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Impact of China’s One Child Policy

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China’s one child policy

  • Maleka Rangwala


It has become common to think in one mindset for a period of time before abruptly rethinking your outlook. This is known as a paradigm shift (Huntington, 1996).

In recent times, democracy is a form of government sought for individual citizens.These citizens have the power and the right, to influence decisions made about how their country will be governed. It is portrayed as one of the best forms of government. But maybe democracy is not the answer towards better economic development. That is the null hypothesis of the paper that authoritarian rule is effective in achieving goals and regulating various imbalances’which is based on the uprising against dictatorships in various countries. I will use an example of china for an authoritarian regime. An authoritarian regime is where there is one ruler or small group of leaders that have the real power in political systems. The citizens have no voice in how they are ruled. Their leaders donnot give their subjects free choice. for example china has experienced this rule and experienced various effects.


In the second half of the twentith century population control became one of the most important growing problems, China chose to adopt an extreme measure of birth control known as the one-child policy. Two of the most consequential social experiments of the twentieth century were the Green Revolution which aimed at feeding the population and family planning programs were designed to curtail its growth. There were half a billion people starving or malnourished, and a billion who didnot have access to proper sanitation or education according to world population facts 1980. Also population increased from 1.7 billion to 3 billion in third world countries during 1950-1975. (rene). China could not keep up with the rapid demand for food and fuel for the increasing population having 8% fertile land and 20% of the world population. In the late 1970s, the chinese government had introduced various measures to reduce the country’s population growth rate. The most important measure which will be studied in detail is the one child policy which said that couples in china could have only one child. In 1950 due to mao’s rule and his concept of increasing population to increase chinese workforce, the change in the rate of population was 1.9 per cent each year. (history of the one child policy) The governement had been encouraging people to have alot of children and nearly 4 children were born per household. At the same time, there was a food shortage that resulted in part from Mao’s failed economic-planning of the Great Leap Forward, where 30 million Chinese died of man-made famine and followed by a cultural revolution in 1966 leading to over a million deaths. (htt1).By 1970s the government realised that the current rates of population growth would soon become unstable and created the one child policy.

In the begining malthus an economist whose theory will be discussed in detail later was viewed as an enemy and his theory was rejected by the soviets and chinese government. But as time progressed, they realised this and started propogationg the idea of late, long and few in 1970. By advising women to wait for a long time before having a baby and have few of them. As this change was going on a chinese scientist Song Jian took interest in the demographics and in Netherlands met Geert Jan Olsder who had recently worked on a game theory problem concerning population who saw population as an mathematical contraint problem and thought there could be optimum growth. listening to Olsder’s views and armed with The Limits of growth a 1972 malthusian work, Song took his findings back to the leaders in china and helped in influencing them to formulate this policy. A group of prominent social scientists which were put together by Deng Xiaoping who rose to power after the death of Mao Zedong and started a four fronted modernisation in agriculture, industry, national defence and technology, created an optimum solution for the population explosion taking into account the social costs and consequences. The chinese government also had signed an agreement with the united nations population fund in 1979 which gave 50 million to curtail population. This also influenced other western organisations to put their resources like Ford Foundation and International planned parenthood foundation. A theory which justifies this policy is the Lockean contractarianism which is a theory which covers the emphasis of the collective over the individual. While the policy may seem brutal to the induvidual, when a greater picture is taken into account it will benefit the community as a whole, hence benefiting the individual in a long run where one will live a life free from starvation and malnutrition without economic problems. This communitarian ideaology was from Jean Jacques Rousseau as the individual depends on the community for self identity, production of public goods, etc. (rene)


  1. Economic reasons

From 1960 economic modules as well as social scientists have a great effect on policy making of various countries.Population needs to be kept in checked for various reasons. First being the orthodox view of supply of natural resources (non renewable) and capital being fixed, the demand would increase and the supply would not keep up and with and with increasing population development decreases. There is another theory formulated by Coale and Hoover in which they say that the economic growth could increase if their was low fertility than high fertility. Though this was later contradicted with saying that they assumed economic growth as a function of only capital growth and didnot take into account the changes in technology and labour quality through better schooling and health. (Hopkins).

