What is China's one-child policy?

Families celebrate Children's Day at a park in Beijing. Children's Day, an annual holiday since 1949, is an important event for a country where most families have only one child. See more pictures of Beijing.
Families celebrate Children's Day at a park in Beijing. Children's Day, an annual holiday since 1949, is an important event for a country where most families have only one child. See more pictures of Beijing.
Frederick J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

There are more than 1.3 billion people living, working and building families in China. Until a century ago, many Chinese families included multiple generations living under one roof. Today, though, it's no longer the norm.

These days, a typical Chinese family includes a married man and woman with one child, referred to as a core family. While there are some instances when a core family may look a little different, such as when a family is caring for one or both sets of grandparents, the percentage of core families continues to rise above other types. This rise is no coincidence -- it's a direct reflection of the Chinese government's population control policies.

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The National Population and Family Planning Commission of China (NPFPC) is a state agency responsible for overseeing population control, reproductive health and family planning across China's provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities. In this regard, the agency crafts policy and legislation, organizes and coordinates publicity and education, and directs and supervises reproductive science and technologies. The NPFPC limits the number of children Chinese couples may have, commonly known as the one-child policy.

China's Population and the One-child Policy

A mother caries her baby in Beijing.
A mother caries her baby in Beijing.
Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

China has some of the lowest birth rates in the world; as a whole, the rate hovers around 1.8 births per woman, although some experts estimate it's actually closer to 1.5 -- and in areas such as Beijing and Shanghai, the rate drops to 0.7 [source: LaFraniere]. Thirty years ago, though, these numbers looked much different. The fertility rate then was 2.9 children per woman and looking even further back, in 1970 China averaged 6 children born to every woman [source: Hesketh].

The modernization of China, including urbanization developments in the 1970s that drove cost-of-living increases as well as rising education levels, may be playing a role not only in its economic growth but also in its low birth rates, suggest some. But it's not the only thing. Also beginning in the late 1970s, China began encouraging the ideas of "late, long, few" -- voluntary family planning by delaying marriage, having fewer children and increasing the number of years between children. In 1979, the government introduced and implemented its formal one-child policy, an aggressive effort to improve standards of living and the economy through population control. Although the government originally planned for a short-term program, the successful prevention of about 400 million births lead China to keep a revised version of the policy in place ever since in an effort to keep population growth under strict control [source: CNN].

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Under the one-child policy, urban couples (roughly 680 million of China's population lives in cities) aren't allowed to have more than one child; overall about 63 percent of all Chinese couples fall under the one-child rule, and most are Han Chinese [source: LaFraniere].

Exceptions are made only for couples who fit certain limited criteria. Before having a child, Chinese couples must apply for permission, called a birth permit. In rural areas, couples may apply a birth permit to have a second child if their firstborn is a girl, and couples are allowed three children if they are of an ethnic minority. China also relaxes its policy for any couple who themselves grew up as only children, whether one or both of the pair is a singleton, allowing these couples to have up to two kids. Additionally, any couple whose child is disabled or killed in an accident may be allowed to apply for a second birth permit (or to adopt). The deadly 8.0 magnitude earthquake that hit the Sichuan province in May 2008 killed an estimated 10,000 children and left thousands more severely injured, disabled or orphaned -- and is an example of a circumstance that allowed couples to have second children.

Family Planning in China

Children hold hands as they walk through the ancient city of Pingyao.
Children hold hands as they walk through the ancient city of Pingyao.
Frederick J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Under China's family planning laws, everyone is responsible for practicing family planning and contraceptive methods. Those who follow policy are offered rewards, such as a "Certificate of Honor for Single-Child Parents," loans, social assistance and other assistance depending on their socio-economic status. Couples who delay marriage and children may be eligible for rewards as well, such as longer honeymoon and maternity leaves of absence.

Those who don't comply with the one-child policy are subject to penalties including fines (ranging from one-half the local average annual household income to up to 10 times that level or more), confiscation of belongings and administrative sanctions for government employees. In 2013, for example, Chinese movie director Zhang Yimou was sued for millions after admitting that he and his wife have three children. "Excess" children may be subjected to educational and health care penalties.

