China, History, Politics, Top Stories, World Affairs

A Brief History of China’s One-Child Policy

Liu Fang once had the job of policing the women in her village. She made sure that none of them gave birth to a second child unless their first had been either female or disabled. Whenever she found an unauthorised pregnancy, she would urge the woman to abort. Today, however, Liu Fang’s job has transformed itself. Now she encourages local couples to have a second child as a matter of national urgency. The orders from her superiors in the Chinese Communist Party are very clear on this. In a dizzying volte-face, the world’s most murderously anti-natalist regime has become its most pleadingly pro-natalist.

The Party launched its one-child policy in 1980, at a time when misplaced Malthusian fears could be found far beyond China’s borders. India’s government was experimenting with a forced sterilisation programme, the authorities in Singapore were running a campaign telling citizens to “Stop at Two,” and in South Korea they were insisting that “Two’s Too Much.”1 “The battle to feed humanity is over,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968. “By 1980 the United States [will] see its life expectancy drop to 42… England will not exist in the year 2000.” Ehrlich and his many co-pessimists around the world had made the mistake of believing that human beings are no different than a herd of deer when it comes to reproduction (as the science writer Ronald Bailey put it). They had forgotten about human ingenuity. Poverty rates plummeted while population rates soared over subsequent decades, and the various doom-laden prophecies did not come to pass. But there was a time when the pessimists had the ear of government, and this included the Chinese Communist Party.

The CCP went much further than anyone else, of course, due in part to China’s unique circumstances. Mao Zedong had spent decades encouraging Chinese families to have as many children as they could—eight, nine, 10 per household. He hoped to make the nation’s army the strongest in the world, and for that he needed as large a pool of young men as possible. But by 1980 Mao lay dead and embalmed in a mausoleum on Tiananmen Square, and China had come to the end of its disastrous 30-year experiment with communism. Now prosperity seemed the only way to restore the government’s ailing reputation. As Party leader Deng Xiaoping saw it, he needed to limit population growth in order to speed economic growth.

Ironically, the aims of the one-child policy had already been achieved before the policy was even introduced. China’s authorities had been running a campaign throughout the 1970s entitled “Later, Longer, Fewer,” encouraging couples to marry late, leave a gap of several years in between each birth, and have fewer children overall. This campaign was a success. The number of births per woman dropped from 5.7 in 1970 to 2.6 in 1980—a reduction far steeper than anything the one-child policy would manage over the following decades.

It was not enough for Deng. He wanted to achieve growth on a scale unlike anything the world had ever seen, and so the decision was made to transform a productive propaganda campaign into an iron law replete with draconian punishments. The state became “the silent, malevolent third participant in every act of love,” in the writer Ma Jian’s lyrical image. Many families were simply fined, but over the next 30 years the authorities also carried out the large-scale slaughter of second children. Foetuses were dispatched with injections to the head; babies already born had their necks wrung or were simply drowned by a nurse.2 Parents in violation of the policy were sometimes beaten and imprisoned,3 and they usually lost their jobs. By the 1990s, the propaganda had reached Maoist levels of hysteria. Dissident Chen Guangcheng remembers the slogans on government banners in his village: “Better a river of blood than one more person,” read some. Others implied that it was never too late to get rid of that shameful second child: “If you need a bottle of poison, we’ll give it to you; if you need a rope, we can supply it.”4

In the midst of this catalogue of atrocity, a number of amendments and exceptions were introduced, and over time the one-child policy slowly morphed into more of a 1.5-child policy.5 A second birth became possible for coal miners; for ethnic Tibetans; for those able to afford the fine. Then there were the families who simply managed to fool the authorities. I know someone who spent the first few years of her life hiding in an upstairs cupboard on her parents’ orders whenever the neighbours knocked at the door. Only when she reached a certain age was it decided that her existence could be revealed without fear of repercussion.

Ma Jian even discovered a subculture of family-planning fugitives who hid from the authorities in barges on the Yangtze river. He found that “most of the families had three or four daughters born ‘out of quota.’ They live abnormal lives on the margins of an even more abnormal society, picking up menial jobs in the river towns, raising ducks, scavenging refuse sites, hoping to produce a longed-for son who will carry on the family name; all the while nervously scanning the banks, ready, at the first sight of a police van or family-planning squad, to pull anchor and set sail.” But despite cases like these, an estimated 336 million abortions were performed during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Many of them were forced. 196 million women were sterilised during this period, and 403 million intrauterine devices were fitted—again, frequently by force.

