Understanding China’s Child Policies Throughout The Decades

China announced in May 2021 that it would allow couples to have three children – up from one and later two – in efforts to reverse declining birthrates and demographic anxieties. This is difficult, however, for couples who are concerned with the increasing cost of living in China.

With China announcing at the end of May 2021 that it would allow all married couples to have three children, ending a two-child policy and previously one-child policy, looking back to when and why the strict protocol was first implemented shows that China’s demographics have shifted in critical ways throughout the decades.

In the 1970s, many countries around the world grewthus worried about population growth. China, with a combination of a powerful government along with a particularly large population, took an extreme approach to help mediate the problem.

child policies
Hong Kong. Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

One-Child Policy

After years of unrest in the 1930s and 40s, medical care and sanitation seemingly improved thus China’s population spiked. At the time, this was seen as an economic boom for a country which was slowly transforming into an industrial nation from an agricultural one. By the 1950s, population growth began outpacing food supply, hence the Chinese government started implementing and promoting various birth control methods. This was followed by Mao Zedong’s, (founder of the People’s Republic of China) Great Leap Forward plan in 1958, which was organized to rapidly modernize China’s economy. A catastrophic famine ensued, meanwhile in its wake, the government continued to promote family planning, including: using birth control, and postponing having children.

China initially ran a successful birth control campaign with the slogan “Late, Long and Few” which cut the population growth by almost half between 1970 and 1976, but as the 70s came to an end, the nation was still facing extreme food shortages and a national fear that the country would repeat the famine which killed some 30 million people by 1962.

Introduced in 1979, Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping implemented one-child policy, which required couples from China’s ethnic Han majority to limit themselves to only having one child. Officialized in 1980 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the goal of the policy was to ensure that the growing population did not outpace economic development and to further ease environmental and natural resource scarcity and imbalances caused by a rapidly expanding population.

The goal of the policy was to bring the nation’s total population below 1.2 billion at the end of the 20th century. To enforce the law, the Chinese government was given authority to fine couples for having more than one child without a state-issued permit. The law also incentivized single-child homes by offering longer maternity leave amongst other benefits to compliant families.

This policy was highly controversial and was criticized around the world for the state’s forced abortions and sterilizations of women. In many instances, it has been reported that the Chinese government forced women to get IUDs and other forms of birth control to lower the rate of overpopulation.

A family with a child born during the one-child policy was required to apply for a family planning certificate. Due to the Chinese Communist Party’s wide reach, they enforced the policy through a kind of “neighborhood watch,” where neighbors were encouraged to spy on each other, reporting on structure in communities and any suspicions for a monetary reward, thus participating in government-sanctioned blackmail.

With this being said, the implementation of the one-child policy also largely varied based on location, specifically between rural and urban areas. A majority of urban workers in China worked for government-affiliated jobs, so authorities imposed peer pressures from coworkers to report superfluous pregnancies. In rural areas, however, the village’s family planning official leaders would keep track of all of the families in the area.

The one-child policy was relaxed in the mid-1980s, with the government allowing couples to have a second child if each parent were both only children. Exceptions included couples living in rural areas and ethnic minorities with a small population. By 2013, as part of social, economic, and legal reforms; the Chinese government further amended the one-child policy to allow couples to have a second child. Instead of both parents needing to be only children themselves, the rules were moderated to only one parent needing to be an only child.

The impact of this policy change was not as groundbreaking as many had thought, as only an estimated 800,000 couples, according to China’s government-run National Health and Family Planning Commission, applied to have a second child that following year. Although an estimated 11 million couples were eligible to apply for a second child, it is alleged that Chinese couples were hesitant to have a second child, as many of them lived in cities, where the cost of living was high enough to dissuade them.

Guizhou, China
Guizhou, China. Photo by Ajay Karpur on Unsplash

China ultimately ended its one-child policy in 2015 for demographical reasons as it realized that too many Chinese people were retiring and the nation’s population did not have enough youth entering into the labor force to provide for the nation’s retirement, healthcare, and economic growth. China passed and implemented the nation’s new policy – the second-child policy- in 2016.

Impact of China’s One-Child and Two-Child Policies

Although China’s one-child and two-child policies had been successful in lowering its birth rate according to the World Bank, there were unintended impacts, one of which being an aging population. Since the implementation of the first policy in the 60s, China’s fertility rate has continued to decline, meaning that China is faced with an older population, who rely on the youth and their own children to support them when they can no longer work. This has resulted in a shrinking workforce, where the number of workers entering China’s overall labor force has been declining rapidly, a trend that is only expected to accelerate. In 2018, China’s labor force fell to 897.29 million, falling by 0.5% in the seventh straight year of decline, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

One of the more prominent side effects is also the unintended gender imbalance. This is due to the cultural preference for male offspring. Many families opted to abort female fetuses in preference for males, and in 2019, the gender ratio in China was 114 males for every 100 females born, making China the most-gender imbalanced country in the world for its sex ratio at birth.

Jiangsu, China
Jiangsu, China. Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

2021, China Announces 3-Child Policy

China has recently announced that it will now allow couples to have up to three children after data has shown a steep decline in birth rates. Replacing the two-child policy, which failed to lead to a sustained increase in births, the latest policy was approved by President Xi Jinping amongst other Communist Party officials. This announcement acknowledges that the labor pool is shrinking and the population is rapidly declining, threatening strategies that China has utilized for decades to emerge as an economic powerhouse.

This new policy will come with “supportive measures” to improve the country’s population structure and to incentivize couples who have been deterred to have more children, as the cost of raising children and providing for families in the cities is extremely expensive. For many couples, however, “supportive measures” do little to assuage their anxiety about the cost of living in China, especially education for the youth.

The announcement still presents an issue between individual reproductive rights and the government’s limits over women’s bodies. Prominent voices within and outside of China have called on the government to rid the restrictions on births altogether, but Communist leaders continue to push for greater control over their citizens’ lives.

Lily Adami

Content Editor Associate

Having a silly and hard-working personality, Lily loves getting to know people and is passionate about human rights around the world. She is enthusiastic about other cultures, history, and international affairs. Lily has a deep appreciation for traveling, her favorite places include: Amsterdam, Amalfi Coast, and South Africa.

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