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Less is Not the New More: Lessons from China’s One-Child Policy

By Muskaan Saxena, Edited by Amogh Sangewar

Remember the times your sibling covered for you when you lied to your parents? Or how your aunt always gets you chocolates when she comes to visit you? Reminisce over the times when you met your cousins after an entire year and how you had so much to catch onto. Recall the times you had pizza with your sister while watching some horrible reality show, and when your brother taught you trigonometry because your Mathematics teacher did a horrible job.

And now imagine a life where none of them existed. No brothers, no sisters, no cousins, no aunts, no uncles.

Now imagine a parallel world- a world where you did have your family, happy and soaring, the pizza time with your sister still there, the aunt’s chocolates still gifted, and the trigonometry still understood. Imagine, though, that the society around you is crowded with people- innumerous people- fighting for the limited jobs, the limited resources, the limited luxuries, and even the limited food.

Having thus created the two worlds, my question to you is- which one seems more disagreeable? For policymakers of 1980s China, it was the latter.

Source: The movie poster for "One Child Nation." Amazon Studios

By the 1950s, Chinese population growth had started to outpace the growth of food supply and called for birth control and family planning measures. China faced a catastrophic famine in 1958 which resulted in the loss of tens of millions of lives. Consequently, the importance of family planning and population control assumed unprecedented importance, and the government started promoting family planning campaigns. Such measures, however, remained voluntary and interrupted until the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. By 1978, the slogan “Late, Long, and Few” was adopted to emphasize the importance of later marriages, longer intervals between children, and fewer children per family, with no more than two children encouraged, and one being preferable. Marriage bureaus were instructed to deny licenses to younger people i.e. people who were young enough to produce multiple offspring.

In 1980, a public letter was published by the ‘Central Committee’ of the ‘Chinese Communist Party’ instructing adherence to a compulsory one-child policy all over China. The program was universal, to be applied throughout China, with certain exceptions. For example, parents belonging to ethnic minorities with a small population, or parents whose firstborn was handicapped were allowed to have more children. There was also a large disparity between the efficacy of implementation in urban and rural geographies- a higher willingness to comply within urban nuclear families than rural agrarian families. The implementation was stricter in cities and more lenient in the countryside.

Tools of implementation ranged from formal legal restrictions to informal societal surveillance. Due to the communist nature of the political system, state ownership of resources, and the societal structure, the government could entice or coerce people to keep a “neighborhood watch”. In other words, citizens were encouraged to keep a watch on other citizens for any conspicuous activities with respect to childbearing in return for monetary rewards, thus creating a penetrated umbrella surveillance system.

The formal methods of enforcement included increasing accessibility to safe contraceptives, and provision of incentives like better employment opportunities, higher wages, assistance, and aid by the government to compliant couples. Defaulters were punished by economic and other sanctions, fines, and loss of government assistance. More extremely, the government was involved in instrumenting abortions and forced sterilizations, particularly of females. It has been noted that in many cases, women were forced to get IUDs (intrauterine device (IUD) and other forms of coerced birth control.

What started as a policy to ensure that the population does not outgrow the rate of economic development, turned out to have multiple unintended consequences the policymakers did not foresee.

Firstly, the gender ratio became highly skewed in favor of a male child. The Chinese economy was a highly patriarchal society. A constraint of having only one child made the prospect of having a male child all the more desirable, and the prospect of having an only girl child more and more disagreeable. In a patriarchal society, sons can work the farm, marry and keep the family name, and continue the birth line of the family. This resulted in an increased frequency of female foeticide, abandonment of female children in orphanages, and even female infanticide. This trend was also reflected in the fact that the United States and other countries adopted many abandoned Chinese girl children. In 2019, the gender ratio in China was 114 to 100 (males to females born).

Morally abhorrent as it is, it had economic and societal consequences too. Lesser female children mean lesser females to work, lesser females to marry, and lesser females to balance society. Projections predicted approximately a quarter of Chinese men between the ages of 50 and 59 to not have a living spouse in 2050, and about half the Chinese men between ages 30 and 39. Large numbers of unmarried men lead to higher levels of isolation, loneliness, depression, and crimes.