Three decades of life in this strange, vaguely Herodian environment may have done odd things to the national psyche. It turns out that growing up as the solitary hope of two members of China’s nouveaux riches brings mixed blessings. The chances of surviving childhood, getting enough nutrition, and completing higher education are the best they have ever been, but the chances are also good that the child will be thoroughly spoiled from an early age. Each child now stands to inherit the wealth of four grandparents in addition to two parents, but each child is also expected to shoulder the burden of taking care of the same six elders in later years.

Indeed, the great benefits of the so-called “Little Emperor” generation come shackled to considerable pressures. Today’s Chinese teenagers still have to face the thousand-year tradition of the National College Entrance Exams, or gaokao—described by journalist Mei Fong as “the most searing, soul-destroying experience.”6 Their future life depends almost entirely on their gaokao result (or at least that is what they are led to believe). Worse, they lack siblings who could have absorbed some of the psychic load pouring from their parents’ expectations. For two years these students work 12-hour school days and spend their evenings cramming. They sleep four- to six-hour nights. Recreation is impossible.

Thousands of miles away, of course, their Western counterparts are going to parties, playing football, and embarking on first dates. These years may represent a crucial stage of social development—a stage denied to the one-child generation. The evidence does not suggest that this peculiar mix of entitlement and duress has been character-building. Experiments have shown the Little Emperor generation to be less generous, less trusting, and less honest than their predecessors born in the 1970s, and more paranoid, pessimistic, and risk-averse.7

Of most concern to Chinese society is the tendency towards childish behaviour. There has been a great deal of embarrassment and public hand-wringing over the problem—see, for instance, psychologist Wu Zhihong’s bestselling book Nation of Giant Infants.8 Social policy analyst Helen Gao listed some of the behaviour patterns of her peers for the New York Times: the hysterical screaming at a partner in public; the casual littering in the middle of the street; the chronic co-dependency in romantic relationships. I’ve seen all of these many times myself, and more. The student in a restaurant who responds to a quarrel over the phone by simply running home, leaving behind bank cards, cash, and phone, apparently on the assumption that someone (a butler, perhaps?) will automatically collect her belongings and bring them to her. The young woman who vents her fury on social media after receiving romantic overtures from an unworthy suitor: “A poor boy!”

On occasion, these incidents have gone so far as to cause a diplomatic row. When a Chinese family turned up one day early at a Swedish hostel in 2018, they simply expected to be allowed to stay anyway. The family refused to leave when asked, and video footage has captured their dramatic reaction to being removed from the premises by security. “This is killing, this is killing,” one young man screams. Later he can be seen lying in the road and repeatedly wailing for help, surrounded by confused-looking policemen. The Dalai Lama had visited Sweden only a week previously, and so the Chinese authorities seized their chance for retaliation and condemned the family’s eviction as “brutal.”

In a strange development for such an ostensibly communitarian society—a society forged by the twin collectivist ideologies of Confucianism and Communism—China is beginning to see the growth of a mutant strain of individualism. This is not something that manifests itself in the world of politics, of course, but it does make itself known elsewhere. The nation’s sports teams are consistent underperformers, and this may be due to something sports insiders call the “Big Ball, Small Ball” theory. Chinese athletes excel at “Small Ball” competitions that require high levels of precision and mechanisation. Hobbled, however, by the selfishness and paranoia endemic to the one-child generation, they cannot engage effectively in teamwork, and so they usually fail at “Big Ball” sports.9

Other side-effects of the policy have been darker. In a society where the continuation of the family line is still all-important, politics and culture have clashed horribly. By decreeing that couples would have only one shot at securing their legacy, the Party created the perfect conditions for a rise in sex-selective abortion and female infanticide. “A daughter is like spilled water,” as the old Chinese proverb has it.10 In an environment that actively encourages abortion, it has not been difficult for desperate mothers to try their luck over and over again, spilling the proverbial water until a son appears. Prior to the policy, life expectancy in China was actually higher for females than for males. But after 1980, the trend reversed. Some provinces now have 38 percent more males than females,11 and across the whole of China, 119 boys are born for every 100 girls.

