“Eugenics Cause Happiness,” a poster from 1987. COLLECTION OF STEFAN LANDSBERGER.
As China’s political and economic systems have evolved, so has its approach to population control. Although the one-child-per-family policy remains firmly in place, it has changed as China has changed.
China’s current population control program has been both praised and criticized. It has been praised because it advocates—and, to a large degree, has achieved—adherence to a limit of one child per family, although the government has not entirely eliminated two-child or multichild families, The one-child policy is credited for helping to hasten China’s development by holding population numbers at a level lower than they otherwise would have been, thus reducing the consumption of resources and the demand for public goods. It has been criticized because its very institution was an assertion that the state could and should plan human reproduction in the same way it planned for the production of grain or steel. The act of human reproduction was put in service of economic production, and babies became subject to the same local quotas as other products were. Grain production had to go up; baby production had to go down.
Since its implementation in 1979, the one-child policy has produced a new generation of couples of childbearing age who take it for granted that they will have only one child, two at most. Where the number of children one wants declines, voluntary compliance increases, and the blunt, widespread use of coercion diminishes. It is important that the origins and evolution of the policy be understood, however, as any assessment of the demographic benefits that it has produced must take into consideration human and social costs.
The Early Years
From the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949, population pressures received the attention of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders. During the first two decades of the Maoist era, however, the proper approach to demographic issues was hotly debated. Initially, Mao advocated population growth. He rejected the argument that China was overpopulated. Like Marx, he believed that the exploitative class systems of feudalism and imperialism, not overpopulation, were the causes of poverty, disease, and unemployment, and that those evils would disappear as capitalism was replaced by socialism.
In 1949 China’s population already numbered about a half billion, a staggering figure that many outside of China believed would prove an unbearable drag on the country’s attempts to develop. It was two decades before China began to make population control a state priority, but top officials in the CCP had already begun to worry about the dimensions of the problem and the pressures created by a large and rapidly growing population. When the results of China’s first national census were tallied in 1954, some began to speak in more practical ways about the burden of population growth and to recommend that China amend its population policy to provide more support for family-planning education and to allow the import of contraceptives.
Before these first steps could yield any meaningful results, the radicalization of domestic politics interrupted the campaign, and advocates of family planning were branded as Rightists, or enemies of the revolution. It was only in the wake of the famine resulting from the devastating economic and agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) that it became possible once again to speak openly of population growth and family planning. The Great Famine, as it is sometimes called, claimed some 30 million to 40 million excess deaths. The setbacks to agriculture and grain production were so grave that it took several years just to raise production to levels that had been achieved in the mid-1950s. On a per capita basis, grain production was not keeping up, and worried leaders decided to reintroduce the birth control campaign in the early and mid-1960s.
In 1965 Premier Zhou Enlai proposed the first national population control target: reducing the annual rate of population growth to 1 percent by the end of the century. But the political upheaval of the early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) prevented any progress in population control.
Developments in the 1970s
By the early 1970s, Mao began to accept the idea of promoting birth control. Zhou became a strong advocate of explicit population planning and population control. China’s first nationwide targets were set in 1972. Zhou authorized the creation of an extensive family-planning bureaucracy to oversee implementation of the new policies; provide free access to contraceptives, abortions, and sterilizations; and monitor the enforcement of local birth targets.
Annual and five-year economic plans began to include national targets for population size and growth, targets that were then broken down to the provincial and local levels. Local officials who were responsible for meeting grain and steel production quotas now began to receive quotas for babies. In the early and mid-1970s, the campaign slogan was “later, longer, fewer,” promoting later marriage, longer spacing between births (three to five years), and fewer births (a two-child ideal and a three-child limit). By the middle 1970s, the goals had changed. The new slogan was “one is not too few, two is enough, three is too many.” In large cities young couples began to feel pressure to have only one child.
