Kim Wall

What China’s ‘One-Child Policy’ Really Looks Like — A View from the Grassroots

Chinese school children participate in morning exercises. (knezovjb/Flickr)

Earlier this week, China’s leadership announced the merging of the Family Planning Commission, which oversees the implementation of the policy, with the Health Ministry, drawing speculation as to whether the Chinese family planning policy will be relaxed further or dropped completely in the near future. Yet what would an end to the long-standing policy, also called the “one-child policy,” mean for China’s citizens?

Citizens speak out

Mrs. Yang, 36, told Tea Leaf Nation that she is counting on a revision. “With many voices arguing for the reform of the one-child policy, I have been anxiously waiting for it to change,” she said.

Yang is a high school teacher in Shantou, Guangdong province, and as a public sector employee, she could lose her job if she violates the policy. She and her husband, 40, already have a daughter, but would also like a son.

“I think two children would make a family more complete and better; for both the parents and the children,” she said. But the clock is ticking.

“In a few years, it will be impossible for us to have more children. I hope the policy will be adjusted soon,” said Yang.

The larger trend

More and more families share Yang’s opinion. In 2010, researcher Chen En of the China Population and Development Research Center found the average desirable family size to be around 2.1 children. This number has risen over the last decade; between 1997 and 2007 the figure increased from 1.64 to 1.89 children. Most families would ideally like one boy and one girl, and rural families generally wish to have more children than their city counterparts.

Anni Jin, 23, a foreign language student in Beijing, considers herself extremely lucky. Unlike almost all of her peers, she did not grow up alone. Jin has a twin brother; multiple births are one of the exceptions to the family planning policy.

“Most of my friends are only children and were jealous of me when we grew up,” she said. “They were very, very lonely, and didn’t have any siblings to play with.” Jin, who sees both pros and cons within the policy, believes that the government’s new guidelines granting couples of only children a two-child permit may signal a loosening of the policy.

Change in the air?

In October 2012, the China Development Research Foundation, a Chinese government think tank, issued a report which urged the implementation of a two-child policy in certain provinces starting in 2013, moving toward a nationwide two-child policy by 2015, and dropping all birth limits by 2020. It sparked hopes that change was underway.

Cai Fang, a leading author of the report, thinks that the government understands that reform is necessary. While the China Population Planning Committee has been claiming China should maintain the policy, this does not necessarily mean it objects to adjustment. The Chinese word for the one-child policy – jihua shengyu, translating to “family planning” — does not necessary imply a one-child restriction; rather, it is about controlled population growth in response to the needs of society.

“Based on our gradual transition to two children, our government is in fact seeing the same thing as us,” said Cai.

On March 4, Ma Xu, a Beijing delegate to the National People’s Congress and director of the National Research Institute for Family Planning said that certain provinces such as Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin are exploring the possibility of instituting a second-child policy to counteract the country’s declining workforce.

A new normal gradually emerges

Today, fewer than 40 percent of Chinese couples are strictly limited to only one child under current regulations, and some still find ways to sidestep the policy. Even as the China Family Planning Association (CFPA) has millions of staff and volunteers around the country, there is an enormous number of undocumented children — an estimated 3 million babies every year — hidden or in custody of relatives in other locations. These “black-permit” children are frequently ineligible to receive free education and healthcare.

Among the urban elite, larger families are increasingly becoming the norm. While some simply pay the fines for having additional children, others find more imaginative loopholes, such as “birth tourism” (delivering a second child in Hong Kong or elsewhere), fake divorces, bribing doctors to document siblings as “twins” or taking fertility medication for multiple births.

According to Candy Chen, 29, who works at the prestigious Beanstalk International School in Beijing, half of the Chinese students now have siblings. Chen herself grew up as an only child but thinks the regulations are more relaxed now. The big question, she says, is money.

The cost of a child

“The family wants to give the child a high-quality life; to help them have a better life than they did. But that’s difficult if you have more than one,” she said. “Rich people, of course, have this ability to give children a good life so there is not really a question of whether to have just one.”

While it is beyond doubt that China’s fertility rates have declined since the policy was introduced, the extent this can be attributed to the family planning policy itself remains unclear. Fan Ming, a professor at Henan Political and Financial University claimed in his book, Fertility Behavior and Fertility Policy, that the falling fertility is better explained by economic growth, higher incomes, and more education.

Yong Cai, a sociologist at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill, argues that the regulations have had fairly nominal results. “The one-child policy has only a very limited effect on controlling China’s fertility. China’s fertility was already low among developing countries before the launch of the one-child policy; largely a success of the ‘later-longer-fewer’ policy of the 1970s,” he told Tea Leaf Nation.

