China’s one-child policy has probably gotten as much time in the spotlight as the size of its population, the world’s largest at more than 1.39 billion people. Implemented in 1979, the goal of China's one-child policy was to make sure that population growth did not outpace economic development and to ease environmental and natural resource challenges and imbalances caused by a rapidly expanding population.

Initially, the one-child policy was meant to be a temporary measure and is estimated to have prevented up to 400 million births since it was instituted. The government-mandated policy was formally ended with little fanfare on Oct. 29, 2015, after its rules had been slowly relaxed to allow more couples fitting certain criteria to have a second child. Now, all couples are allowed to have two children.

In this article, we discuss the history behind the controversial China’s one-child policy, how the government implemented the restrictions, and the deep impact they had on China's population.

Key Takeaways

  • China's one-child policy was introduced in 1979 as population growth skyrocketed. The policy is estimated to have prevented up to 400 million births since it was instituted.
  • This policy was intended to curb China's growing population and to ease environmental and natural resource challenges and imbalances caused by the country's rapidly expanding population.
  • By the mid-1970s, China was already beginning family planning campaigns marked by the slogan "Later, Longer, and Fewer," meaning encouraging later marriages, longer intervals between births, and fewer children.
  • Certain exceptions were made as early as the 1980s for families who first birthed a daughter but wanted a son, lived in rural areas, or were born to a minority ethnic group.
  • By 2013, China began to ease its one-child policy. By 2015, China's one-child policy was officially scrapped and couples were allowed to have two children.

History of China’s One-Child Policy

Increased Population Growth

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the one-child policy in 1979 to curb China’s rapidly growing population, which was estimated at 970 million at the time. The policy was a result of the years that followed the founding of The People’s Republic of China in 1949. After years of unrest, medical care and sanitation improved and China's population finally began to grow. At the time, this was seen as an economic boon for a country that was transforming into an industrial nation from an agricultural one.

By the 1950s, population growth started to outpace the food supply, and the government started promoting birth control. Following Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in 1958, a plan to rapidly modernize China’s economy, a catastrophic famine ensued, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese.

In the wake of the famine, the government continued to promote family planning, such as postponing having children and using birth control. This was derailed temporarily by the upheaval caused by the Cultural Revolution in 1966, though by the late 1960s, the government began stepping up family planning campaigns. By the mid-1970s it introduced the family planning slogan "Late, Long, and Few," meaning encouraging later marriages, longer intervals between births, and fewer children—around two children for urban families and three for rural ones.

"Later, Longer, Fewer"

By the mid-1970s, China had already introduced its family planning slogan "Later, Longer, and Fewer" encouraging later marriages, longer intervals between births, and fewer children.

Implementing China’s One-Child Policy

China's one-child policy was highly controversial and criticized for the state's forced abortions and sterilizations of women. In many cases, the Chinese government forced women to get IUDs and other forms of birth control in order to crack down on overpopulation.

A Chinese family with a child born during the one-child policy was required to apply for a family planning service certificate. Due to the Chinese Communist Party's wide reach and government-owned societal structure, they enforced the one-child policy through a kind of "neighborhood watch" reporting structure in communities and workplaces. Neighbors were encouraged to spy on each other, reporting any suspicions for a monetary reward and thus participate in a larger form of government-sanctioned blackmail.

Incentives or rewards for families who adhered to the one-child policy included better employment opportunities, higher wages, and government assistance. Those who didn't were subject to, at minimum, fines and restricted or revoked access to government assistance and employment opportunities.

That being said, the implementation of the one-child policy also largely varied based on location, especially between urban and rural areas. Since a majority of urban workers in China worked for a government-affiliated place of employment, authorities imposed peer pressure from coworkers to report superfluous pregnancies. Meanwhile, in rural areas, the village's family planning official or cluster leader would keep track of all the families in the area. According to a journal article by Harvard researchers, "these birth planning enforcers kept detailed records on each woman of child-bearing age under their responsibility, including past births, contraceptive usage, and even menstrual cycles."

Easing of China’s One-Child Policy

Ultimately, China ended its one-child policy realizing that too many Chinese were heading into retirement, and the nation's population had too few young people entering the labor force to provide for the older population's retirement, healthcare, and continued economic growth.

