The one child policy was part of the birth planning program implemented by China in the 1970s to control the size of its national population. It was unique from other family planning policies around the world which focus on contraception, setting a legal limit on the size of a household in the country. This policy was implemented after a 10-year-long, two-child child policy that the Communist government enforced.
There were a variety of methods used to enforce this policy, including financial awards issued by the government. Beginning in 1982, China began rewarding families with an extra 5 yuan per month if they only had one child. Then the national government worked with local officials to conduct inspections, carry out registrations, and implement legal consequences for those who did not comply.
This policy created a number of unintended outcomes that the Chinese government is trying to manage today. It caused the nation’s fertility rates to plummet when compared to the rest of the world, even though the original implementation of it was as a temporary measure. There are several advantages and disadvantages of this policy to consider.
List of the Advantages of the One Child Policy
1. Families were not forced into abortions like some outside of China believe.
There were voluntary abortions that occurred in China frequently because of the one child policy due to the desire for a boy instead of a girl. In this culture, the lineage and estate go through the male child, so many felt like their family line would terminate if they didn’t have a boy. That meant there was a significant increase in the number of voluntary abortions that occurred during this time, but it was not a mandatory policy of the government.
Even if you had more than one child, you were given contraception before having a tubal ligation as a woman. That meant you could still be intimate with your significant other while trying to stay within the concept of the law.
2. Multiple births were permitted under the one child policy.
Parents in China were not forced to give one of their children up for adoption if they had twins. All multiple births were recognized as being part of the legal household without experiencing a penalty. Families might not have been eligible for a financial incentive to have just one child in this situation, but it was a way for many to experience the joys of a larger family like they wanted without being forced to pay significant fines for the privilege.
Couples that wanted more than one child found that the cost of the fertility medication that could increase their odds of having twins or triplets was significantly less than the fines they would pay for having two separate pregnancies.
3. The one child policy helped to transform the role that women play in Chinese society.
Because families were authorized to have only one child as part of their family composition, the role of girls and women began to grow in China. Before the policy, men received a preponderance of the educational chances and career ventures from their family. Women were expected to take care of their residences and relationships unless exceptionally talented in some way.
After the implementation of the one child policy, families with one girl registered their children in school programs more often. They sought vocational learning possibilities not allowed by the unwritten practices of the past. This process allowed an entire generation of girls to enjoy a quality of life much greater than seen in the past – including the time before Communism.
4. There were financial benefits to consider for families under the one child policy.
Even if you set aside the 5 yuan financial benefit for families that only had a single child in their household, this structure helped to create more economic stability at the local level. Parents could afford more educational and vocational opportunities because there was only one child to support. Schedules were easier to manage, care needs became simple to schedule, and there would still be friends to make in each community.
Critics of the policy suggest that kids growing up as an only child would be lonely, more anxious, bitter, and deal with a lot of repressed anger. Missing the unknown idea of having a brother or sister is also problematic. Is it better to provide more opportunities, or is it better to avoid potential emotional pitfalls?
5. There were additional benefits for only having one child that went beyond money.
If you were granted a certificate which verified that you only had one child living with you, then there were several societal benefits awarded to your household. Some families received extra allowances of land for farming because of their compliance, which sometimes even included a free home. There were awards of free water for irrigation and consumption. Higher pensions, better government jobs, and priority services at the local hospital were sometimes included.
Students were even given extra points on their tests while in elementary school because of this unique socioeconomic policy.
6. The one child policy offered numerous exemptions that families could use.
Although the public perception was that the one child policy applied to all families, that was not the case. If you lived in an area designated as being rural, then you could have at least two children in China – and sometimes more if you had significant agricultural work to do. Families from a designated ethnic minority could have up to three children during this period in Chinese history.
There were also several exceptions in place that would allow couples to have more children, including birth defects, physical or learning disabilities, or unexpected tragedies. If a family unit was composed of a mother and father who both came from an only child household, then the government had the discretion to permit a second child for them as well.
