The end of the one-child policy?

Nick Holdstock

Last week the Chinese government announced the end of its one-child policy; married couples will now be allowed to have two children. The policy was introduced in 1980, when the population had almost doubled since the Communists took control in 1949. It never applied to all citizens. People living in the countryside were allowed to have a second child if their first was female or born handicapped. Exemptions were also granted to ethnic minorities and people in high-risk occupations.

The use of fines, forced abortion and sterilisation to achieve compliance has caused wide resentment, especially in areas where corrupt officials took advantage of the policy to line their pockets. It promoted infanticide of female babies: by 2004, for every 100 girls born in China there were 121 boys. In the last decade the working-age population has dwindled and the number of retired people has grown, prompting the government to soften the policy in 2013, allowing couples to have two children if one of the parents was an only child.

But despite the longstanding opposition to the one-child policy, the news of its abolition has been met with muted approval. In part, this is because the Chinese state isn’t relinquishing control of its citizens’ reproductive lives. People who have more than two children will still face fines and harassment, and unmarried women will still be denied a ‘reproduction permit’. For the Party to abandon the policy entirely would be tantamount to admitting that it had been wrong. The change in the regulations has led to a torrent of posts on Chinese social media in which people describe the misery the policy has caused them. There’s been growing sympathy for parents whose only child died when they were too old to have another.

For a long time the regulations have only been a problem for the poor or people with a high public profile. The wealthy have usually been able to afford the fines (or bribes) necessary to get local officials to turn a blind eye. As with education and healthcare, the gap between rich and poor is vast.

Allowing most couples to have more than one child may also boost resentment against the state in regions with a high percentage of ethnic minorities, especially Xinjiang and Tibet. The influx of Han Chinese from other provinces since 1949 has already caused major demographic shifts, even though minorities were exempt from the one-child policy. Increasing the Han birth rate will futher marginalise minorities.

The decision to end the one-child policy won’t be approved by the National People's Congress until 2016, and the timing and implementation will vary between provinces. And it remains to be seen how many couples will have a second child. Despite its unpopularity, the policy has had a profound effect on family life. The culture of child rearing in China has become focused on raising a single child, resulting in a generation of ‘little emperors’. Their parents are often heavily invested (and involved) in many of their children’s life choices, including their job and partner. Bringing up a child is already so expensive and stressful that many Chinese parents are likely to decide that one is quite enough.