Oct 01

Reflections on China’s One-Child Policy

Written by berlinf on Friday, October 1st, 2010 at 8:49 pm
Filed under:General |
Add comments

The following reflections were based on an interview with a student on Chinese perspectives on the “one-child” policy:

If China is leaving the “world factory” model, economy is not necessarily the only driver of this change. There are other factors at play, for instance, the family planning policy.

Recently I called my youngest sister, who worked in Kunshan, a prosperous industrial city near Shanghai, and we chatted about the job situation there. She said factory jobs are easy to get these days. I asked why that is the case. She said most potential workers are single children in the family. “If you were their parents, wouldn’t you want your only child to go to college and get a better job?”

I guess I would.

At the same time, there is a shortage of jobs for recent college graduates. In a meeting with college students in 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao made job creation for young college graduates a national priority, as having a job is a way to give a young person “dignity”. Job scarcity can also threaten social stability which the current Chinese administration try hard to maintain. Indeed, as shown in many regions in the world, it is a recipe for disaster to have too many young people and too few opportunities.

The lack of workers for factories, and the lack of jobs for college graduates, though seemingly unrelated, are actually both direct results of decades of the “family planning” policy. It is probably made worse by a tendency to adopt the US model of economic development that emphasizes knowledge sector jobs rather than industrial jobs. (John Taylor Gatto said in Weapons of Mass Instruction that people used to make steel, now they make bubbles, Internet bubbles, financial bubbles, to name a few.)

This year, quite a number of scholars in China are urging a revision or even revocation of the “one-child” policy. The start of this policy was fundamentally a mistake used to correct another mistake, a U-turn from a rock towards a ditch. Before the policy was instituted, there was a time when it was a virtue and contribution to the country to have many children. Chairman Mao said that “the larger the population, the greater the strength”, therefore he largely encouraged families to have more children, though there were times when he had second thoughts about the issue. Mao persecuted Professor Ma Yanchu, a prominent sociologist and Beijing University President who advocated population control. Ma left his position, burned his manuscripts, and disappeared from public attention.

Is China’s population control a total mistake? The problem is so complex that it defies criticism from a single perspective. First of all, “family planning” is not a Chinese invention, and it is a pretty good theory. In other countries, one would also need to prepare for the number of children to have, and the social, economical, psychological and even physical arrangements to make so that it is possible to raise your children in a fairly decent environment. However, a “one-child policy” is an extreme to go to.

It is not difficult to understand why there is population issue. Currently, China has 1.4 billion people in a land similar in size to the United States, which has 300 million people. Though this presents many opportunities, it also has a huge pressure on the country. Such pressure can be easily felt if you hop on to a bus in Beijing, or a subway train in Shanghai, if you can get on at all.

There is little people can do to reduce the pressure. Though we often have the illusion that there is a global village, migration in a “flat world” is not as easy as a few best-selling authors claim. Basically this means that the land of China will have to support its own population no matter how large it is. Legend has it that a western politician once criticized China’s population policy in front of Deng Xiaoping, then leader of China, Deng retorted by asking if he is willing to accept ten million Chinese as immigrants. That hushed the politician. As a matter of fact, if anybody has an issue remembering which countries have the largest population, and why this is a problem, simply check United States immigration services’ monthly visa bulletin, and there you will see India and China often being the only countries with a backlog in the bewildering quota system that govern USCIS decisions. Few countries would like to fully open its doors to the Chinese.

The overpopulation issue, however, should never justify the one-child policy as an intervention. In the name of family planning, atrocities such as forced abortion and sterilization were common. If anyone holding public office has more than one child, he or she may immediately lose the job, and receive a huge fine that are often several times a person’s annual salary. The fine is often called “social care-taking fee”, though a child may growing up knowing no other caretaker than his or her parents, instead of an abstract “society”.

After 30 years of the family planning policy, what would happen if the policy is abolished? Would people have more children than one? In present-day China, many young people, especially those born in the 80s, call themselves “apartment slaves”, “child slaves” to describe the heavy pressure they have to shoulder. After talking with friends and classmates back home, I realized that many people wouldn’t want to have more than one child even if they are allowed to. As a matter of fact, there is quite a bit of flexibility about this policy and people can often make exceptions for themselves especially in recent years when the public is casting doubts about family planning as a basic national policy. For instance, in rural China, it is possible to have another child if the firstborn is not a son. Also, in the cities, if both parents are single children in their respective families, they are allowed to have a second child. However, many choose not to take advantage of this “privilege.” It is getting prohibitively expensive to raise a child. I guess we’ve got a giant panda situation here. Sooner or later there will be a “tipping point” when the population will decrease and increasing it would be a tough challenge.

