn’t need approval for their first child (only for subsequent children); before this a system of birth quotas meant many couples were denied permission for quite some time, told to wait their turn. Any unplanned births would therefore upset many in the community who were waiting for official permission, and would be put further down the list by each unplanned birth that occurred.

Methods for encouraging adherence to the Family Planning policy are often very invasive, especially in rural areas. Many women are subject to frequent health checks to keep track of their reproductive status. In some places even menstrual cycles are monitored. Women who have a child already are strongly encourged to use an IUD to prevent future pregnancies; sterilisation is recommended when a couple has had an extra child. (Several surveys tell of women feeling they have little choice – they simply went along with whatever their local Family Planning official recommended.) Abortions are easily accessed and definitely promoted, with competition for business resulting in lots of public advertising. I have seen many billboards and posters for abortion clinics covered in flowers and smiles – like this one. Below is one that uses characters from an 80s movie. In short, the girl says she hasn’t had a period in ages, could she be pregnant again? “What should [I/we] do?” The man says “don’t worry, this afternoon we’ll go to x hospital”.


Government figures record over 335 million abortions, over 195 million sterilisations, and over 400 million IUDs implanted since 1980. There are many accusations that these procedures have been forced on rural women against their will; this is denied by the central government, and it is not official policy, but it certainly happens. In fact, in 2012 there was a high profile case in which a couple was compensated for a forced abortion of a second child.

The bottom line – China’s Family Planning policy encourages adherence through making additional children seem undesirable, economically and socially. Benefits for single child families give couples a strong motivation to avoid additional children. Contraception is readily available, as are abortion services for unplanned pregnancies. While the government does not advocate the use of methods other than persuasion (including economic consequences) to prevent unlicensed births, it has also created a system in which adherence to the policy affects the careers of officials responsible for overseeing compliance – which results in abuses of power intended to keep additional children to a minimum.


2 thoughts on “China’s One Child Policy – enforcing the rules

  1. Pingback: China’s One Child Policy – some background | Tanya's Stories

  2. Pingback: China’s One Child Policy – changes in policy and attitude | Stories From Tanya

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