China’s One child policy and its Impacts on Population and Society essay

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1.0. Introduction

1.1 Research Background

Have you ever experienced “Chunyun”? It is a period around the Chinese New Year during which people travel a lot, which in its turn leads to high traffic load as people who work or study in rural areas return to their hometown to reunite with their families on the New Year’s Eve. The period usually begins 15 days before the Lunar New Year's day and lasts for around 40 days. During this period, the number of passenger journeys exceeded the population of China hitting 2.26 billion in 2008.1 For comparison, this is equivalent to the number of rail journeys undertaken in the UK during the entire 2005-2006 year.2 It has been referred to as the largest annual human migration in the world.3

In addition, rail transport experiences numerous challenges during this period and as a result many social problems have emerged. For instance, the railway network is insufficient to handle the number of passengers and does not cover enough places. Therefore, people living in locations that are not serviced by rail rely on bus as a means of transportation, which creates challenges such as inadequate number of buses due to the large number of passengers and poor infrastructure.

Currently, China is playing a leading role in world’s economy. It is one of the oldest countries in the world and is fifth in terms of world’s population. However, it is interesting that China’s huge population and long cultural history have attracted world’s attention. A recent study has estimated that China’s population will reach 1.6 billion people in 2040 compared to 1.2 billion people in 1995. However, it is expected to be less than 1.4 billion people by 2100. These are massive demographic fluctuations affecting 20% of world’s population.4According to Gabe T Wang, the reason why the population size can change so dramatically is because of the one child policy. Wang points out that although China’s population control policy has been severely criticized by many people in the western world, this policy has received support from many leading Chinese scholars and has been effectively implemented in China ever since its enforcement in the early 70s.5

In 2007, population in China reached 1.3 billion. The birth rate was 12.1%, the death rate was 6.93%, and the natural growth rate was 5.17%. Without the implementation of important one child family control policy, the population would have been approximately 2.0 billion people.      

However, there are still some scholars who are concerned about negative consequences of this one child policy. Sten Johansson and Ola Nygren claim that the policy has been implicated in the increase in “missing” baby girls in China. This led to an imbalance of sex ratios after introduction of one child policy.6 Based on these views, the author is going to research the  effect the policy had on the population of China as well as the side effects on the society, especially the high sex ratio.

1.2 Research Significance

The one child policy has often been praised by some scholars for its contribution to population change while at the same time it was greatly criticized by some scholars for the negative sex ratio in the society. Thus the author finds it necessary to study population change before and after the introduction of the one child policy, the background of the policy, and the social effect of this policy. Therefore, the author is going to carefully analyze the impact that one child policy has on Chinese population and society in general.

1.3 Organization

To begin with, this thesis aims to study population change before the introduction of the one child policy. Also, it intends to take a closer look at the background of the one child policy, population change after introducing this policy, and its main social effect—the sex ratio that the policy brings to the society. Finally, after carefully analyzing these points, the author will draw a conclusion about this controversial policy.

Based on the main question raised above, the project paper will include the following chapters:

Chapter 1: introduces the background, goals, research significance, and organization of this paper.

Chapter 2: analyses the population change before the introduction of the one child policy.

Chapter 3: analyses the Background of the one child policy, the Population Change after the introduction of one child policy and the Sex Ratio of the society during this period.

Chapter 4: makes a conclusion and discusses both findings and potential uses of the analysis.

2. Population Change before Introducing the One Child Policy

2.1 Population Change during 1949-1957

In the period from 1949 till 1957, in a span of a decade, China went through a historic transition in population growth. When Chairman Mao set up the People’s Republic of China, there were about 541,670 Chinese. Millions of peasants lived in abject poverty and were subject to unstable political conditions. This is because China experienced a period of social and political turmoil like civil war, war with Japan, serious flooding, and famine.7

The government mainly focused on how to increase low fertility rate and reduce high mortality rate. Therefore, it designed many important policies such as policies related to redistribution of land from the rich to the poor as well as related to improvement of the healthcare system. According to Nancy E. Riley, the new government started to store grain in order to distribute to every redistributed land to satisfy the need for food all over the country. The government particularly cared about the difference in income between people of different social classes. Therefore, it created programs to redistribute land and other resources to improve living standards of poor citizens. The new government also began to develop health programs for the public.7

