Was China's one-child policy wrong?

Background current

In October 2015, China broke its one-child policy. Since then, couples have been allowed to have two children. But the hoped-for increase in births has not yet materialized.

At the end of October 2015, the one-child policy was abolished in China. Couples have been allowed to have two children since 2016. (& copy picture-alliance, AP Photo / Mark Schiefelbein)

One child per family - that was the rule in the People's Republic of China from 1979 to 2015. With this measure, the Chinese government wanted to counteract population growth. However, the strict state birth control, the so-called one-child policy, not only resulted in a decline in the birth rate but also very problematic consequences: selective abortions of girls, millions of children who were not registered and an aging Chinese society. For five years now, couples have been allowed to have two children. It is also discussed whether the child restrictions should be dropped completely.

China's population growth after 1949

After the end of World War II, the conflict between communists and nationalists in China turned into a civil war, which the communists won in 1949. As a result, Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic. Subsequently, the population in China grew enormously - despite phases in the supply of food. From 1949 to the mid-1970s, the number of Chinese people rose by more than half - from 550 million to over 900 million. During this phase there was a devastating famine (1958-1962) due to economic mismanagement by Mao's "Great Leap Forward" plan. The Communist Party has been running China's economy with five-year plans since 1949.

As in other countries where the population was growing rapidly at that time, people in China - also because of the experience of the 1960s - were concerned about a renewed supply shortage and destabilization of the economy.

The Communist Party initially responded with birth control campaigns, which led to a decline in births as early as the mid-1970s. In 1979, the Chinese government under Deng Xiaoping introduced a strict control measure that was officially implemented from 1980: From then on, couples were allowed in China will only have one child. In the following years, however, Beijing also decided on exceptions - for example for ethnic minorities or for part of the peasantry. From 1984 onwards, parents in rural areas were allowed to have a second child if their first-born was female.
Propaganda poster for the "one-child family", 1970 (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, HPIC)

Brutal implementation of the one-child rule

The regime implemented the various measures of the one-child policy locally. There were big differences, especially between urban and rural provinces. In some cases, the one-child policy was implemented extremely brutally: women were forcibly forced to use contraception after the first child, for example by doctors using IUDs for them. In addition, forced abortions were not uncommon in the later stages of pregnancy. For violations of the one-child rule, authorities imposed massive fines - a so-called "social compensation fee". Couples who could afford it accepted these fines for having a second child.

Massive decline in the birth rate

The state family planning based on sanctions achieved the effect desired by the regime: The average number of children a woman gives birth in China fell from almost 4.9 in 1975 to around 2.5 in 1995 - ten Years later the birth rate was only 1.6. Nevertheless, China is today the most populous country on earth with 1.4 billion people; since 1980 the population has grown by around 400 million. The main reason for this is better health care and the associated lower mortality rates and higher life expectancy. It is estimated that without the one-child policy, there would be 300 million more people in China today.

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International saw the one-child policy as a massive invasion of privacy and a serious violation of human rights. As a result of the introduction of the compulsory border, there were massive abortions of girls: to this day, boys are often seen as family owners. In addition, they should take care of their parents in old age. Even after the reform of the one-child rule in 1984, many Chinese women continued to abort female fetuses, including in rural areas.

Surplus of men and aging

The lower number of female offspring became increasingly noticeable in the population statistics from the turn of the millennium. According to surveys by the International Monetary Fund, there were 34 million more men than women in China in 2018. In 2019, too, there were 113 boys for every 100 newborn girls. Since the surplus of men among Chinese under 30 is particularly serious, many young men remain alone, which leads to a wide variety of social problems: Experts warn against an increase in violent and sexual offenses, for example. The already tense situation on the housing market in many large cities is worsening due to the high number of single people.

Another problem is the impending aging of Chinese society, which could lead to a collapse of the social systems. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that around 30 percent of the population will be over 60 years old. Fewer and fewer young people will have to look after more and more old people in the future. According to forecasts by the United Nations, the number of people in employment will fall by 24 percent by 2050 compared to 2018.

Reforms and abolition of the one-child policy in 2015

After Xi Jinping's appointment as president, the government began to take various countermeasures in 2013 and to relax the one-child policy. If one parent was an only child, a couple could have two children. At the end of October 2015, the government finally decided to abolish the one-child policy and allow every couple to have two children. The regulation came into force in 2016.

But so far the easing has not led to an increase in the birth rate. In 2019, the birth rate across the country fell for the second year in a row to its lowest level in nearly six decades. Many Chinese cite the high educational costs and expensive and inadequate childcare options as reasons for their decision against having children.

Discussions about abolishing birth control

As early as 2018, there was intensive discussion in China about the complete abolition of the limit on the number of children - a corresponding bill should be passed in 2020. So far, however, the two-child limit has not yet fallen across the country. Far-reaching support measures to make the decision to have young Chinese children more attractive again have so far been lacking in the People's Republic.

But not all people in China benefit from these easing. According to research by the AP news agency, birth control is increasingly being misused as an instrument of power politics against minorities, for example against the Muslim minorities of the Uyghurs and Kazakhs. Accordingly, the Muslim families face punishments and forced abortions, which led to a decrease in births of more than 60 percent in the Hotan and Kashgar regions between 2015 and 2018. The state oppression of these minorities is also evident in the internment in so-called re-education camps and the destruction of mosques or saints' graves in those regions.

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