  1. Social reasons

Population overgrowth creates social problems like cultural conflicts. When a particular area is overpopulated, it leads to migration. Which not only puts pressure on land where people move in but also can start civil wars. One example of resource conflict is the case of the jordan river which passes through syria jordan and west bank israel where research showed that 37 actual military conlficts occured between the Arab neighbours and Jordan over the river and its tributtes water. (environment and social ills) It also puts pressure on basic facilities like medical and school.

  1. Political reasons and others

Population expansion can also lead to political problems like curtailment of people, providing finance for the growing population by the government and growing taxes creating pressure on the poor and increasing the income gap. (htt) like Aristotle said that a large population would bring a “certain poverty on the citizenry, and poverty is the cause of sedition and evil”. He thought that with a population of over 100,000 people, most citizens would be excluded from having a voice in the goverment. (environment and social ills). To accomodate the growing population the green covers have been eliminated from the surface. This causes many environmantal as well as psychological problems like the Nature deficit disorder which is a hypothesis created by Richard louv in his book ‘Last child in the woods’ (2005) which says that children spend very less time outdoors and hence resulting in many bahavioural problems like attention disorders and depression, diseases like myopia and even obesity. Also a few common effects seen are cost of housing, length of your commute from home to work which wastes time and energy,etc. In order to accomodate the vast population various personal freedom of people are also taken away which become necessary like limits on water consumption, electricity, restriction on what people can do with their own land, etc. The environmental aspect also has dire need to be paid attention to as the extinction of species, habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, ozone layer depletion due to pollution, straine on oceans, etc. Hence the need to contain the population in china was a necessary step but the various aspects of implementation of the policy were not entirely ethical which will be covered below.


The one child policy was established in 1979 and various benefits were offered to those who followed this rule in form of education, healthcare etc. Malthus an economist observed that population increases but at a geometric rate while food production increases arithematically and made a conclusion that because humans havenotall starved, economic choices must be at work, and it is the job of an economist to study those choices His theory advocated welfare reform. He also stated that recent poor laws provided an increased amount of money for a system of welfare depending on the number of children which only encouraged the poor to give birth to more children and had no fear that increased number of children would make eating any more difficult. Increasing number of poor workers would reduce labour costs and ultimately make the poor even poorer. Hence the providing of a certain amount of money to every poor person would lead to rise in prices and value of money. Thus with increasing population supply would be stagnant and demand and price would keep increasing. . He said that there can be many ‘positive’ and ‘preventive’ checks in reducing population expansion which ranged from contraception to famines. china’s one child policy can be considered under this type of a check. Imagine if the growth rate was not checked at that time, china is already heading with the highest populated country. The chinese government showed statistics that the one child policy has prevented over 400 million births (announced in march 2013) and over the last 4 decades have aborted 336 million children, performing 196 million surgical sterilizations and inserted 403 million intrauterine devices. (history of the one child policy)


Though the implementation of the policy was unequeal and had several flaws. Those who had more than one child were fined and didnot receive any benefits. There were a total of 22 exeptions where the chances of having more than one child was allowed but if on didnot fall into this category then they had to face consequences like loosing their jobs, confiscation of their belongings. There are also cases where the roofs of their houses were removes and their windows and doors walled in. There were cases which claim that some women who were pregnant were forced to have an abortion and many women were forcibly sterilised. In 1983, 14 million women had abortions organised by family planning committees( many of them coerced). In 2009 there were 6 million. There were cases where the rich had paid off and were able to have a second child. If the poor were not able to pay the fine and had a child then they would be forced in an abortion. the policy was more strictly enforced in the rural regions. This policy was also partially responsible for the reduction in fertility rate which fell from 2.63 births per woman in 1980 to 1.61 in 2009. (unitedexplanations) Also the traditional preference of a boy child which exists still in many places even in India caused gender imbalances. There were large number of female babies who ended up homeless or in orphanages and killed in some cases. In 2000 it was reported that 90 percent of foetuses aborted in china were females. Today men outnumber the women by more than 60 million with the sex ratio being 118 boys to 100 girls. The one child policy put pressure on the rural households where families desire one son, who not only assist in household and difficult task but also in a broader perspective continue the male lineage. Also there is a theory where women who suffer from some sort of discrimination will try and prevent their child to undergo the same and hence avoid girl childs, instead of actually developing a more feminist perspective.


