40 Years On: The Unforeseen Effects of China’s One-Child Policy

Nov 8, 2020 | China, CULTURE, GOV, NEWS

‘If Looks Could Kill’ © Axel Halbgebauer 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the controversial policy that has reigned in China for an entire generation. Now no longer in effect, a look back at the way in which this policy has shaped the course of the country provides a range of insights into the development Chinese culture has achieved as a response.

It is no secret that China’s economic reform in 1978 has been arguably the most defining strategic move of the last century in the Asian continent. With a clear and specific target of achieving global economic dominance through a set of strict regulations, China has had its eyes on the prize ever since, and still today is showing no intent of slowing down. 

Among the many accommodating policies implemented since, one very unique piece to the puzzle, was the introduction of the most restrictive population policy in human history; the one-child policy. Introduced in 1979 and officially implemented a year after, this policy was a continuation of the existing two-child policy that was present for almost a decade prior. This policy dictated that every family was only allowed to bear one child, with some exemptions in certain regions, mostly for rural families working in farming.

Understandable Justifications 

The main aim of the policy was to keep the already jaw-dropping population of China under control, as they embrace rapid economic development. Admittedly, already back then, China’s population was expanding at staggering rates, growing to 940 million by 1976, almost double what it was only 30 years earlier. With a fragile economy and an extremely low GDP, the policy made some sense with regards to ensuring that extreme poverty and famine could be tackled faster.

Intending to keep the population below 1.2 billion by the year 2000, the goal was slightly missed (real number reached 1.26 billion), however the ultimate goal of GDP-increase did in fact exceed initial expectations as well, making the policy a success in that respect.

Although frequently disputed, it is believed that the policy has prevented more than 500 million additional births during the time period, which has also directly averted an additional 1 billion in the next 40 years, considering the potential descendants of those averted births.

Unforeseen Effects 

The ‘first-wave’ generations of only-children born in the 1980’s and 1990’s were quickly adapted into a new environment where they were sent to live and be raised by their grandparents, while the actual parents headed off to the big cities in search of better employment opportunities. This response became commonplace, and gave birth to an entire culture of children not being raised by their biological parents, sometimes not even seeing them for months or years at a time. 

As heartbreaking as that may be, the added freedoms that young parents were given through “co-parenting”, was one of the prominent factors which allowed China’s economic development to suddenly surge in the way that it has. With more time and less spending, young couples were able to focus the majority of their energy on career development. 

As this ’first-wave’ generation approached adulthood, and began heading towards higher education, the enormous savings of their parents were now – as Chinese culture already dictated long ago – used to aid. With this in mind, it is no wonder why the late 90s and early 2000s saw the first mass wave of Chinese exchange students going to overseas universities by the tens of thousands (today summing up to millions), as opposed to a mere decade earlier, where there were almost none.

'Shoes' Qingdao, China ©Gauthier Delecroix

‘Shoes’ Qingdao, China ©Gauthier Delecroix

With all this in mind, it is a very valid argument that a substantial contribution to China’s enormous development seen in the last 40 years, was made possible thanks to this policy. In the course of a generation, China has turned a large majority of the population from hunger-stricken lower-class workers, to stable middle-class professionals. By removing the financial ramifications of siblings, families became able to spend fewer resources, allowing for better investment opportunities, financial security, and quality education for their children, who would end up being the leaders of today’s China. 

At the end of the day, this sits perfectly in line with China’s core value of putting the good of the collective whole and the society before that of the individual, even if it means extreme state intervention.

Dark History and Modern Chaos 

But it hasn’t been a smooth road for the country throughout the course of the policy, nor is it starting to be now. With a cultural preference for male offspring already predating the policy by centuries, there were many valid criticisms of the horrid side-effects that came as a response. Issues such as male-favored infanticide (gender-selective abortion), the abandonment and neglect of females (many sent to adoption), and a range of other similar problems, became worryingly common.

Other controversies shed light on sneaky ways people found to go around the one-child limitation, such as “birth tourism” (going abroad specifically to give birth), or simply not registering births and even faking birth-certificates (to show a birth predating the policy). All these resulted in a wave of unregistered births which would end up affecting children their whole lives when it came to education, employment, public services, marriage, and even protection under the law. Today, there are still many adults who may not know their true birthday.

Of course, at the end of the day, the biggest argument against the policy was one of basic human rights, regardless of the struggles of overpopulation.

'Overtime' Shandong, China ©Gauthier Delecroix

‘Overtime’ Shandong, China ©Gauthier Delecroix

“The Loneliest Generation” 

On the societal side of things, Chinese culture has visibly absorbed a tremendous impact. The policy has given birth to the dreaded phenomenon of the “little emperors”, as many Chinese Gen-Z children have come to be labelled. With the absence of siblings, the overwhelming attention from grandparents since infancy, and combined with the exaggerated “investments” hard-working parents attributed to their education and well-being, an entire generation of children came to be regarded as spoiled and entitled, not to mention flamboyantly wealthy. 

Furthermore, the accumulated focus on children’s future prospects came with enormous pressure. This has led to a range of issues such as the “internet-cafe addiction” phenomenon, among other problems that can be seen as an escape. It is no wonder why more than 58% of Chinese young adults admitted to being lonely and selfish, in a 2005 study conducted by Sina. 

In response to this over-indulgence and exaggerated focus, the little-emperor generation is believed to possess a range of social issues such as poor communication and cooperation skills, lack of empathy or ability to display affection, and lack of self-discipline and adaptive capabilities. 

Flood 2015 China ©Jonathan Kos-Read

Flood of 2015 China ©Jonathan Kos-Read

The future of this generation does not get much brighter either, as we look at the dependency ratio in this rapidly aging population. Analysts place China’s current birth rate at one-third below the “replacement level”, meaning an exponential reduction in numbers in each generation. With a rapidly growing gap in the labor pool of more people leaving rather than entering, it is expected that more than 20% of China’s population will be at retirement ages by 2035. 

The pressure of only-children having to care for their elderly parents is already being felt, and has come to be labelled as the “4-2-1 problem”; one child having to carry the burden of caring for two parents, and four grandparents, on their own.

Battle of the Sexes

Among the many side-effects the policy has unleashed on the population, drastic changes in the country’s demographics was a major one. To begin with, the controlled birth rate had a significant impact on gender ratio, which renders China a huge outlier from the norm, with a ratio of 120 males for every 100 females. This disparity has left a deficit of around 40 million girl births, leaving many men not being able to find brides

Qingdao Metro, China ©Gauthier Delecroix

Qingdao Metro, China ©Gauthier Delecroix

However, one very positive outcome of the gender issue is the enormous empowerment of women, and the balancing of gender roles in Chinese society. As many families who birthed girls were now “stuck” without the son they normally would have preferred, parents were forced to accept the reality, and provide their girls with the same opportunities they would normally only keep for boys, such as education and career investments.

Suddenly becoming unburdened with raising big families and being homemakers, female participation rates in the workforce and their role in the economy became very prominent, and forced women to be expected to compete with men and succeed regardless of conventional gender roles. This liberation and altered perception of the gender that was previously heavily disadvantaged, is something that came to be seen as a fair tradeoff to the one-child limitation.

Where We Stand Today, Onwards 

As the termination of the policy is only a few years old (slowly beginning to be relaxed in 2015), the new freedom to birth children is still too early to really examine in terms of long-term impact. Whether the cultural and economic makeover endured through the policy will remain lost with the one-child generation, is still hard to say, as is future families’ child-count preference. As we begin this new decade, it might prove to be defining in how the freedom of modern families will affect the country as a whole, economically, and culturally.