7. More jobs became available in China because of this policy.
Because the one child policy in China prevented up to 400 million births, there are now more employment opportunities available for everyone in the country. Each person has less competition to fight through when trying to land a great job. If an only child applies for a position that someone from a multi-child household wants, then they’ll get the top priority for filling the spot.
Having a 117:100 ratio for men vs. women also means that families had a better opportunity to change their financial situation. Men were the primary income earners for much of the one child generation, which meant fewer food shortages, less poverty, and better educational options for the next generation.
List of the Disadvantages of the One Child Policy
1. It created mandatory contraception and sterilization policies.
As part of the one child policy in China, women were required to have a contraceptive intrauterine device installed surgically after having their first child. This product offers a 99% success rate at preventing a pregnancy, so it was effective at controlling the population levels of the country. If a woman were to have a second child, then the government forced her to have a tubal ligation procedure.
Over 320 million Chinese women were fitted with intrauterine devices under this policy between 1980-2014. Another 108 women were forced to undergo sterilization with a tubal ligation. The men were much luckier, often being told to pay a fine for their activities instead.
2. This policy created a disparity in the gender ratio at birth in China.
The gender ratio of newborn infants in mainland China reached 117 to 100 for boys vs. girls born, which was about 10% higher than the global baseline. It rose from 108:100 in 1981, which was the boundary of the natural baseline. That means there are 30 million more men than women in this generation of Chinese citizens, which could create significant socioeconomic issues for their country.
The reason for this disparity was a desire to have boys so that the family line could continue on. This option was not available for women at the time of this policy, and it is still incredibly rare for girls to have the same family rights as men with regards to inheritance.
3. There may be social issues because of the unusual gender ratio.
China has already admitted that having between 32 million to 36 million more men than expected in their society could result in several social problems developing in the country over the years. There are tens of millions of young men who may be unable to find a future bride. The government is concerned that this may lead to higher levels of social unrest, sex trafficking, kidnapping, and other forms of criminal conduct so that intimacy can be an experience for them in some way.
4. It caused many parents to give up their children for adoption or abandon them.
When parents had an unauthorized second birth or wanted a son, but had a daughter, then giving up the child for adoption became a financial strategy for them under the one child policy. Adoptions of daughters accounted for more than 50% of the “missing girls” that were not on census documents in the country. Starting in 1991, the Chinese government raised the penalties for additional children and levied them on those who even chose to adopt.
This action caused over 120,000 children who were abandoned to find hope in adoption with over 120,000 international parents.
5. This policy caused couples to seek fertility counseling when none was needed.
One of the unique aspects of the one child policy was that it was more of a “one pregnancy policy” with its implementation. If a mother were to have a multiples birth, then they would not be penalized for the extra child or forced to give all but one up for adoption. Twins, triplets, and higher were allowed to stay with their parents. That means more families started using fertility medication as a way to have more kids legally. Between the start of this policy and 2006, the rate of multiple births doubled.
6. Families had little or no support left to them after death.
When an only child has both of their parents pass away at any age, it changes their concept of family. There was no longer the possibility of being able to manage many of the social needs of this society because of tragic incidents that occurred. It was not unusual for parents to become over-protective of their children to prevent loss, including a reduction in extra-curricular or after-school activities so that they wouldn’t need to apply to the government to receive an exception to have another child.
7. The cost of adoptions in China rose because of the one child policy.
Because parents were no longer allowed to adopt children if they had one of their own under these guidelines, state-run orphanages began to pop up around the country to support the increasing numbers of unwanted children. Even when there was family nearby to care for the child, the imposition of financial penalties made it all but impossible for everyone to stay together. It was not unusual for over 90% of the population of these facilities to be girls because of the emphasis to have boys in the culture.
China recognized the gender discrepancies that were forming in their society, so they worked hard to make it more challenging for girls to leave through international adoption. Unless you were wealthy, it was impossible to finalize the legal processes in the later years of the one child policy unless you agreed to live there.
8. It created care burdens for aging parents that some children are still trying to manage.
This disadvantage is the primary reason why China eventually moved back to a two-child policy. When there was only one child in a household, the financial burden of taking care of aging parents made it a challenge to improve the standard of living at almost every level of society. Many families found themselves forced to live with both sets of grandparents, becoming 3- and 4-generation households as a way to share the burden of the issue.