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To ensure strict policy compliance, the National Population and Family Planning Commission of China (NPFPC) offers free, universally accessible contraceptive methods. As a result, the contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) among married women is as high as 89 percent in China, compared to 55 percent CPR for married women in other developing countries [sources: Li, World Economic Forum]. The most common family planning methods? Nope, not condoms and birth control pills; in China, IUDs and female sterilization are the most-used methods. Fewer than 10 percent of the population relies on vasectomy, condoms and oral contraception [source: National Population and Family Planning Commission of China].

Controversy and Criticism of the One-child Policy

China may face problems as a smaller workforce made of singleton children is forced to support a large, aging population.
China may face problems as a smaller workforce made of singleton children is forced to support a large, aging population.
Frederick J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Over the decades, China has come under fire regarding its population control policies and methods of enforcement, and has been accused of human and reproductive rights issues, female infanticide and unsafe practices. It's suggested that China's family planning policies force or coerce women into having abortions and sterilizations through social, economic and psychological pressures, discriminate against women and encroach on the human right to reproduce.

Additionally, the one-child policy, along with China's traditional preference for male heirs, has contributed to the problem of gender imbalance. In 2010, for example, there were 51 million more men than women in China; that year, 120 boys were born for every 100 girls. By comparison there were just about 96 men for every 100 women in the U.S. [source: Ro, Census Bureau]. Girl infants are abandoned at a high rate. Female infanticide, the act of intentionally killing female infants and fetuses, is an acknowledged problem in China. And in rural parts of the country, infant mortality rates are as much as 27 percent higher for girls than boys, often due to neglect [source: U.S. Department of State]. And because of this bias, the proportion of young single men to single women over the next decade will get problematic -- it's estimated that 35 million men will be forced into a lifetime of bachelorhood [source: Ford].

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The abortion rate hovers around 1 out of every 100, which equals more than 13 million abortions annually (a number that only includes those that are performed by licensed health care professionals, which may include abortions that were forced on the patient). In comparison, the reported abortion rate in the U.S. is 1 in 500 [source: Jiang].

Amid controversy of its strict methods and enforcement of rules, China continues to look ahead at ways to improve its population policies. The National Population and Family Planning Commission of China (NPFPC) is planning programs and advances in the quality of both social and reproductive health services. To address the social stigma of having girls and the related gender-ratio imbalance, for example, the NPFPC launched a campaign named "Girl Care" in rural areas. One publicity campaign in Hebei Province, for example, includes billboard advertisements reading, "There's no difference between having a girl or a boy -- girls can also continue the family line." China has also made it illegal to discriminate against women who give birth to baby girls, and has prohibited ultrasounds to determine gender and sex-selective abortions after an ultrasound.

China's demographic decline also has resulted in a rising ratio of elderly to wage-earning adults -- about 194 million Chinese over the age of 60 have no or few children to care for them [source: Yang]. The smaller workforce comprised of singleton children is challenged to support two sets of aging parents; China also lacks adequate pension coverage and social welfare systems, putting young workers under financial pressure as they try to pick up the burden. The new 2013 policy that allows two children to couples where either parent is an only child is expected to create a minor population boost of about 1 to 2 million additional children born per year, helping to both ease the skewed gender ratio and offset the ratio of growing elderly to declining young [source: Chang].

Author's Note: What is China's one-child policy?

There was something about this assignment that made people say the oddest things when I mentioned it to them. Some wondered if I'd end up on a special list, marked by the Chinese government for writing about the one-child rule, as if this policy were a secret. I originally wrote this piece concurrently with an assignment about how thousands of children in China were being named "Olympics" in honor of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and the juxtaposition of these two filled my research with the history of the Chinese family and strict population control with scenes and stories of new families celebrating their country as well as creating good luck and a sense of individuality for these infants by giving them a specialized, magical name.

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