As a result, the country has about 40 million surplus men. There are more lonely bachelors in China than there are people in the whole of Canada.12 This may herald another looming disaster for the Communist Party—a nation-sized and ever-growing group of angry young men would represent a potential liability for any government. (The last dynasty faced two rebellions during periods of unusual male surplus.)13 But it is already a disaster for the citizens of neighbouring countries. Those 40 million men are desperate to find brides, and so, with crushing inevitability, women have been lured across the border from Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and North Korea. First they are promised well-paid employment, and then they are sold to Chinese families. These women are often the impoverished members of ethnic and religious minorities, and sometimes they are the victims of persecution in their homelands. They have little recourse to the law.

The policy has also created a generation of ghosts: a sub-society of children who have been forced off the grid because they do not officially exist. There is no such thing as a single parent in China—at least not according to the Party’s puritanical legal code. The “Marriage Law” does promise equal rights for any children born out of wedlock, but as with Chinese law in general, this is largely for show. In practice, cases are simply left to the discretion of local authorities, some of whom will deny schooling and healthcare to the unrecognised offspring of unrecognised parents. “Illegitimate” children do not qualify for the hukou, China’s household registration system, and without this it becomes difficult to travel on trains and planes.

The same fate can await the second children of two-parent families. In 2008, Mei Fong met Li Xue, a 15-year-old girl who lived as a non-entity because her parents couldn’t pay the fine for her birth. Every day in the build-up to the Olympics, Li Xue would stand in Tiananmen Square with a sign that read “I want to go to school!” Within minutes the police would arrive to bundle her away, but she would always be back again the following day. Officers began turning up at her house in the mornings and then frantically chasing her through the streets as she sped to Tiananmen on her mother’s motorcycle.14

By the early 2000s, a small group of Chinese demographers was able to submit findings to the central authorities demonstrating that the policy was not working. The workforce was shrinking, and fertility rates had already sunk below replacement level. Couples living in certain areas of the country had sometimes been permitted to have two children if one of the parents had no siblings of their own, and the demographers found that in such cases the parents still tended to settle for just one child. Clearly, relaxing the law was not going to result in a Malthusian birth explosion.15 The Party’s leaders were urged to scrap the policy, but they ignored these warnings.

There are various possible reasons for this. One is power—no doubt Beijing was reluctant to release its grip on such a potent tool of social control. Another is money—the policy was generating at least $3 billion per year in fines for violations, and officials were pocketing the fees. There may be other less obvious reasons. The Communist Party occasionally dabbles in the occult art of eugenics—see, for instance, the “Regulation on Prohibiting Reproduction of the Dull-witted, Idiots, or Blockheads,” introduced by the authorities of Gansu province in 1988. Residents unfortunate enough to be dull-witted or block-headed were forced to undergo sterilisation before getting married.16 A decade later, Beijing passed the short-lived National Maternal and Infant Health Law, forbidding reproduction for anyone suffering “genetic diseases of a serious nature”17 (this included seizures). The one-child policy and its system of mandatory sterilisations may have provided a cloak for Huxleyan experimentation.

We should also consider the chronic conservatism that has hamstrung China’s authorities for centuries—a problem that long predates Marxism and the rise of Mao. Once the policy had been established, there was great reluctance to change it. Finally, of course, there is pride. The Chinese Communist Party is not in the habit of admitting its mistakes. From the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989; from the SARS crisis of 2003 to today’s world-crippling pandemic, the Party has never acknowledged any wrongdoing, and it has never apologised.

But even the heady combination of power, money, inflexibility, pride, and the hope of a master race would not be enough to keep Beijing complacent when the results of the 2010 census came in. The light dawned on China’s leaders, and at long last they saw clearly what they had been building in the dark—history’s biggest demographic timebomb. Over the next 30 years, China is set to lose 200 million workers, and in the same period it will gain 300 million senior citizens. The economic miracle of the past few decades—already slowing down—is about to grind to a screeching halt. By mid-century, 39 percent of the country’s population will be over 60, placing an intolerable strain on state services. Fertility rates are actually falling all over the world—the great global “baby bust”—but the crisis has been heightened in China by the fallout from the one-child policy.

The CCP is now scrambling to avert disaster. A two-child policy was rolled out in 2015, maternity leave was extended for a significant period in most provinces, and some hospitals began offering to completely cover the cost of childbirth. An avalanche of propaganda urged couples to “have children for the country.” Women who remained unmarried and childless in their late 20s were derided as shengnu, or “leftovers.” But the Party has been fighting a losing battle. Throughout the world, the combination of rising education standards with a developing economy has tended to push back the average age for childbirth and marriage, making larger families less likely. In China the likelihood is reduced still further, as most parents struggle with the cost of raising a single child in the world’s most crowded hyper-competitive environment. For these families, the prospect of a second child is one they would rather not consider.

