Warning: talks about abortion, human trafficking and forced sterilisation
China’s one child policy was in place between 1979 and 2015 and, as the name suggests, it was about limiting families to having one child. There were exceptions, for example ethnic minorities were not subject to the policy and in the 1980s, a change meant that rural families could have a second child if their first was a girl. If both parents were only children, then they themselves could have two children. At some point, it was also possible to apply for permission for a second child if the first had a disability.
In 2013, there was a partial relaxation that meant if one parent was an only child, the couple could have two children.
In 2015, China announced that every family now had the right to 2 children.
“The policy has in one way or another affected the life of every single person in China – which is every fifth person on the planet.”
– Mari Manninen
It is likely one of the most extreme and controversial birth control policy that humanity has seen.
So why did it come into being?
Controlling population growth was thought to be the key to increasing economic prosperity and standard of living. In 1957, Mao Zedong said:
“Our country has so many people, which no country in the world can compare with. It would be better to have fewer births. (Re)production needs to be planned. In my view, humankind is completely incapable of managing itself.”
By the mid 1960s, China had developed its own version of the contraceptive pill and had “expanded the national distribution and propaganda network devoted to promoting birth control” (Whyte, Feng & Cai).
Across the globe, during the 1960s and 1970s, there was concern about population increases and by the late 70s, China’s population was approaching one billion. To tackle this, in the 1970s, a campaign was established to reduce the population and it had the slogan ‘later, longer, fewer’; get married later, wait longer between children and have fewer children. This campaign came with heavy coercion and enforcement and in the 70s the average number of children per family dropped from almost six to under three. By 1979 the one child policy was officially introduced.
Before we look at how the policy was enforced, I think we need to consider gender.
UN statistics say that China has over 60 million missing girls, girls who should have been born or shouldn’t have died as children. Research carried out in rural China in 2000 showed that if a family had a boy and was pregnant again, 40% had an ultrasound the second time round. If the first child had been a girl, that leapt to 70%. However, this leaning towards boys precedes the one child policy; killing baby girls wasn’t uncommon in the 1930s and 40s but had since decreased, until the 1980s.
There is a myth that Chinese parents only wanted boys but it’s not so clear cut and it’s important to take into account cultural expectations for each gender. Men are the ones who would be expected to support their aging parents and alongside the introduction of the one-child policy, what little health care and elder services there were for farmers, were slashed, making it even more important to have a boy. Further if you only have so much food, you had to prioritise which children would get it. Think about children as an investment in your future.
This seems horrific and brutal but reflects the traditions of the culture – men would carry out the heavy work on the farm, they were the ones who’d earn money and help to secure the family, they were the ones who carried on the family line and it is the men who make the offerings for the ancestors.
Families did still want girls but it seems to be as well as a boy, rather than instead of.
Of course, for any policy such as this to be successful, enforcement is crucial. As we’ve already noted, methods predating the policy were strongly coercive and methods once the policy was implemented were no gentler. They varied locally but were often intrusive and brutal.
Birth planning enforcers would keep detailed records about the women of child bearing age in their area. This included any previous children, details of their menstrual cycle and their use of contraception. In some places, pregnancy tests had to be taken regularly and exams were carried out to check they weren’t pregnant. All of this meant that they could identify illegal pregnancies in the early stages. These birth planning enforcers oversaw villages, neighbourhoods and were even found in work places.
Each region had their own pregnancy quota, as did some factories, and women had to apply for permission. Village quotas were stopped in the 2000s but potential parents still had to apply for permission before getting pregnant. If you wanted to apply to have a second child – ie if your first child was a girl or was disabled – you had to wait until your first child was at least 4. Today, with the two child policy, there is no need to wait and permission is no longer required. However, it is required that parents register online or with the local family planning office when a pregnancy begins.
If you managed to avoid the stern eye of the birth planning enforcer and had a child without permission or outside the policy, you could expect to be fined. If you didn’t pay the fine (and in some cases, even if you did), the child would not be given a hakou, an official household registration record. Without it, you essentially don’t exist. You can’t go to school, work, get healthcare, get married or even get on a train.
As the fines are an important source of income for local government, it is obviously in their interest to enforce them. In 2012, fines for unpermitted children amounted to the equivalent of 3 billion euros.
It is hard to know how many unpermitted children exist, but one estimate puts it as high as 25 million. That’s 25 million people who have no rights and no access to basic services. And any children those unpermitted people have, will also have no rights.
Manninen quotes 18 year old Zedong in her book Secrets and Siblings:
“I felt like I had no worth. Even dogs have papers, but I had nothing. Everyone looks down on me… It’s not my fault I don’t have hukou… Even foreigners were able to get official papers to live in China permanently while many Chinese couldn’t even get the basic hukou.”
As well as being fined, you would risk losing your job, having your home and property damaged, stolen or destroyed and in some cases you risk being illegally detained.
“Sometimes a family would lose their bicycle, or their radio. They might have holes chopped in their roof. Often the family pig would be confiscated. In the worst cases, the disobedient family’s house would be razed to the ground.”
