Ending of the One-Child Policy in China

Alexandra Stassinopoulos, World Editor

In a surprising announcement on October 30, 2015, the Chinese Communist Party revealed that the controversial One-Child Policy would end in early 2016.

The One Child Policy began on September 25, 1980 to prevent overpopulation, something the the Communist leadership at the time feared would harm China’s economic potential. Under the policy, each family was allowed to have only one child. Although having more than one child was permitted to couples of certain minorities or to parents whose first child was handicapped, exceptions to the law were rare.

However, it was not so much the one-child rule itself that raised controversy, but rather the methods used to enforce this law. With policies that permitted forced sterilizations and late-term abortions, the policy became known more for the brutality in which it was carried out than the economic benefits it sought to promote.

“The law’s kind of harsh, and it’s unfair.” says DHS Junior Queenie Zhu, who lived in China for eight years before coming to the U.S. “There’s not a lot of distribution of wealth in China, so all the wealthy have more kids, but the normal people do not because they cannot pay the fines.”

Families that chose or accidently had more than one child faced a difficult choice. Under the law, these families could either pay a yearly fine, abort, or abandon their child. Some families would try and hide their illegal pregnancy from official notice, risking severe repercussions if they were caught.

Sophomore Hanna Li, whose parents immigrated from China to go to college in the U.S., has grown up hearing about the one-child rule, not only from her parents, but also from family that still live in China. Because of this connection, Hanna knows first hand how the one-child rule can affect ordinary people.

“One of my aunts had two children, when my cousin and I were in, I think, third grade. They, my aunt and uncle, hadn’t planned on having a second child, but they also didn’t want to have an abortion, so they had my other cousin. But, they also have to pay really big fines every year because she was their second child.”

For the families that could afford to pay the fines, the policy was not debilitating. Other couples were not so lucky; they had no choice but to be crippled by the exorbitant fines or face a decision that no parent should ever have to make: abandonment, infanticide or raising a child that has no legal identity: a ghost without access to schooling, medicine, and possibly, a future.

Although the policy did succeed in curbing overpopulation by preventing, the Chinese government claims, “over 400 million births”, it also had several unintended effects. For example, a traditional cultural preference for boys over girls resulted in a skewed population, gender-wise; today, the ratio is about 51.9% men and 48.1% women. Multiply that by China’s vast population, and that’s thousands more boys than girls.

Besides messing up the gender ratio, the One-Child Policy has placed the burden of an aging population on an increasingly smaller population, a problem compounded by a growing life expectancy.

In other words, the one-child policy created many of the problems that the two-child policy hopes to fix. However, forcing couples to have only one child not only changed the population size, gender ratio. It also affected Chinese culture.

“I’m an only child,” explains DHS Mandarin teacher Ms. Xu, “I’m in the middle of the generation that the one-child policy affected. For my mother, it was different; she has four brothers and sisters, and, growing up, I had a lot of cousins, but it’s not the same as having someone grow up with you. When you have siblings, you’re with someone all the time, and because my generation didn’t have this, a lot of us are lonely.”

Despite this, Ms. Xu concedes that, “the policy solved a lot of problems, though. Overpopulation causes cases a lot of problems in terms of the distribution of the resources, energy sources, and education. For example, when I was in elementary school in Shanghai, every classroom had 55 students for one teacher; now it’s only thirty students per a class.”

“But, at the same time,” Ms. Xu continued, “the policy created a lot of problems. If I were to marry another only child, for example, then we’d have to take care of four parents as well as our kids. We wouldn’t have any siblings to help us. I see my mom and her siblings taking care of my grandmother, and they all share the responsibility and spend time with her. When it’s my generation’s turn to take care of our families, we won’t have the same support system.”

Ms. Xu believes that the two-child policy will help fix this problem for some families, but not as many as the government intends: many of her friends still don’t want to have two children because of the financial strain it will put on them. However, Ms. Xu thinks that Chinese children having siblings is important for reasons other than just having someone to share the burden of caring for their parents.

“Last year, in my advanced Mandarin classes, we did a ‘cooking show’ project. It was a group project, and it was expected that the students would work independently, without adult influence. And, they did a great job; when I talked to my mom later, who still lives in Shanghai, I told her about the projects. She laughed and she said that if Chinese students had gotten this project, they’re grandparents would have tried and cooked for them, even if the students intended to finish the work by themselves. I thought it was funny, but true. Chinese children have grown up as ‘little emperors/empresses of the family with a lot of attention from both their parents and grandparents. It’s too much attention, and it’s made them very dependent and self-centered.”

If the new law will help end the reign of these “little emperors”, we do not yet know. However, one thing is sure: when the law goes into effect in early 2016, and Chinese couples will have the right to have two children for the first time in twenty-five years. The One-Child Policy changed not only the Chinese economy, but also created a fundamental culture change. Whether or not the two-child policy will affect the country in the same way, remains to be seen.