Looking back, China’s leaders and demographers have argued that the two-decade delay after 1949 was a fateful mistake. By the time the state began encouraging fertility control, a vast new generation of young people had already been born and was approaching childbearing age. As a result, even with declining fertility levels, demographic momentum meant continued growth of the total population. In 1979 China’s population hit the one billion mark.
Instituting the One-Child Policy
By 1979 China’s leaders were so concerned about the likely impact of population growth on their development plans that they took the extreme step of launching a one-child-per-couple policy—the most extensive and aggressive attempt ever made to subject childbearing to direct state control and regulation. China’s top demographers and scientists announced that if China were to achieve its economic goals by the year 2000, population had to be contained within 1.2 billion. The one-child-per-couple rule (which had some exceptions for special circumstances) was put in place to meet that goal.
To have a child, all couples of childbearing age, urban and rural, had to receive official birth permits from the state. Provinces drafted regulations that offered economic incentives to encourage policy compliance and imposed stiff punishment for policy violators. In China’s cities and towns, growing acceptance of the small-family norm, reinforced by the late-marriage policy and tight administrative control in workplaces and neighborhoods, brought the urban total fertility rate down from 3.3 in 1970 to about 1.5 by 1978, a remarkably low level for a developing country. With a large population of women about to enter their peak childbearing years, however, the state deemed even this low level inadequate.
To further suppress fertility and prevent more second births, state monitoring intensified in workplaces and neighborhoods. Monthly gynecological examinations for women of childbearing age, plus a system of marriage and birth permits provided by the wo
rk unit (danwei, the state system encompassing economic and social services, from employment and housing to healthcare and retirement benefits), ensured that anyone attempting to have a second child was caught in a tight surveillance net.
Challenges in Rural Areas
Rural China, on the other hand, posed a far more difficult challenge. As in rural areas in other countries and times, life in rural China encouraged high levels of fertility. Agricultural work requires household labor, and unlike their urban counterparts, even very young children could be put to work in service of family income. Moreover, while urban couples had the promise of a state pension for retirement support, rural families had no such welfare safety net. Children were the only guarantee of old-age support, and the most destitute villagers were inevitably those who were alone and childless. Only a son could ensure that a couple would be spared such a fate. In addition to these practical considerations, the traditional emphasis on bearing sons to carry on the ancestral line remained very strong in the countryside. As a result, although rural fertility levels were cut in half between 1971 and 1979 (declining from approximately 6 to 3), much of rural China remained hostile to a two-child or one-child limit, including the rural cadres who would have to enforce the policy.
Fang-shou Campaign Cycle
During the Maoist era, mass campaigns were a basic method of policy implementation. As campaigns grew more radical, resistance began to build, unintended consequences and difficulties were revealed, and the pressure to retrench would mount. The campaign tide would begin to recede, and steps would be taken to repair the damage that had been done. This pattern of “intensification followed by relaxation,” the so-called fang-shou ?? cycle, unfolded repeatedly in the 1980s and 1990s as attempts were made to meet ambitious and unrealistic targets for birth limits. In 1983, for example, the Deng regime responded to evidence of stagnant birth rates by deciding to launch a major sterilization campaign. The result was a fourfold increase in the number of tubal ligations performed in 1983, as compared with the previous year.
As the campaign began to play itself out and elite politics took a more liberal turn, a decision was made to modify the one-child policy to allow for more exceptions. Fearful of a breakdown of authority in the countryside and widespread anger over the one-child limit and the often brutal tactics used to enforce it, leaders in Beijing decided to simply concede the need for a son in the countryside. The rural policy became a one-son or two-child policy. This concession was made in the hopes of pacifying restless villagers and improving enforcement, but over a period of several years, the effect was to encourage local governments to relax their enforcement efforts. This policy slippage weakened central control over the levers of enforcement and provided support for experts and birth planning officials who argued that the policy should be more flexible. These officials believed that the same benefits could be achieved with less effort and more compliance by altering the policy to respond to the nuances of family need. This more differentiated policy was put into place in the latter half of the 1980s, only to be upset by the events of May–June 1989, which ended in a military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square and their supporters in Beijing and other cities around the country.
