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China’s One-Child Policy

A propaganda poster of a woman in a red dress holding a young boy on her shoulders against a futuristic backdrop of white high-rise buildings and blue skies. English lettering on the top reads: Carry Out Family Planning/Implement the Basic National Policy.

The Policy

China implemented its one-child policy in 1979 in order to ensure that its resources could support a growing population. Under the policy, each couple that lives in a city should only have one child. Penalties for having more children have included fines totaling ten years’ wages, loss of employment and a denial of the second child’s education and medical services. The law was amended in 2002 to allow families to have more than one child if one or both members of the couple are an ethnic minority, or if they are both only children themselves.

Although government officials claim that the policy has been a great success and prevented more than 250 million births since 1980, China’s population is still booming—expected to increase from 1.26 billion from 1999 to 1.6 billion in 2050.

The policy is also not without loopholes. Many rural families do have a second child, or more. Some couples might claim that a newborn baby was adopted by a friend or a relative. Wealthy urban families skirt the imposed fines for having more than one child by simply paying the fee, which can be as high as the equivalent of $20,000 U.S., an unaffordable sum for most Chinese couples.

The Implications

Since its inception, the one-child policy has been a source of controversy. Critics cite instances of forced abortion and, due to a traditional preference for male children, cases of female infanticide. The resulting gender imbalance will have a profound social impact: according to a 2007 report by China’s State Population and Family Planning Commission, 118 boys were born to every 100 girls in 2005. Today, the number of men outnumbers women in China by more than 60 million.

Raising only one child, however, has allowed many families to afford to send their offspring to school. But China’s ideal “4-2-1” family frame of four grandparents, two parents and one child can also be a burden. Some Chinese citizens feel that the one-child policy has led to a generation of “little emperors”—only children who bear and receive the majority of their parents’ focus and energies, to often negative consequences. As in American society, these only children are sometimes stereotyped as spoiled and socially maladjusted.

With each generation of only children, the number of cousins and other extended family members decreases, posing challenges as China’s population ages. By 2040, the country’s elderly citizens are slated to account for 30 percent of the total population. Many only children will have to support both their parents and four grandparents as they age. How a country of only children will alter China’s ideals of group cooperation is a question that only time will answer.


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