When introduced, China's one-child policy mandated that Han Chinese, the ethnic majority, could only have one child. In the early 1980s, China relaxed the policy to allow couples to have a second child if each parent were both only children. Exceptions also included couples living in rural China and ethnic minorities with a small population.

In late 2013, as part of a package of social, economic, and legal reforms, the Chinese government amended the one-child policy to allow couples to have a second child if either parent instead of both is an only child. However, the impact of that change was modest as only an estimated 800,000 couples applied to have a second child that following year, according to statistics from China’s government-run National Health and Family Planning Commission. It was estimated that 11 million couples were eligible and that half would have eventually applied for a second child. However, it was suspected that one issue preventing Chinese couples from having a second child is that many of them lived in cities, where the cost of living was high enough to dissuade them—an issue also faced by couples in the West.

Ultimately, China ended its one-child policy in 2015 for demographical reasons: it realized that too many Chinese were heading into retirement, and the nation's population had too few young people entering the labor force to provide for the older population's retirement, healthcare, and continued economic growth.

Impacts of China's One-Child Policy

Gender Imbalance

One of the unintended side effects of the one-child policy is that China is the most gender-imbalanced country in the world for its sex ratio at birth, due to a cultural preference for male offspring. Especially during the one-child policy era, many families opted to abort female fetuses in preference for males. Abortion is legal in China, although sex-selective abortion is not. In 2019, the gender ratio in China was 114 males for every 100 females born.

Aging Population

China’s one-child policy had been successful in lowering its birth rate, which according to the World Bank, dropped from 6.4 to 2.7 between 1965 and 1979. Since then, the fertility rate has continued to decline through the 1990s to an average of 1.7 in 2018, which means on average women give birth to 1.7 children. This also means China is now faced with an older population, who rely on their children to support them when they are elderly and no longer working.

In 2020, approximately 17.4% of China's population is estimated to be over the age of 60; this number is projected to rise to 34.6% in 2050. Many families have also cited concerns over the "4-2-1" family structure, consisting of four older adults (grandparents on both sides), two parents, and only one child which puts strains on old-age support.

Many Chinese families have cited concerns over the new "4-2-1" family structure created by the one-child policy—consisting of four older adults, two parents, and one child—which strains a child's ability to provide old-age support to their parents and grandparents.

Shrinking Workforce

Population control had also resulted in a shrinking workforce. The number of workers entering China’s overall labor force has been declining for the last three years, a trend that is expected to accelerate. China’s labor force fell to 897.29 million workers in 2018, falling by 0.5% in the seventh straight year of decline, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). China's increasing elderly population and the decreasing labor force was the impetus for the relaxation and end of the one-child policy.

China's One-Child Policy FAQs

Does China Still Have the One-Child Policy?

No. China reverted to a two-child policy after its one-child policy ended in 2015. While restrictions had been gradually loosened over time.

What Caused China’s One-Child Policy?

China's one-child policy was implemented to curb overpopulation that strained the country's food supply and natural and economic resources following its industrialization in the 1950s.

What Are the Effects of China's One-Child Policy?

Gender imbalance, an aging population, and a shrinking workforce are all effects of China's 1979 policy. To this day, China has the most skewed sex ratio at birth in the world, due to a cultural preference for male offspring.

Who Ended the One-Child Policy?

The Chinese government, led by the Chinese Communist Party's Xi Jinping, ended the controversial one-child policy in 2015.

What Happened If You Broke the One-Child Policy?

Violators of China's one-child policy were fined, forced to have abortions or sterilizations, and lost their jobs.

The Bottom Line

To date, China's controversial one-child policy is still the most ambitious government-initiated birth control project in history. In some ways, the policy was successful: intended to curb overpopulation, it is estimated to have prevented up to 400 million births and reduced the country's birth ratio to just 1.7. Yet, the one-child policy also leaves behind multiple after-effects: now, China must face concerns of an aging population, shrinking labor force, and address the wounds of many families, especially women, by its gender discriminatory policies and treatment of women's bodies.

Now, with China's universal two-child policy in effect, the impacts are still speculative. While some believe that the policy's impact on population growth will be relatively small, peaking at 1.45 billion in 2029, others are hopeful that the two-child policy will lead to better health outcomes and a reduction in abortions. It seems only time will tell.