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Published on Dec 5, 2013 in Asia, China, Featured Articles, News

China’s One-Child Policy

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For decades, since the mid-1970s, China had in place a one-child policy. Fearing that China’s rapidly growing population would consume its fragile resources and increase unemployment, thereby creating social unrest, the government limited its populace to one child, except for ethnic minorities, families where both parents are the only children, and rural families where the first child is a girl or is disabled. Also, even though Macau and Hong Kong are part of China, they’re designated as Special Administrative Regions and are exempt from this policy.

In 2007, for instance, 35.9 percent of China’s population was subject to the one-child restriction. Those who violated this policy had to pay significant fines. However, this didn’t serve as a credible deterrent to wealthy families who simply paid the fines. On the face of it, one would believe that such a policy would be widely unpopular. However, as late as 2008, according to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of the Chinese population supported the one-child policy

The one-child policy was actually an about-face for the country. When Mao Zedong assumed control of China in 1949 he encouraged families to have as many children as possible. It was his belief that the larger a country’s population, the greater its influence, power, and productivity. It should be remembered that this was a time when there was very little mechanization in China and the Chinese relied on its abundance of labor for farming, mining, and other tasks which were largely automated in the West. As a result of Mao’s policy, the population of China grew from 540 million in 1949, to 940 million in 1976. However, it took scarcely two decades for the government to realize that its domestic resources couldn’t support such rapid population growth. Therefore, at the beginning of 1970, the government took its first step towards population control by encouraging its citizens to marry later in life and to only have two children. Although this had some effect on decreasing China’s population growth, it still proved insufficient. As a result, in 1977 China instituted its one-child policy, making this policy mandatory in 1979.

Some of the side-effects of this policy have been horrific. China has had a long tradition of son preference. India and Nepal have similar preferences. The reason for this is that sons are thought to provide the primary financial support for their parents in old age and retirement. In addition, according to Chinese tradition, daughters become part of a groom’s family upon marriage. Therefore, as a result, parents would abandon unwanted children, almost always daughters, to be raised in state-sponsored orphanages. Abortions and infanticide, were also common upon knowing that the offspring was to be a daughter. Currently it’s illegal for the doctor or a technician to disclose the sex of a child to the parents prior to the child’s birth. Sex-selected abortion, abandonment, and infanticide are now illegal in China.

In the past, one way around the government’s one-child policy has been for Chinese women to give birth to their child overseas. Some went to Hong Kong, which is essentially treated like another country for Mainland Chinese, while others went to other countries which have birthright citizenship, such as the United States, Saipan and the Northern Mariana Islands, which are both close to China.

One of the impacts of China’s one-child policy has been on the social fabric of the country. In the past, a child’s parents would be cared for by their children in old age. Since a family had a number of children, they shared caring and financial responsibilities for their parents who would normally live with one of the children or rotate among the children’s households. However, with one child, an only child finds that they cannot handle either the financial or time burden of elderly care. As a result, married couples now save increasing amounts of money, compared to their parents, to help shoulder the burden of health care in their later years.

The one-child policy has been in law of the land in China for 34 years, but that will soon change. Earlier this month the Chinese government announced it would relax the one-child policy by allowing families to have two children if one of the parents is an only child.

 Alan Refkin

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