As a result, during this period, the development of population had a new feature—there was a significant decline in mortality rate, while the fertility rate remained high. Also, the natural growth rate was high. Statistics in Gabe T Wang’s essay has shown that in 1949 fertility rate was 20% while natural increase rate was about 10.6%, and the total population was 550.33 million people. However, in 1957 the mortality rate reduced to 10.8%, the natural growth rate increased to 20.32%, and the population increased to 661.5 million people.5 This clearly shows that during 1949-1957, the population had increased by over 105 million people, which is really a peak time of baby booming.

2.2 Population Change during 1958 -1961  

1958 -1961 was a disastrous period for the population of China. Based on official data from Chinese government, by 1960, the death rate kept on rising hence widening the gap between death rate and birth rate leading to decline in population growth. For instance, between 1960 and 1961, the decrease of China’s population reached 3.5 million people. An official analysis suggested that from 1958-1961 the number of dead people in China was about 25-30 million or more, and the number of births decreased to about 30-35 million or less.

Due to its great effect on population, this disaster in China is regarded as one of the most devastating disasters in the history of the world. Population decrease during this period was caused by several factors, for example, harsh weather conditions, which caused a lot of damages in China e.g. the monsoons of 1960/61. Also, negative effects from Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” the international political conflict that resulted from the Sino-Soviet rift of 1960.8 During this period, China’s economy had been negatively affected and the policy Great Leap Forward. This policy aimed at fast development of China’s agricultural and industrial production in order to cope with the developing speed of Russia and USA within a short period is considered to be a failure in building the economy.

In addition, China suffered great famines. Population growth was greatly impacted by natural calamities and politic disability. According to Gabe T Wang’s data, during this period, the mortality rate rose to 10.46% in 1959 but increased to 20.54% in 1960, while there was only 20.9% in fertility rate. As a result, natural growth rate was largely reduced. During 1960 and 1961, population experienced negative growth as the total population number decreased from 672 million to 659 million.5

2.3 Population Change during 1962-1979

In 1962-1979, after the Great Leap Forward, and by 1970 the economy had recovered. Also, people had a strong urge to compensate for the loss of population. Therefore, the population growth reached its second peak after 1949-1952. During this period, mortality rate decreased below 10% and continued to gradually decrease in the years that followed, for instance, it reached 7.6% in 1970 while natural growth of average population reached 7.5%.5

Due to the oversized population, by the end of 1960s, central government realized the importance of family planning and population control in order to promote economic development. This is because a smaller population meant faster economic growth. Therefore, China started to produce birth control devices, which were considered self-sufficient by 1972.

The third population campaign "wan, xi, shao" (“later, longer, fewer”)  propagated later marriage, later birth, and fewer births. It began in 1971 and continued until 1979. This campaign caused massive geographic and demographic consequences than any earlier efforts. This was because birth control services and abortions were popularized all over the country and the campaign was the first to establish basic targets at local levels. At the beginning of this campaign couples were discouraged from having more than two children. By the end of the campaign, and in the late 1970s, couples were encouraged to have only one child.7

As a consequence, fertility rate and natural growth rate decreased rapidly. From data collected by Gabe T Wang, from 1971 fertility rate was 30.65%, and natural growth rate was 23.33% but decreased to 17.82% and 11.61% in 1979. However, due to the large population base, the absolute number of net increase of the population is still considerable. During 1971-1979, country’s total population increased from 847.79 million to 975.42 million people resulting into a significant net increase of 97.63 million.

3. China’s One Child Policy

The one child policy officially restricts the number of children that married couples can have. For instance, in some special administrative regions, rural areas, and for some people from ethnic minorities, or have parents without siblings, the rule allows them to have more children. However, people in urban areas are restricted to one child, and breach of this rule leads to a penalty or fine based on family’s income among other factors. The policy was introduced in 1978 and initially applied to first-born children in 1979.