Elsewhere in the world, there are similar reservations among Chinese for having more children. I recently read a book (The Population Crash) that says Chinese women on average have far less children than other peoples. In Singapore, where there isn’t a one-child policy, Chinese women on average have 1.1 children, much less than other peoples in Singapore. In the Chinese communities in the US, having two children were common, but parents having more than three children will often wow a fellow Chinese. I do not know how to understand this phenomenon except a wild guess at the collective sub-consciousness of us Chinese from years of propaganda all over the world that having more Chinese increases the burden on the planet, even though generally most Chinese are hard-working, self-reliant, and rarely depending on the social welfare systems.

At this point, the policy will indeed need to be revisited. Economically, an aging population is not going to do China much good in the long run. China may seem prosperous, but not many people are taking the GDP growth seriously any more, unless the national wealth can be fairly distributed through equal access to opportunities for the country’s 1.4 billion people. Compared to the powerful few, most people are still living in relative poverty. The nation risks “getting old before it gets rich”, as a popular saying goes nowadays. Economically, the lack of younger people for factory jobs is forcing China to re-consider its “world factory” model of development. Only a few years ago, cheap labor is everywhere. As single children become the main pool of the labor force, it is easier to find someone to make the next bubbles.

Socially, when generations of single children grow up, they will be forced to live in a 4-2-1 family structure (four grandparents, parents and the child). If the social welfare system does not upgrade to accommodate such changes, it is going to cause huge stress for the child to support all the parents and the grandparents. Traditionally many Chinese parents were supported by their children. That’s simply not sustainable any more.

The lack of siblings of course conveniently rid the society of sibling rivalry issues that drive parents crazy (Remember “It’s not fair”! “He started it.” “Why me?”…. ), but that may be as much a curse as it is a blessing. Kids may grow up not knowing how to resolve conflicts, solve problems in spite of differences, and build relations with a fellow human being of his or her similar age. That’s not doing future marriages much favor.

The silver lining of that cloud is that this generation of single children are more assertive and more confident than their parents’ generation. After all, these little “princes and princesses” do not grow up having to make compromises.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

11 Responses to “Reflections on China’s One-Child Policy”

  1. No99 Says:

    Actually, most people in the world, especially if the society is more wealthy, educated and affluent, do not want to have more than one child or any at all. Partially due to expenses, and partially due to what many young adults perceived to be lost of freedom, i.e. limitations on their range of activities. Often, the families that have many children usually belong in two categories, one, they are encourage by religious/traditional values to have more offspring, or two, they may feel on the practical level a sense of balance and security if a child has siblings. A lot of single kids know that feeling and want more children, and there are many who don’t want any. It’s hard to generalize.

    I think one advantage we have now that previous generations didn’t have is more opportunity to go to different places. There’s quite a lot of Chinese babies being born in foreign countries, not just the developed nations. They’re also coming in pairs or threes, in other words, many have siblings. The numbers are slightly increasing in this way.

    It’s really hard to say what’s going to happen in the future. Maybe in a couple of decades, the world would change and progress so much that any country can support a decent lifestyle whether the population is high or low. Or maybe it won’t happen. Any scenario is possible.

    We can only guess what might or could happen, with the knowledge we have today. Sometimes, they never came true. Just remember that knowledge at times is relative. If you ask any random person in the 50s that China “will” rise, he/she probably would laugh at you. If you ask another random person in the 70s that the US can’t afford many expenditures, he/she might think you’re crazy. Some people are still laughing but it’s slowly dying down.

  2. pug_ster Says:

    I do think China is at a point where it can relax its one child policy to a two child policy. Think about other Asian countries like Japan’s population is actually decreasing and is going on the decline partly because of its aging population. Other countries like Taiwan and South Korea are going to have the same problem as Japan in the next decade or 2. I don’t know why China didn’t do this but perhaps that they think the population in China should decrease to 1 billion or something.

    I also think another problem in China is not the lack of workforce but the selectivity of the workforce. A typical factory worker who manufacturers our cell phone and gadgets are typically 17-25 year old, and usually female. Unfortunately, that’s just a small size of China’s population. Until a few years ago, China exporters thought that migrant workers are an endless supply so the workers are there to accommodate the factories. With the recent events of worker strikes and worker shortage, it is no longer true that China’s young work force are infinite. So the factories are accommodate by popping up near where migrant workers are. I would not be surprised in a few year’s time that many factories have to be more flexible to accommodate older workers age 30+ and more male workers. That’s when China will see itself at the beginning of the post-industrial age

  3. berlinf Says:

    Ideally, deciding how many children to have should be a personal choice (in the true sense of “family planning”), but allowing two children would not be bad at this point, given the size of the population. In any case, officials at various levels should abolish various measures to force abortions. Instead, the focus should be on educating people on parenting duties, and providing easier access to contraceptives if population control is still desirable. But I think Pug_ster is right, the population is already going down in many areas. This also has a lot to do with people’s perception of inter-generational duties. In the old days, one of the reasons people give birth to more children is to prepare for old age as family, rather than a social welfare system, take care of old people’s needs. More and more people are seeing that as not practical those days.