The martial atmosphere that returned to Chinese politics for the next few years made it possible to once again tighten local enforcement and to carry out another campaign, which was justified by the failure to meet the population targets for the five-year plan that ended in 1990.
Developments in the 1990s
As the political mood in Beijing began to moderate, debate over the merits of a campaign approach to population management renewed. More people began to argue that development was the key to achieving low fertility levels. While the language of population targets and birth quotas was still in use, one began to hear more about women’s reproductive health and local enforcement flexibility. And instead of relying on the punitive approach of harsh fines and penalties, new experiments in client-centered service were undertaken. Three factors contributed to weaken the conviction that a one-child policy was necessary.
First, the obsession with grain production levels and self-sufficiency began to subside as the economy continued to grow.
Second, China’s post-Deng leadership, though still extremely cautious regarding formal policy change, was more open to the increasingly sophisticated and nuanced analysis being provided by a new, highly trained group of demographers and policy specialists who pointed to two disturbing trends in China’s demographic structure: rapid population aging and a seriously imbalanced sex ratio at birth.
Third, in the decade after 1992, China began to participate more actively in international organizations and institutions and played host or sent delegations to a growing number of international conferences. This shift coincided with a period of heightened United Nations focus on the interrelated problems of environmental protection, population growth, and the rights and status of women; it was further encouraged by the global discourse on these subjects that ensued. When China implemented its one-child policy in 1979, the dominant theory was that population growth was a primary impediment to economic growth. In the 1980s, however, liberal critics argued that population growth was not necessarily an impediment to development. While conceding that population growth could hinder development under certain circumstances, liberals argued that it could sometimes be an asset. Similarly, the feminist critique argued that population control programs objectified women by treating them as mere targets of a birth control agenda, rather than as human beings whose maternal, health, and reproductive needs should be met. These two critiques eventually merged in the form of a new international agenda that emphasized reproductive health and rights and explicitly rejected the use of compulsion to achieve population goals.
China’s Outline Plan for Family Planning Work in 1995–2000 showed the influence of that new outlook. It stressed the impact of the socialist market economy on population control and the necessity of linking population control to economic development. The plan placed special emphasis on improving women’s educational levels to promote lower fertility, and it stressed the importance of protecting the legitimate rights and interests of the people. Similar language appeared in a white paper on family planning issued in 1995, though that paper also stressed the virtues of the one-child policy and the duty of China’s citizens to adopt birth control and limit childbirth.
One-Child Policy in the Twenty-First Century
Despite liberalization, China’s one-child policy remains firmly in place. China continues to set national five- and ten-year goals for population growth, and isolated cases of brutal campaigns to enforce local targets continue to appear. Beijing has consistently declined to make any significant change to the policy or to abandon the one-child family goal. As long as the leadership measures its overall economic success in per capita terms, as long as local officials have targets to meet and suffer penalties if they fail, birth planning will remain a fixture in China’s reform policies.
Fong, Vanessa. (2004). Only hope: Coming of age under China’s one-child policy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Greenhalgh, S., & Winckler, E. (2005). Governing China’s population: From Leninist to neoliberal biopolitics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
White, T. (2006). China’s longest campaign: Birth planning in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-2005. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
White, T. (1994). Two kinds of production: The evolution of China’s family planning policy in the 1980s. Population and Development Review 20, Supplement: 137–158.
Source: White, Tyrene. (2009). One-Child Policy. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1642–1646. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
“Less Births, Better Births to Develop China Vigorously,” a poster from 1987. COLLECTION OF STEFAN LANDSBERGER.
One-Child Policy (Yìt?ihuà zhèngcè ?????)|Yìt?ihuà zhèngcè ????? (One-Child Policy)