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  • Writer's picture Surabhi Paraki

A Brief History of the Controversial Birth Control Policy in China

China (Officially, the People's Republic Of China) has arguably been one of the most influential nations globally.

The Asian country is the 3rd largest in size, and the world's most populated country, with an astounding 1.4 billion inhabitants. Its capital city Beijing alone is home to 21.5 million people.

A socialist country, China also has a single-party government. Among its list of several achievements, it is among only five countries with its flag on the moon. China is known for its vast history and has been credited with several inventions, the most significant ones being tea, and printing blocks, the precursor to modern-day printing.

Introduction of the one-child policy:

In 1979, China's leader Deng Xiaoping issued the one-child policy to control the country's rapidly growing population.

The policy, which citizens widely criticized, restricted most couples to one child. At the time, China's population was at 970 million.

The implementation of the policy estimated that the government prevented over 400 million new births in the nation. The policy was a result of years of unrest after the People's Republic of China was founded.

Skyline of Beijing.
Beijing, the capital of China, is home to 21.5 million inhabitants. (Bing Dian / Getty)

After its implementation, China saw a drastic improvement in medical care, sanitization, and public health, which led to China developing from an agricultural state to an industrial state. It was viewed as an economic boon by the growing nation.

The Chinese government initially ran a birth control campaign with the slogan "Late, Long and Few" that helped cut births in half between 1970 and 1976.

However, there was a steady rise in population once more towards the end of the decade. This, coupled with food shortage and a fear of a repetition of the 1962 famine that led to the death of over 30 million, led to the implementation of the one-child policy.

The policy officially came into effect in 1980, with an open letter from the Communist Party of China. They addressed the public regarding concerns about the exponentially growing population and the possibility of another famine.

They announced their goal to curb the total population to 1.2 billion by the end of the 20th century. The country enforced the law by imposing a fine on those who had more than one child without a permit and offered various incentives, such as longer maternity leaves, other benefits, and even a "Certificate of Honor for Single-Child Parents."

Those who lived in the countryside could have more than one child with the government's permission, giving those in rural areas a little more leeway with growth. The average births per woman of child-bearing age reduced to 1.5 children, as opposed to 6 in the late 1960s.

The nation claims that the policy was successful, and it was, but only on the population control front.

Human Rights Issues:

The policy was highly controversial due to the immense amount of human rights violations that occurred due to its enforcement. The government forced women to use IUDs and other forms of female-oriented contraceptives disregarding the side effects.

The policy also led to a skewed gender ratio as female infanticide became widespread after its implementation.

Reported child (0-4) sex ratio in China by county, 2000
Reported child (0-4) sex ratio in China by county, 2000. (The New Atlantis)

The government-owned societal structure of the country gave the party members a ground-level reach, which allowed them to set up a "neighborhood watch" system. This allowed citizens to watch over their neighbors to ensure that they abide by the policy and offered monetary incentives to those who tipped the authorities about anyone who didn't comply, essentially creating a form of state-sponsored blackmail.

In rural areas, where rules were less stringent and the population more sparse, the village's family planning officials would keep detailed records of all women of child-bearing age, including their children, contraceptive usage, and in an even grosser invasion of privacy, their menstrual cycles.

Easing of the policy:

Eventually, China ended its one-child policy since a significant portion of the Chinese population was heading into retirement. The nation had very few young people entering the labor force to provide for the elderly's retirement, healthcare and contribute to economic growth.

In late 2013, as part of a series of social, economic, and legal reforms, the Chinese government amended the one-child policy. This allowed couples to have a second child if just one of the parents was an only child, instead of the earlier mandate that required both parents to be the only child in their family.

However, only an estimated 800,000 couples applied to have a second child that following year, despite 11 million couples being eligible. The main factor that dissuaded the others was the high cost of living in their cities that would affect their economic condition.

Parents and grandparents with children.
China's fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman in 2020 is on par with ageing societies like Japan and Italy. (Indian Express)

The policy was finally scrapped in 2015 as the country faced a shrinking, aging population that would soon be incapable of contributing to economic growth. The policy was replaced with a two-child limit in 2016.

The current policy as of 2021 is at three children, a recent reform introduced in a major legislative shift, with the country's population growth rate reducing with each year. They are also planning to end all kinds of limits to childbirth by 2025.


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Surabhi Paraki is a Journalism and Communications student at Jain University. She is also an activist and a content writer at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability.

Inputs and Edits by Sovena Ngeth.


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