3.1 Background

In 1979, the government realized that there was a need to implement some measures to control population increase due to demographic consequence of large birth cohorts. Cohorts would have an echo effect on the following generations by increasing the speed to population growth even if fertility level fell immediately to a replacement level. Furthermore, in order to achieve its goal of prosperity by the end of the 20th century, the new regime of Deng Xiaoping argued that “having seen rampant population growth eating up economic grains in the past, China’s leaders were convinced that their economic project would fail if it could not staunch the growth of the population.”6 Rural areas were particularly concerned because they had taken over more than 75% of all population growth in China.

Then it came to China’s One-Child campaign, which was launched in 1979. It required that all couples have one child. In addition, the couple had to acquire government’s permission before having a child. There were incentives attached to this policy as couples who adhered to it would get more advantages than those who had more than one child. Such preferences included healthcare, educational opportunities, and housing. The government expected that these would help hold overall population size to 1.2 billion by the year 2000.7

There is a set of rules, which are included in the policy governing the approved size of Chinese families. These regulations include the following aspects:

1. Restrictions on family size;

2. Late marriage and childbearing;

3. Spacing of children (in cases in where a second child is permitted).

It is the State Family Planning Bureau that sets all goals and policy, but family-planning committees at provincial and county levels devise local strategies for implementation. However, the one child policy applies to minority of people as the policy is strictly enforced to urban residents and government employees. However, there are some exceptions, like in areas where both parents of the family come from one-child families or both parents are involved in high-risk occupations, or the first child is disabled.

In rural areas, where approximately 70% of the people live, a second child is generally allowed five years after the first one is born. However, this provision sometimes applies only if the first child is a girl. Also, a third child is allowed in some ethnic minority groups and in remote or under-populated areas.

Thus, in conclusion, this policy is supported by a system of rewards and penalties, which are largely meted out at the discretion of local officials hence vary widely. They include economic incentives for compliance, substantial fines, confiscation of belongings, and dismissal from work for noncompliance.9

3.2 Population Growth after Introducing China’s One Child Policy

In late 2008, the China Population Association showed that due to family planning policy, fertility rate decreased from 17.82% in 1979 to 12.14% in 2008. Consequently, China's natural population growth rate decreased from 11.61% in 1979 to 5.08% in 2008.10

According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, total population of China amounted to 22.2% of world population in 1980 but to 20.1% in 2007. The report has also pointed out that China's population reproduction pattern has shifted from "high fertility rate, low mortality rate and high natural growth rate", which was the traditional growth model, to the "low birth rate, low death rate and low natural growth rate", which is modern growth model. This historic change has taken place within 30 years, which would have taken hundreds of years to implement in most developed countries.

Fertility rate has declined in all areas in China, and fertility rate of China has been the lowest among the developed countries. However, fertility rate has fallen much faster in urban areas than in rural areas. A survey carried out in 2001 has shown that Total Fertility Rate (TFR), which is a technical term in demographic analysis referring to the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime, in urban areas was 1.22 children per woman. This is lower than 1.98 children per woman in rural areas. This is because the policy allowed many women living in rural areas to have a second child.

3.3 The Sex Ratio                                                                         

Currently, a lot of males in China have complained on many websites about the difficulty of finding a spouse due to high sex ratio rate - 117:100 in the year 2000 in mainland China. This rate was substantially higher than the natural baseline, which ranges between 103:100 and 107:10012. Thus, women have become “scarce goods” that require better conditions to obtain. Within mainland China, there are 5 provinces where sex ratio for first birth has reached 130:100 or more. For instance, sex ratio for first birth in Hainan province ranks the highest level in the whole China and stands at 135.64:100. According to the estimation, considering sex ratio of infants and young children today, by 2020 the number of males at the age of marriage will be 30 or 40 million more than females. This implies that for every five men, one will not be able to find a spouse.13 The ratio was quite normal in 1989 as statistics showed that it was roughly 105 boys for every 100 girls for first births. This ratio rose progressively with each additional child. According to 2000 census data, the estimated sex ratio for all births in 2000 was 120, the highest in the world, which was quite as high as it was in 1980s. The sex ratio was above the normal level in every province except Tibet and Xinjiang.

