China’s One-Child Policy: Blessing or Curse?

Oct 18, 2010

Even if the one-child policy were revised, the Chinese might still shy from producing more children.

198 Poster promoting China's one-child policy


The following reflections were based on an interview with a student on Chinese perspectives on China’s one-child policy:

Recently I called my youngest sister, who works in Kunshan, a prosperous industrial city near Shanghai, and we chatted about the job situation there. She said factory jobs are easy to get these days. I asked why that is the case. She said most potential workers are single children in the family. “If you were their parents, wouldn’t you want your only child to go to college and get a better job?”

I guess I would.

At the same time, there is a shortage of jobs for recent college graduates. At a meeting with college students in 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao made job creation for young college graduates a national priority. Job scarcity can threaten social stability, which the current Chinese administration is trying hard to maintain. Indeed, as shown in many regions in the world, it is a recipe for disaster to have too many young people and too few opportunities.

The lack of younger people for factory jobs is forcing China to re-consider its “world factory” model of development.

The lack of workers for factories and the lack of jobs for college graduates, though seemingly unrelated, are actually both direct results of decades of China’s “family planning” policy. This year, a significant number of scholars spoke out against it, urging a revision or even the revocation of the one-child policy.

(The policy is fundamentally a mistake used to correct another mistake: under Mao, it was a virtue and contribution to the country to have many children. “The larger the population, the greater the strength”, said Mao, who encouraged families to have more children and even persecuted Professor Ma Yanchu, a prominent sociologist and Beijing University President who advocated population control. Ma left his position, burned his manuscripts, and disappeared from public attention.)

China has 1.4 billion people in a land similar in size to the United States, which has 300 million people.

Is China’s population control a total mistake? The problem is so complex that it defies criticism from a single perspective. First of all, “family planning” is not a Chinese invention, and it is a pretty good theory. In other countries, one would also need to prepare for the number of children to have, and the social, economical, psychological and even physical arrangements to make so that it is possible to raise your children in a fairly decent environment. Currently, China has 1.4 billion people in a land similar in size to the United States, which has 300 million people. Though this presents many opportunities, it also has a huge pressure on the country. Such pressure can be easily felt if you hop on to a bus in Beijing, or a subway train in Shanghai, if you can get on at all.

The overpopulation issue, however, should never justify the one-child policy as an intervention. In the name of “family planning”, atrocities such as forced abortion and sterilisation were common. If anyone holding public office has more than one child, he or she may immediately lose the job, and receive a huge fine that is often several times a person’s annual salary.


Chinese don’t want more children?

After 30 years of the family planning policy, what would happen if the policy is abolished? Would people have more children than one? In present-day China, many young people, especially those born in the ’80s, call themselves “apartment slaves”, “child slaves” to describe the heavy pressure they have to shoulder. After talking with friends and classmates back home, I realised many people wouldn’t want to have more than one child even if they are allowed to.

As a matter of fact, there is already quite a bit of flexibility about this policy and people can often make exceptions for themselves especially in recent years when the public is casting doubts about family planning as a basic national policy. For instance, in rural China, it is possible to have another child if the first-born is not a son. Also, in the cities, if both parents are single children in their respective families, they are allowed to have a second child. However, many choose not to take advantage of this “privilege”. It is getting prohibitively expensive to raise a child. I guess we’ve got a giant panda situation here. Sooner or later there will be a “tipping point” when the population will decrease and increasing it would be a tough challenge.

Elsewhere in the world, there are similar reservations among the Chinese about having more children. According to The Population Crash, Chinese women on average have far less children than others. In Singapore, where there isn’t a one-child policy, Chinese women on average have 1.1 children, much less than the other races in Singapore. In the Chinese communities in the U.S., having two children is common, but those who have more than three will often wow a fellow Chinese.


Still policy needs to be revisited

At this point, the policy will indeed need to be revisited. Economically, an ageing population is not going to do China much good in the long run. China may seem prosperous, but not many people are taking the GDP growth seriously anymore, unless the national wealth can be fairly distributed through equal access to opportunities for the country’s 1.4 billion people. Compared to the powerful few, most people are still living in relative poverty. The nation risks “getting old before it gets rich”, as a popular saying goes nowadays.

This generation of single children is more assertive and more confident than their parents’ generation.

Economically, the lack of younger people for factory jobs is forcing China to re-consider its “world factory” model of development. Socially, when generations of single children grow up, they will be forced to live in a 4-2-1 family structure (four grandparents, parents and the child). If the social welfare system does not upgrade to accommodate such changes, it is going to cause huge stress for the child to support all the parents and the grandparents. Traditionally many Chinese parents were supported by their children. That’s simply not sustainable any more.

To be sure, the lack of siblings conveniently rids the society of sibling rivalry issues that drive parents crazy (remember “It’s not fair!”, “He started it”, “Why me?”). But that may be as much a curse as it is a blessing. Kids may grow up not knowing how to resolve conflicts, solve problems in spite of differences, and build relations with a fellow human being of his or her similar age. That’s not doing future marriages much favour.