One of the major drawbacks of this policy was the acceleration of the demographic transition. The mid 20th century saw fertility decline and prolonged life expectancy, population reproduction in china transformed from phase of high fertility, low natural growth and high mortality to the modern pattern of population growth i.e. a phase with low fertility, low natural growth and low mortality. In developed countries this process was smooth and spontaneous when they experienced urbanization and industrialization was completed within less than 40 years in china which usually takes a century. (Dewen) The introduction of the one child policy was affected by the suggestion of the malthusian theory and has sped up the demographic transition since 1970s. Even though the demoraphic divident can be put to high utilisation it increases development at a diminishing rate and a stage in future will result in decline development and become a demoghraphic debt causing the 4-2-1 problem. As the first generation of law enforced only children came of age for becoming parents themselves one adult child was left to provide support for his parents and grand parents. Hence called the 4-2-1 problem leaving the older generation dependent on various funds, policies and savings. But there are various economists which say that this change was inevitable and would have occured at this pace without the policy also as seen in some East Asian countries like Korea, Thailand and Indonesia whose birth rates have also significantly declined just as fast as china’s with reasons being rising incomes and living standards which in turn lead to improved health services and reducing infant and child mortality. People have a perception that having many children leads to higher income for more education and dont necessarily help in their old age. It is true these are not the factors that governed the people in china, it was the policy but even if the policy was not implemented then maybe they would be following a similar pattern.


The one-child policy seems to have changed social norms. There are some norms which exist in the country which govern the birth process. According to a research placed in kenya there are certain barriers to family planning like how the men should be the ones to decide if they want to have a child and the females have to oblige and not protest, A family is complete when they have a child, a man is the one who earns and hence should be the one to make decisions. These were what governed the family plannings before the policy. Later the policy governed these rules. Another impact of the policy was that even after two generations of growing up alone, people expect to have only one child. In 2003 and 2008, the city’s family-planning bureaucrats (the Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission) asked 38,000 men and women aged 20-45 about how many children they wanted. (Wilcox., 2013) They found the average ideal family size was just 1.07, with 81% of respondents saying they wanted only one child and just 15% saying they wanted a second. Thus changing the social norms too. Lewin’s research suggests that an individual cultural habits are more pliable to change through group discussions and decision than through an approach to an individual. Hence he says that the success of the importance of family planning was due to the higher degree of personal involement than a passive recepient of information, the placement of weight behind two conflicting alternatives for or against, one displacing the other and following the norm and restricting deviation. This change could be achieved by unfreezing the old perspective and moving to the new change and freezing it there. He says that the leader need not impose the idea or authoritarian rule rather skillfully steer the group towards the idea. This is one theory which says that their could be various other checks and measure that the government could have implemented instead of this policy.


Hence when we look at the above theories and the various aspects of the policy we can say that the policy could be avoided or thought more carefully about the various social political and economic effects to it before implementing it and the various economic and social theories also suggest that this policy sped up various changes which could be changed gradually. Hence the use of the authoritarian rule could be avoided making the null hypothesis void as the changes required for population reduction could be acquired by various other methods and the authoritarian rule just added to speeding up the process which cause more ill than gain. The authoritarian rule not only changes the demographics but also affected the country socially and politically. Economic theories can be applied to non economic policies and should be added to a few as for overall developement and sucess of the policy one needs to see the various social, political and economic aspects and how the policy would affect it in its particular field.


social norm reduced

prefernce theory

china background useful for why policy implemented

lewins theory


demographic transition

one child policy step by step

social norms

social reasons for formulating policy

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