  4. silentchinese Says:

    Hi, first time posting, has been a reader for a while.

    couple of comments on this one child policy.

    since most of world is going to somesort of welfare state, where education, healthcare, infrastructure is supported by community at large via taxes. once again this boils down to, the basic problem of welfare of a community vs individual choice. and the free choice of a person does not necessarily better for the whole of community.

    clearly the world is going through a stage where the community is resource challenged… there is no infinite amounts of resources to support infinite of children. but sentimentality requires that we do not limit the choice.

    my proposal is:
    1) establish the replacement rate of 2 children per-house-hold.
    2) any family having more children than that should have their marginal income tax raised progressively. let’s call it, social infrastructure tax.
    3) make contraceptives freely availble.

    I for one, do not fear the old-before-rich scenario. the key is productivity. if the per-capita productivity in china is consistently and healthily rising (and they are) AND took care that the government is parsimonious to the point that it will provide the bare minimums to contain the cost, then there is no fear that a state can not find enough resources to finance the retirement and health cares for the coming retiring boomers.
    the retiring chinese boomers today are not just sitting at home and doing nothing, many of the more capable ones are going on to their second jobs, often they own their own business…… the gut wrenching SOE reforms in the 90s ensured that many of them a quite “mobile”.

  5. Berlin Says:

    SilentChinese, I agree with you on the proposal, especially 1 and 3. I am not sure how the tax increase would work though, because China does not have tax file/return cycle as the US does. Most people’s tax is deducted from their income directly and there isn’t a season to file for such finer adjustments. But of course, this is just a technical detail. There should be a way to resolve it.

  6. silentchinese Says:


    on taxes.

    it is true that income tax in china is not a big part of tax revenue.
    to make it as complicated as US will be a travesty.

    what one can do is to add number of children and their income deduction.

    again, keep income tax minimum and simple.

    baseline is no children = baseline rate
    1 child = baseline rate – 1*discount rate.
    2 child = baseline rate – 2*discount rate.
    2+n child = baseline rate + n*discount rate.

    discount rate being positive.

    tax becomes a social engineering tool, as it is in US.

  7. cephaloless Says:

    Going off the deep end on population reduction techniques: promote homosexuality 😛
    (pardon me if I offend anyone)

    The one-child policy always seemed like a bad policy to fix a perceived problem, and in implementation led to other badness. Even that perceived problem sounds more and more like a poor excuse for an inept government to stay in power (1.3 billion people is so hard to govern yet we won’t allow any decentralization of power) but that’s a whole different topic.

    While the policy has been changing (only childs get to have two kids and probably other things I’ve never heard of), it really needs to be revoked before dire consequences result. First, I read somewhere it was promoted with a 30-year limit which pass recently with no sign of the end of the policy. Wish I could find a reference to that but *hand wave* that’ll be left as an exercise for the reader. Second, modernized countries around the world (usa, most of europe, japan and taiwan, etc) now have seriously low birth rates. Taking into account the chinese-ish cultural background of japan and taiwan, china will most likely experience the same phenomenon. With the way problems seems to exaggerate in scope and progression in the PRC, it’s anyone’s guess when and what will happen.

  8. cephaloless Says:

    Found the reference:

  9. Varun Says:

    Personally i think this Population Ageing of China issue is overblown.

    There is no model to suggest that it will actually happen, its only being extrapolated from population sizes which are 1/10 the size of China.

    And it suggest there will be 200+ million older people, and Only 700-800 million workers, In percentage terms this gives rise to the Ageing problem argument,
    but It has never been tested, 700 million workers 40 years from now, just imagine
    They will be producing more wealth and be more efficient relative to today.

    Besides China did the world a favor by sacrificing 400 million people from ever being born, its not a small thing, its pretty fucking big deal.

    They can always revoke the policy as well and with proper incentives population can be back on track within 1-2 decades at most.

    Also 1 major reason USA doesn’t suffer much from this Ageing issue is immigration of workers,
    China 40 years from now will be hugely developed it will have influx of immigration workers as well, from all voer the world,
    South-Asia & Asia pacific already has half a billion population, CHina will have the wealth opportunities it will have million of foreigners working.

    Bottom-line: This whole thing about China getting into Ageing problems decades from now is overblown.

  10. Star 022 ~ Says:

    I think that china’s one child policy is a really good thing.

    people say that the population is becoming older.

    this is true

    yet i think that when that older generation die,

    china should raise the limit to two children/births per woman


  1. interesting links | Sinocentric

Leave a Reply

301 Moved Permanently

Moved Permanently

The document has moved here.