A second consequence of the policy was a shrinking and ageing workforce. China’s workforce fell by 0.5% in 2018 following 6 preceding years of the declining workforce population, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). The One-Child Policy reduced the birth rate from 6.4% to 3.7% between 1965 and 1979 (World Bank). The fertility rate continued to decline to an average of 1.7 in 2018. This has simultaneously reflected in an ageing population, less able to work and more dependent on old age support, further straining the economy. An ageing population also meant entrepreneurial strain, since it is the young and energetic who usually take risks and drive entrepreneurial and technological changes at home.

Thirdly, one of the most taxing consequences was the emotive exhaustion and anxiety which followed. The one-child policy led to a “4-2-1” structure after two generations, and an ‘8-4-2-1” after three. Imagine being a child in the early 2000s. You are the only child of two other only children- you have no aunts or uncles since your parents have no siblings, you have no cousins, and you have no siblings of your own. This recreates the first world we outlined in paragraph one. Remember, though, that China is a communist state with a long history of being a surveillance state. The Chinese Economy is also a low trust society, partly because of the Cultural Revolution, and partly because of the political situation. Families served as the main social and emotional security net, and with a threat to the integrated network of kinship, coupled with a skewed sex ratio manifesting as unmarried men, and general pressure on later generations, the emotional toll and isolation of the one-child policy was intense.

Emotional deprivation aside, this has further percolating economic consequences. China has a culture of ‘filial piety, or the respect for the honor of the family and the nobility of serving one’s parents and grandparents. The aging 4-2-1 structure meant more burden on the only child, the only hope, to look after aging parents and grandparents. This meant larger transfers from income earned to the aging population. Moreover, the shrinking family size was a threat to the small businesses and informal networks, which relied heavily on relatives, kinship networks, and familial support.

There were other miscellaneous consequences. The security of the economy came under threat- parents were not very enthusiastic about sending their only child into military zones. Moreover, the military now was composed of ‘little emperors’, children who had been pampered all their life. Also, the one-child policy led to parents not reporting their second or later children, and these unreported children had to consequently suffer. Undocumented children found it harder to find jobs or to avail of state assistance.

The one-child policy is estimated to have prevented about 400 million births and was successful in reducing the growth rate of the population. The policymakers, however, realized how the policy had started doing more harm than good, and decided to scrap the policy in October 2015, post all couples were allowed to have two children. More recently (in 2021), China has adopted a three-child policy, stemming out of demographic concerns- a high proportion of ageing population and a smaller workforce.

However, how much the new policy will impact the birth rate is questionable. China has a high cost of living, and multiple offspring do not do much to take away from that. The competition is intense and the anxiety of raising a child to thrive in the competition takes a toll on parents. Improving educational standards and increase in the overall income level have raised the average age of marriage and childbirth. Moreover, after decades of the one-child policy being implemented, a single-child household has now become the norm.

China is a heavily centrally planned state, with much control vesting with the State. With a shift in preference towards increasing childbirths, concerns arise about the methods the state will use to encourage increased childbirth. Chinese citizens have seen, far too many times, the extremes to which the state has chosen to go to implement national policies. Eyebrows have risen when the government in an article in the state-run ‘People’s Daily’ said: “The birth of a baby is not only a matter of the family itself but also a state affair.” A professor of economics from Nanjing University wrote an article that proposed a “birth fund” that citizens contribute to and encash when they have children, or when they retire (if they choose not to have children). The government is seen appealing to women to have more children for the sake of their country. The All-China Women’s Federation, a government-affiliated organization, has run a campaign glamorizing and appreciating women who serve as conventional, stereotypical feminine figures and primary caretakers of children, known as the “beautiful families” campaign. Women have retaliated to this control over their reproductive choices, and are resisting both the government and the societal pressure alike.

Nonetheless, if there is any lesson to be learned from China’s efforts, it is to not implement a forced one-child policy for multiple decades in a patriarchal society that is dependent on familial ties as a social and emotional security net. Alternatives to forced sterilizations and a surveillance state include but are not limited to increased accessibility of family planning, increased employment opportunities for females, increased dissemination of sex education amongst children in their early ages, and educational appeals to reduce overpopulation. What is yet to be seen is how the upcoming policies will affect the demographic structure of China, and if China will be able to reverse this trend of an aging population and reduced workforce that will otherwise take an economic toll on the country.



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