China has a population of 1.42 billion, the largest in the world, according to 2017 figures from the United Nations. The country had feared that population growth was hindering economic development, so in 1979, the Chinese government implemented a one child per family policy. It also implemented birth control programs and offered economic incentives to families with fewer children. 

In 2016, China abolished its decades-long one-child policy to combat an aging society and shrinking workforce. Married couples can now have two children and no longer have to apply for a family planning service certificate. 

The One-Child Policy 

The one-child policy requires married couples to apply for a family planning service certificate once they learned of a pregnancy. Applying for this government-issued birth permit was complex and required navigating a maze of bureaucracy, including obtaining official stamps from a minimum of 16 different entities. The requirements involved so many steps that some couples feigned unemployment to alleviate at least one of the steps.

The government subjected the applicant mother and father to intense scrutiny, including posting their names and home address on a public bulletin board. Along with this information, they posted the mother's identification number: the equivalent of a combination U.S. Social Security number and driver's license number. This identification number is how the Chinese government keeps track of the wombs in China. They also listed the last known method of contraception the couple utilized.

If parents did not acquire the certificate before the child was born, the hospital would not issue a birth certificate, so there would be no legal record of the child's birth.

Contraception and Peer Pressure 

The Chinese government sees reproduction as a privilege that is granted by the state, given only upon the citizen’s fulfillment of their duties to the state. According to officials, once a couple has been granted the right to have a child, they then have a duty to make use of contraception to prevent further pregnancies. Because China's society has deeply ingrained patriarchal customs, the responsibility for contraception falls primarily to the woman.

Officials typically allowed certain types of contraception, namely intrauterine devices (IUDs) and tubal ligation. These methods are easily verified, lasting, and offer bureaucratic convenience. Regulations encouraged women with one child to use IUDs, and those with two children to undergo a tubal ligation. In many instances, a woman needed to have an IUD inserted to register a second child with the local public security bureau, which is essential for the child to have access to health care and public education.

In certain locations, family planning officials — essentially agents of the government — used a type of neighborhood crime watch structure that encouraged neighbors to spy on one another and report any children who may be unregistered. In some instances, those reporting suspicions were monetarily rewarded. 

Local family planning authorities also imposed peer pressure from coworkers. Authorities placed a collective responsibility on the work unit of a couple at a government-affiliated place of employment. If one member of the unit had more than the government-allowed number of children, then every employee working in that unit was denied an annual bonus — a form of government-sanctioned blackmail.

Bottom Line

It's unclear how China's relaxation of its one-child policy will affect birth rates. The birth rate in China in 2017 was 1.62 births per woman, according to the United Nations Population Division. The birth rates are similar for other industrialized nations. Because China's economy is becoming more Westernized, it's unlikely that the Chinese birth rate will rise significantly.