China Announces Birthrate Reduction Plans

China adopted a controversial one-child-per-family policy with the goal of keeping China’s population from growing beyond 1.2 billion people in the year 2000. The plan met with resistance in China and was criticized by the West.


The one-child policy sent shock waves throughout China and proved to be controversial throughout the world as well. At the provincial and grassroots level, one-child directives from Beijing met with considerable resistance. Because the issue was so sensitive, the central government never passed a national family-planning law. In the absence of such a law, the central government had little power to punish those who violated the one-child policy, apart from withholding one-child benefits. In urban areas, where living space, allocated by the state, is at a premium and workers can count on pensions in their old age, the one-child incentives met with the most success, because the state’s power to reward and punish these urban workers was greatest. In the cities, the fertility rate dropped to 1.2 children per couple, but in rural areas, the figure never dropped below 2.5 children per couple, a figure well above the single-child goal. This difference is important, because 80 percent of China’s population resides in the countryside. Rural compliance is thus crucial to any effort to stem China’s population tide. Four modernizations (China)
China;one-child policy[one child policy]

Several reasons can be offered for the strong resistance to the one-child policy in rural areas. First, the state has fewer instruments of persuasion in the countryside compared with its influence on urban residents. Except for rural party cadres and other government officials, virtually no one in the countryside can count on a pension; parents are forced to rely on their children (invariably their sons, as daughters are by tradition sent to their husbands’ households) for support in their old age. The more sons a couple has, the more secure the couple can expect to be in old age. Thus, if a rural couple’s first child is female, there are strong practical reasons to reproduce until a son is born. Second, the party’s own agricultural reforms, initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, proved incompatible with population goals in rural areas because, as a part of agricultural reforms, land was allocated according to household size, and larger families could generate more income if more family members were available for new enterprises permitted by the reforms. Many rural families concluded that it would be more lucrative to have more children and to pay the fines for noncompliance with the one-child policy.

Rural party cadres responsible for implementing the one-child policy were often sympathetic to the plight of families without a son and often had difficulty enforcing the one-child provisions. In other areas, however, local officials implemented the policy overzealously, forcing sterilizations and, in some cases, forcing abortions. Abortion;China In Broken Earth (1983), Broken Earth (Mosher) anthropologist Steven W. Mosher documented these coercive methods, which included second- and third-trimester abortions, and set off a firestorm of criticism in the West, especially in the United States. Conservatives in the United States often referred to China’s population control measures as an example of the worst kind of intrusion into the private lives and human rights of China’s citizens, and they called for an adjustment of relations with China. Abortion opponents successfully pressured U.S. presidential administrations to withhold contributions to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), thereby reducing the ability of the United Nations to promote fertility-reduction programs worldwide.

Criticism of some of the side effects of the one-child policy was not limited to the West: In the 1980’s, stern official condemnations of apparently rampant levels of female infanticide began appearing in the Chinese press. Indeed, statistics show that in the years following 1983, the ratio of infant boys to infant girls averaged 111 to 100, far above the typical gender ratio of 105 to 106 male babies for each 100 female babies. Other, more long-term problems were recognized, most notably the prospect of the rapid aging of the Chinese population that will occur while fewer children will be available to support this large elderly population.

If judged by its own standard definition of success, the one-child policy has not been completely successful. Planners had hoped that China’s population would be no more than 1.2 billion by the year 2000, but the actual population at that time was slightly larger than that. It is clear, however, that without the one-child campaign, China’s population would have grown even faster. The slowdown of population growth was crucial, because China was in the midst of a sweeping modernization process that would place increasing pressure on China’s natural resources and environment. Another concern was the sharp decline in per-capita arable cropland, some of which was threatened by erosion, salinity, industrial pollution, and desertification. Population pressure in rural areas was also responsible for China’s dwindling forests. All of these pressures have continued into the twenty-first century, as economic growth in China continued to accelerate.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the Chinese experience is that successful population control programs must take existing cultural and social circumstances into consideration. In the case of China, it was clear that a population control program would have to be accompanied by other social welfare programs, including state-funded provisions for retirement income. Because the Chinese government was willing to issue one-child decrees but apparently unable to fund programs that would alter material incentives for the majority of its citizens to have fewer children, the program ultimately met with mixed results. China’s population reached nearly 1.3 billion in the early twenty-first century, and if fertility cannot be reduced further, the population could top the 2 billion mark by the year 2050, although alternative scenarios indicate that if current fertility trends continue, China may well experience a period of depopulation by that time. China;one-child policy[one child policy]
Reproductive rights
Population;control measures

Further Reading

  • Banister, Judith. China’s Changing Population. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985. Comprehensive and well-researched account of China’s fertility transition and the one-child policy. Uses both English-language and Chinese-language sources. Well documented with facts and figures.
  • Burns, John P., and Stanley Rosen, eds. Policy Conflicts in Post-Mao China. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1986. This useful collection of essays and documents is an excellent introduction to recent trends in politics and government in China. Includes a concise chapter on population issues as well as a study exploring fertility patterns in rural Shaanxi Province. Also includes a list of further readings.
  • Croll, Elisabeth, Delia Davin, and Peggy Kane, eds. China’s One-Child Family Policy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. An excellent collection of essays from sociologists, political scientists, and demographers with expertise in family planning and women’s issues in China. Each essay includes a useful reference list, and most essays are accompanied by charts and tables that clearly illustrate and explain demographic trends in China.
  • England, Robert Stowe. Aging China: The Demographic Challenge to China’s Economic Prospects. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Analysis of the significant economic, market, social, and demographic factors that will shape China’s future as its population ages.
  • He Bochuan. China on the Edge: The Crisis of Ecology and Development. San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, 1991. A translation of a book widely circulated in China that documents environmental degradation in China and calls for strong remedial measures, including population control. Documents many failures of policy that led to environmental disasters in China.
  • Mosher, Steven W. Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese. New York: Free Press, 1983. A penetrating look at life in rural China. Includes controversial sections on the implementation of the one-child policy in the countryside.

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