If you did get pregnant and it was discovered before birth, abortion was ‘encouraged’. According to statistics, up to 13 million abortions are performed each year in China and the number will be higher if you take into account illegal abortions. This works out at one abortion for every one hundred people in China. Abortion is common in China and easy to get, further women are entitled to at least two weeks off work to have one.
Regular harassment and pressure to get an abortion was not enough, and forced abortions could be carried out at any stage of pregnancy, with one woman reporting that she had been forced into one at 9 months. The viability of the foetus was not relevant to the procedure.
This left millions of women facing the choice to have an abortion or face a fine and risk losing their job and more. If a girl was born, they then faced another issue; should they let their child die so that they could have a boy? Whilst it did occur, child abandonment became less common towards the end of the regime, with only seriously ill and disabled babies being left on the side of the road.
As a disabled person this hits me hard, but in a world where you can only have one child, having a disabled child who isn’t going to be able to provide for you in your later years, has long term consequences. As does the cost implication of meeting additional needs. Further, in China it is often considered shameful to have a disabled child.
As well as abortion pressure, there was also pressure to be sterilised or to have an IUD inserted. In rural areas, once you had one child, you were required to get an IUD and there would be 6 monthly checks to ensure it was still in place. After a second child, one of the parents would be sterilized.
In rural areas, sterilisations were brutal. They were often performed without anaesthesia, with women laid side by side on the ground and the operation performed right there.
Inevitably, all of these practices have had a long lasting impact on the country as well as the individual people who’s lives have been touched by the policy.
There is a regularly touted statistic from the Chinese government that the policy prevented 400 million births, fuelled the economy and improved wellbeing. The birth rate figure used here is based on overly simplistic assumptions. Further, given that “at least 70 per cent of the decline in fertility from 1970 up to the present was achieved prior to the launching of the one-child policy” (Whyte, Feng & Cai) and coercive birth control enforcement was already in place before the policy, it seems unlikely that the policy had much effect.
When it was introduced in 1979, the one child policy was “based on politics and pseudo-science, rather than necessity, much less on good demography. China could have achieved further progress in lowering fertility with some version of a two-child policy, a choice that would have sharply reduced the human suffering caused after 1980” (Whyte, Feng & Cai).
As well as aiming to reduce population growth, the policy was implemented to improve the economy and the quality of life for the residents, however:
“[The] economic reforms may have lifted 500 million above the poverty line, but that still leaves nearly a quarter of its 185 million retirees living on less than a dollar a day.”
– Mei Fong
But there is an upside to the policy, those girls who were the only child were the beneficiaries of the family’s resources and some have thus had the opportunity to receive a higher level of education and support than they otherwise might have. In 2010, a quarter of Chinese women in cities had a university degree, double the number in 1990.
“The death rate of women and children has also fallen, and their health has improved due to fewer births and fewer mouths to feed.”
Of course, nothing is so simple and the increased education and career opportunities for women has led to a higher number of single adults. So called ‘leftover men’ are found in rural areas and are less well off and less educated whereas ‘leftover women’ live in cities and are well educated. This creates a disparity – the men who are available for marriage are not likely to want the kind of women who are and vice versa.
Men, for example, are stereotypically looking for young, beautiful women who haven’t been married before and parents often echo, or push, this thinking. For example, there are wedding markets where parents come to advertise their unmarried sons and daughters, sometimes without their knowledge. The continuation of the family line is important and parents see it as their duty to find their child a wife or husband.
The term ‘leftover women’ has been coined to pressure women to marry young and to deter them from being career orientated but the reality is that there are more unmarried men than women. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, by now China should have 30 million more men of marrying age than women. That’s the same as half the entire UK population.
It is this gender disparity that has resulted in women from China and surrounding countries being trafficked and sold to be wives. One study estimated that, in a four year period, about 21,000 women and girls from northern Myanmar were forced into marriage in one Chinese province alone.
As well as the impact on the children who were born under the policy, there is the effect that it has had on the older generation. By 2050 it’s estimated that more than a quarter of the population will be over 65 and that poses the question, who will support them? If they had one child, that child will have grown up to become an adult facing the burden of supporting their elders alone.
“…because of the one-child policy, each young Chinese faces supporting four grandparents, two parents–plus however many children they bear. Shanghai recently passed a law requiring children to visit parents in nursing homes. This oppressive, upside-down pyramid–known as “4-2-1” in China–is another reason Chinese are reluctant to add to their burden by having more kids.”
And then there are the families who were unable to have a child, or whose child died. People look down on childless couples and in some places they face discrimination, finding it hard to get into a retirement home or get a burial plot. The concern is that without children, there won’t be enough money for continued payment or maintenance fees. There is also no one to support them with other needs as they age.
As the Time quote suggested, there seems little appetite for having more than one child, even though the policy changed in 2015. Although there was an increase in births initially, there hasn’t been much lasting change.
The government is now trying other initiatives to raise the rate; some areas offer longer parental leave, financial support and in some areas it’s now harder to get a divorce or abortion. Lowering the age for marriage and offering free or subsidised pregnancy care are other ways that China is attempting to increase the birth rate.
Whatever happens next, I suspect the burden will once again fall disproportionately on women, whether through forced marriages, through trafficking or through forced childbearing.