“For the entire 1980s, the policy functioned like a failed floodgate that created birth booms and bursts. Only in 1990 [did] China’s fertility dropped below replacement, but this drop has a lot more to do with China’s socioeconomic transition than the policy itself.” In the decade prior to the one-child policy, births had already plummeted from 5.8 to 2.7 per woman.

One oft-cited case to illustrate the redundancy of the so-called one-child policy is an experiment conducted in Yicheng county in Northern China. Since 1985, the policy has been relaxed in favor of a two-child policy with certain stipulations, coupled with a greater emphasis on family-planning awareness. Still, the birth rate in Yicheng has been lower than in many other parts of the country, and the gender-ratio is close to normal as well. Many demographic experts and academics have interpreted this result to mean that the decrease in China’s birth rate over the past 30 years has owed more to industrialization and modernization than to the one-child policy. However, some experts also pointed out that before the policy experiment, the growth rate of population here was already lower than average.

For Liang Jingjing, 29, who was born in Yicheng and now works in a high school in the city of Linfen, it is economic reasons rather than policy constraints that discourage her from having more children. Liang already has one child and does not want another. Unaware of her county’s policy experiment, she speculates that the one-child policy plays only a small role in discouraging people to have more children, especially in urban areas.

“If you are in the city, the burden of a child is heavy, so people around me only have one child,” she said. “We have a saying here: having a boy is like 1 million, having a girl is also 1 million. School, job-hunting — the cost of raising a child is almost 1 million yuan. Compared to that, the fine of [violating the one-child policy] is just several thousand yuan. The influence is minimal.”

Liang is not sure what the effect of abolishing the one-child policy would be, especially in rural areas. “In rural areas, the burden of raising children is smaller, and we still think having more children could help you when you get old.”

There has been research that illustrates the increasingly high cost of raising children, especially as education becomes a higher priority for families both urban and rural. In 2010, the School of Foreign Language and Literature of Nanjing Normal University found that most ordinary families spent on average 100,000 RMB (or about US$16,000) raising a child to university age, while wealthier families spent about 300,000 RMB (or about US$48,000). In a country where the gross national income per capita is US$4,940, and there is a significant rich-poor gap, this is a substantial sum for many families. A separate study conducted by Xu Anqi, a researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, found that an average household spends 40 to 50 percent of its total income to raise one child; the bulk of it being education-related.

Zhao Yayun, 23, from the city of Wuhui in Anhui province, has personally witnessed how differences in family-planning attitudes further illustrate the growing gap between urban and rural Chinese.

“The willingness to have more children is still very strong in my hometown,” he said, adding that this may cause people to defy the draconian family-planning regulations.

Zhao grew up with three siblings, and he says most people in his hometown from his parents’ generation had at least two children, even if it meant paying heavy fines. “I found that people, if they think having more children is necessary, will do it anyway — even if they have to risk their wealth.”

Zhao himself is now seeking employment in Beijing, and explains that he and most of his friends do not want more than one or two children. It is simply too expensive.

“We want to have better conditions for our children,” he said. “Therefore, I don’t think having a lot of children is right.”

Hongxiang Huang, Elaine Mao, and Anjli Shah contributed writing and research.

Jump To Comments

Kim Wall

Kim Wall is a New York-based reporter and photographer with a long-standing fascination with Chinese politics and society. Before moving to the United States, Kim worked as a political reporter in India and Australia, as well as a freelancer in Beijing. Originally from Sweden, she graduated from London School of Economics in 2011 with a degree in International Relations and is currently pursuing a master's degree at Columbia Journalism School.
  • QuietestAC

    It’d be interesting to look at the older end of the one-child policy. How do only children see the responsibility of being the only one to care for parents? Also, what’s their view of their peers and their “Little Emperor” generation?

  • BobbyWong

    China’s one-child policy is a misnomer – it’s a de facto two-child policy. For example it never applied to minorities, only Hans. Also there are many exemptions, such as rural farming families, disabled veteran home care, 1st child being disabled, etc.

  • bgann


  • avery

    can you talk to me please

  • avery

    hi bobbywong

  • China Newz

    Isn’t it too early for China to change this policy though. Although it would be great for families to do so, how will these people support their 2nd child with low wages and high housing prices, not to mention rising inflation. Think that China should wait until they develop a healthy middle class before changing this policy.

  • maggie

    If a family already has a child, but would like to adopt another, is that allowed under China’s one child policy?

  • Candy Smith

    Can they just make it two child policy? LOL! It seems so lonely being the only child.