China’s One-Child Policy

During Mao’s time as the founder and Chairman of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until his death, it was thought that population growth was necessary for economic growth. It was around this time that the Soviet Union had implemented the Order of Maternal Glory, an awards-based system used to incentivize women to bear and raise large families for the growth of the socialist state. Similar systems were later adopted by other countries within the Eastern Bloc and it was notably pursued by Romania’s leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, along with a ban on all forms of contraception in his grand hope of establishing Romania’s economy as a dominant world power; and like many socialist leaders before and after him, Chairman Mao also propagated the idea that more power came with more people. However, shortly after his death in 1976, China would become unique in its enactment of an unprecedented and increasingly aggressive family planning policy that, in the end, allegedly prevented an estimated 400 million births. 

The history behind the infamous One-Child policy was a gradual development with a seemingly innocuous and practical beginning. From its inception in 1949, the platform of the People’s Republic of China encouraged family planning via birth control, but the policies surrounding population control were voluntary and only sporadically enforced until after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. It was Mao’s Vice Premier, Deng Xiaoping, that promoted increasing contraception use in 1952, at a time when China’s population was more than 600 million. In 1957, during the fourth session of the National People’s Congress, the distinguished economist and demographer Ma Yinchu presented his own model, called New Population Theory, in which he claimed that the population was growing far too rapidly. He proposed that the government should devise a population control model to be incorporated into the upcoming Five Year Plan for new social and economic initiatives, and his theory was initially well-received. But during the years of the Great Leap Forward, Mao returned to the idea that population growth would bolster the economy and Yinchu was subsequently dismissed from his esteemed position under the charges of promoting Malthusianism and attempting to undermine the successes of socialism. Immediately after the Great Chinese Famine in 1959-1961, China’s population continued its rapid expansion and the birth rate in the early 1960s reached nearly six births per woman and by the end of the decade the population was more than 800 million. Finally, starting in 1971, the government responded to the problem through a family planning campaign and established the Leading Group for Family Planning. Like the Securitate (or secret police) in Romania, the Chinese government also dispatched birth planning workers most villages and urban areas throughout the country to closely monitoring and keeping detailed records of each woman of childbearing age; it became particularly important to monitor each woman’s menstrual cycle, for the purpose of identifying any illegal pregnancies as early as possible. 

From the late 1970s and through the 80s, economic growth and enforcement of the One-Child Policy became the central priorities of the People’s Republic, although application of the policy varied between urban and rural populations. Urban citizens were much more affected by the policy due to closer regulation, as many people working in China’s larger cities had jobs in state-owned institutions — and if they had more than one child, they were often at serious risk of losing their positions and  access to state-sponsored benefits for the family they already had. For rural families, the punishment for having more than one child was a fine, and it was often the case that these families were too impoverished to pay. This, along with the need for larger families to fulfill agricultural work, pushed people in the countryside to strongly oppose the family size limit and the policy was eventually amended to allow rural families to have two children, particularly if their first child was a girl. Meanwhile, in the cities, the pressure to have only one child mounted as family planning policies became more forceful through threats of job loss, steep fines, and mandatory contraception. In China, female labor force participation was exceptionally high and working women were required to be fitted with IUDs immediately after the birth of their first child, or to be surgically sterilized following the birth of a second child. The design of Chinese IUDs differed from that in other countries, however, as they were specifically altered so that they could only be removed through surgery. Up to 324 million women were forcibly fitted with these IUDs and 108 million were required to have tubal ligations, permanently sterilizing them for the rest of their reproductive years. If any woman refused either of these methods of birth control, she was at risk of losing her employment, and any existing children at risk of losing access to education, welfare benefits, and healthcare.

 In addition, the most popular type of IUD use in China, the stainless steel ring, (SSR) had a reputation for causing long-term hemorrhaging, pain, and discomfort for many women and often failed in actually preventing pregnancy. Long-term studies on the effectiveness of SSRs discovered that they had a two-year failure rate between 8 and 10.6%. If an IUD failed and a woman became pregnant with an unauthorized child, she often had no other choice but to have an abortion. According to statistics from the China Population Information Center, nearly 34% of the abortions performed in 1982 were the direct result of IUD failure. In 1987, over 10 million abortions were performed due to IUD failure that cost the government a reported $42 million. Eventually SSRs fell out of use with the invention of copper IUDs, which were more effective at preventing pregnancy, but increased the risk of bleeding and pain, with about 4.2% of users having it removed due to excessive bleeding. Women from rural areas were particularly at risk for complications associated with IUD removal and mandated abortion. Many of them already suffered from chronic anemia, and blood loss from these procedures sometimes resulted in further health problems or death. 

In Chinese culture, sons were strongly favored over daughters and advances in sex-selection technology allowed parents to decide whether to or not to terminate a pregnancy based on the gender of the child. Generally, the first child was accepted regardless of whether it was a boy or a girl — but if a couple was permitted to have a second child, and their first was a girl, they would often prefer to have a son, and in this situation female fetuses were usually aborted. Sons were also favored heavily among rural populations, where they were needed to perform intensive agricultural labor. China currently has a population with one of the most skewed sex ratios in the world, with the highest disparity peaking at 120 males per 100 females according to the 2005 census. Naturally, the human sex ratio is around 103 -107 males to 100 females on average. At present, China’s sex ratio is artificially and drastically inflated due to a mysterious shortage of 40 million baby girls, an issue commonly attributed to the use of sex-selective abortion and female abandonment. However, recent research suggests that although there are in fact more Chinese boys than girls than would be expected, there remains the possibility that the actual ratio might not be so dire, as it could be the case that many baby girls were simply never registered. A sizable number of girls who were undocumented at birth were discovered in later government records, and it’s estimated that this could account for a significant proportion of the missing girls; the fate of the rest remains unknown. 

Because of the effects of the One-Child Policy, both intended and unintended, China is faced with precarious demographic consequences in its future. The large disparity in the gender gap is projected to leave 40 million young men without partners due to the unnatural shortage of women. These men are dubbed “bare branches”, referring to their status as dead ends on the family tree because of their lack of marriage prospects. This will create a significant problem if China decides to cut funding for male-dominated industrial jobs, rendering many low-skilled young men less likely to attract potential marriage partners because of chronic unemployment and lack of resources. There are reportedly rising levels of violent crime and social turmoil in provinces that have high populations of unemployed bare branches, leaving the government reluctant to enact economic reforms that would disproportionately affect male employment opportunities and provoke civil unrest against the regime. On the other-hand, economic reform would reallocate funding from industrial jobs into the female-dominated service sector, giving women more earning opportunities and prompting them to select partners with equal or higher incomes.


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