Even with this shift in emphasis, charitable requests continued to rise over the life of the one child policy in China. There was an increase in the number of dependency applications the government processed as well. It was such a problem in some regions that families who could prove this hardship were often given permission to have extra kids.
9. The Chinese government enforced the one child policy inconsistently.
There were over 2,000 government officials in one province that violated the one child policy without any formal punishment. Then there were people like Zhang Yimou, who received a fine of more than $1 million for the number of children that he had with various women. Some rural districts were implementing financial penalties that equaled six times the annual salary of the household if it was discovered there was an extra child present, yet it didn’t levy this punishment on anyone in a government job in some instances.
This disadvantage led to high levels of resistance throughout Chinese culture. Calls for reform were briefly quashed until the scientific research regarding this policy showed that there were several future problems that might occur if it were allowed to continue.
10. Chinese nationals would leave the country to have children.
Some families attempted to travel to Hong Kong as a way to avoid the potential penalty of having more than one child. Women in China were paying over $50,000 to have another child in the United States to avoid the problems with this policy. Any location that granted immediate citizenship to a child born in the country, especially the U.S., would provide a favorable status for the family back in China. That mean the risks of receiving a devastating consequence were severely minimized if the efforts were successful.
11. Families were forced to register their children to aunts and uncles.
Because the government would issue fines that were 2-6 times the amount of a person’s annual salary as a social services fee for an additional child, some parents went to great lengths to protect their children and avoid potential legal consequences. If there was a sibling living overseas, then the family could assign that child to the individual, knowing that they weren’t planning on returning to China.
Although it seems like an advantage since the child could stay in the home, it limited the traveling opportunities for families. If the assigned sibling did return home, then the government would assign the child to them – creating the potential of an indefinite separation.
12. The one child policy targeted the urban poor more than anyone.
Most of the wealthy families in China would simply pay the fine for having more than one child, and then they would move on with their lives. This disadvantage was especially prevalent in cities like Shanghai or Beijing. If you weren’t in the middle class, then there were numerous risks that you faced.
If you were unable to pay the fine for an additional child, then you could have your property seized. There were other actions, including jail time, that were possible in extreme circumstances. That’s why families either hid their additional child or decided to abandon them.
13. It violates UN policies on reproductive rights.
It is true that the government has a say in the social planning needs of their nation. There is also a need for these representatives to protect the rights that we feel are fundamental to the human experience. Since 1968, the United Nations has declared that family planning and reproductive rights, including how many children to have, should be part of each household’s decision-making process.
Instead of looking at ways to encourage parents to be responsible with their family planning needs, the Chinese government forced the process on would-be parents. By not allowing parents to make the best possible decision for their household, China could arguably be in violation of this agreement.
14. It created a financial burden for the government.
In some parts of China, up to 4% of the GDP was being spent each year on enforcement policies and procedures for the one child policy. Even when families were caught and paying their required fines, the 4 billion yuan spent annually was never fully recouped in any situation. This disadvantage may be why there was such a disparity in the enforcement of the policy. By creating financial burdens to the government, Chinese interests would always have access to cheap labor for those who chose to violate the policy.
Verdict on the Advantages and Disadvantages of the One Child Policy
China eventually gave up on the one child policy because of the many disadvantages that they faced with its implementation. Starting in January 2016, the nation is now using a universal two-child policy that applies to each household. Even though 76% of Chinese nationals said that they supported the concept of government-based family planning, the use of forced sterilization, contraception, and abortions to ensure compliance was highly controversial in the rest of the world.
More than 50% of households in China from 1979-2015 qualified to have a second child because of their status, including being part of an ethnic minority.
The advantages and disadvantages of the one child policy may have prevented hundreds of millions of births that could have caused problems for the Chinese economy, but there are lessons to be learned from this process as well. Instead of forcing people into situations where a birth rate reduction becomes necessary, education and awareness can produce similar results.
Crystal Lombardo has been a staff writer for Future of Working for five years. She is a proud veteran and mother. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our editor-in-chief a message here.