Beijing expected a baby boom, and it never came. In fact, 2019 saw the lowest birthrate since the 1940s, before the Communists took power. It is some irony that it took the removal of the one-child policy for the birthrate to sink this low. Perhaps there is a lesson here for China’s leaders about the relationship between human behaviour and coercion, were they willing to listen. Unfortunately, there is a real danger that they will now simply repeat their mistake, and attempt to raise the rate by force. We can see the line of thinking. Having already proved that they can successfully control the breeding patterns of one-fifth of the world’s population, why should they not continue along the same path, ordering couples to have a mandatory minimum of two children?

This will be a much tougher job. Ordering people to kill a foetus with an injection is one thing; ordering them to bring a healthy baby into the world is quite another. And even if the two-child policy were to achieve its goals, demographers suggest that the long-term effect would be negligible. China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission projected 20 million extra births per year after the new policy was introduced, but this figure would still only boost the fertility rate to 1.8. The rate required to keep the population stable is 2.1.

The Communist Party had supreme confidence in its one-child policy, as indicated when two of the policy’s architects published a book in the late 1980s giving full voice to their rapture: “Since human beings appeared in the world millions of years ago, they have been battling with nature. Now they have finally conquered it by their wisdom and social strength.”18 This starry-eyed conviction immediately evoked for me a passage in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon, in which the old Bolshevik Rubashov recalls the certainty of his younger days: “We worked in the amorphous raw material of history itself… What did the others know of history? Passing ripples, little eddies and breaking waves. They wondered at the changing forms of the surface and could not explain them. But we had descended into the depths… We knew more than ever men have known about mankind.”19

Humans have spent thousands of years struggling with nature, and many of our greatest achievements have come about as a result of this struggle. But it would be a mistake to imagine that we have “finally conquered it by [our] wisdom and social strength.” As Francis Bacon realised 400 years ago at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”20 The struggle is a painstaking process. We slowly unlock the secret laws that tell us how the world works and how humans work, and then we do our best to manipulate them to our advantage. It is a process that never ends, and without wishing to sound like too much of a hippie, it is one that requires a degree of respect for nature. The leaders of the Communist Party have never understood this. They still think we are fighting an enemy that must be crushed completely.

In their arrogance, they may have sabotaged their chance at world hegemony. The CCP dreams of a rejuvenated nation that will lead the world by mid-century. But by mid-century China will be gasping under the weight of its grey-haired populace, and there will no longer be enough workers to provide the necessary momentum for rejuvenation. Brideless men will leave if they can; those that remain will be ripe for revolution. The dream is about to become a nightmare.


Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield and currently working on a book about the nation-state system, cultural universals, and global governance. He regularly contributes to and you can follow him on Twitter @aaron_sarin.


1 Mei Fong – One Child: Life, Love, and Parenthood in Modern China (Oneworld Publications, London, 2017 edition, orig. 2016), p50
2 Chen Guangcheng – The Barefoot Lawyer: The Remarkable Memoir of China’s Bravest Political Activist (Macmillan, London, 2015), p161
3 Ibid., pp. 167–8
4 Ibid., p160
5 Fong, op. cit., p6
6 Ibid., p100
7 Ibid., p91
8 Wu Zhihong – Nation of Giant Infants (Zhejiang People’s Publishing House, 2016)
9 Fong, op. cit., p35
10 Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (Penguin, London, 2011), p508. Pinker cites L. S. Milner – Hardness of Heart / Hardness of Life: The Stain of Human Infanticide (University Press of America, New York, 2000), p130
11 Fong, op. cit., p114. Fong cites Yi Zhang, population researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
12 Ibid., p109
13 Ibid., p114
14 Ibid., pp. 11–2
15 Ibid., p59
16 Ren-Zong Qiu (ed.) – Bioethics: Asian Perspectives – A Quest for Moral Diversity (Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, 2003), p190
17 Fong, op. cit., p207
18 Ibid., p55
19 Arthur Koestler – Darkness at Noon (1940)
20 Francis Bacon – Novum Organum Scientiarum (1620), Book I Aphorism III

Photo by 东旭 王 on Unsplash