The birth order leads to a situation where in rural areas, the sex ratio for the first birth is 1.05 (within normal limits), but it rises steeply with birth order. However, in urban areas the sex ratio is 1.13 for the first birth and reaches the point of 1.30 for the second birth. However, it starts to decrease in the third and fourth births, which are rare in urban areas. This is because some urban Chinese people prefer to make a choice of first child’s gender as they are only allowed to have one child. In rural areas, on the other hand, most couples are allowed to have a second child, especially if the first born is a female. So if the second or subsequent child is also female, they will abandon this child and attempt to have a son.

Although the one child policy has been blamed for the high sex ratio, it is probably just one contributory factor.9  Many scholars have concluded that the reason that causes this high sex ratio is not directly caused by one child policy, but the sense of son-preference. Demographer Judith Banister argues that “in areas where there is little one son preference, fertility decline does not bring it on. But where son preference existed alongside high to moderately high fertility, even a modest decline in fertility may exacerbate the existing discrimination against female babies, children and now foetuses.”

In many Asian countries, like Taiwan (Republic of China) and South Korea, societies have some similar characteristics like fast declining fertility rate that has coincided with the increasing sex ratios and the sense of son-preference. But as Japan’s fertility fell, the sex ratio at birth did not increase. So the declining fertility, which is a consequence of the one child policy, should not be blamed for high sex ratio but more because of the idea of sex-selection in the society under the one child policy.7

In addition, even without the policy, sex-selective abortion will continue in Chinese society, although this phenomenon is not that prevalent. The solution will come only when there is change in people’s attitude towards female offspring.9


Although the population in China had steadily grown (it amounts to one fifth of the world’s population) the fertility rate has successfully decreased. When Chairman Mao set up the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he adopted many new policies in order to increase low fertility and decrease high mortality. As a result, during 1949-1957, there was a significant decline in mortality rates, while fertility remained at a high rate. Also, the natural growth rate was high.

During 1958 - 1961 the population in China suffered from poor weather conditions, the Great Leap Forward, and unstable international political environment. Based on the official data from Chinese government, by 1960 the death rate was increasing  hence widening the gap between death rate and birth rate leading to decline in total population. After the Great Leap Forward and by 1970, the economy recovered, people developed a strong sense to compensate for the loss of population. Therefore, population growth reached its second peak after 1949-1952.

As a result of the oversized population by the end of 1960s, the central government realized the importance of birth control or population control in order to promote economic development. Therefore, it introduced the one child policy, which was initially applied to first-born children in 1979.

In part two, the author has described rules and objectives of the one child policy including both positive and negative impacts of the policy. The policy required that all couples have only one child, and couples had to seek permission from the authority before having a child. The incentives were that couples who only had one child would get more benefits than those who had more than one child. Such preferences included health care, educational opportunities, and housing privileges. The government expected that these methods would hold the overall population size to 1.2 billion people by the year 2000.

The policy is supported by a system of rewards and penalties, which is largely meted out at the discretion of local officials hence its implementation varies widely. There are economic incentives for compliance, substantial fines, confiscation of belongings, and dismissal from work for noncompliance.

The policy has contributed to a decreased fertility rate and kept population size stable. For instance, the China Population Association found out that due to the one child policy, the fertility rate decreased from 17.82% in 1979 to 12.14% in 2008, and China's natural population growth rate decreased from 11.61% in 1979 to 5.08% in 2008.

However, the author found out that high sex ratio -117:100 in the year 2000 in mainland China, which was considered by many scholars and researchers to be caused by the one child policy, was not directly caused by that policy, but more by people’s tradition to prefer a son. The one child policy might be a contributing factor but not the direct factor.

Also, the author is not denying the fact that there are some limitations in research design and data collection in this study. For example, most data is collected from the Chinese government, and it is possible that this data was modified or manipulated by Chinese government due to some political reasons. Finally, the author hopes that this analysis can shed light for future researchers and people who are interested in this policy for better understanding of the one child policy.

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