What Was China's One-Child Policy? Its Implications and Importance

What Was China's One-Child Policy?

The one-child policy was a rule implemented by the Chinese government mandating that the vast majority of couples in the country could only have one child. This was intended to alleviate the social, economic, and environmental problems associated with the country's rapidly growing population. The rule was introduced in 1979 and phased out in 2015.

Key Takeaways

  • The one-child policy was a Chinese government policy to control population growth. According to estimates, it prevented about 400 million births in the country.
  • It was introduced in 1979 and discontinued in 2015, and enforced through a mix of incentives and sanctions.
  • The one-child policy has had three important consequences for China's demographics: it reduced the fertility rate considerably, it skewed China's gender ratio because people preferred to abort or abandon their female babies, and resulted in a labor shortage due to more seniors who rely on their children to take care of them.

Understanding China's One-Child Policy

The one-child policy was introduced in 1979 in response to explosive population growth. China has a long history of encouraging birth control and family planning. 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.

However, by the late 70s, China's population was quickly approaching the 1 billion mark, and the Chinese government was forced to give serious consideration to curbing the population growth rate. This effort began in 1979 with mixed results but was implemented more seriously and uniformly in 1980, as the government standardized the practice nationwide.

There were, however, certain exceptions, for ethnic minorities, for those whose firstborn was handicapped, and for rural families in which the firstborn was not a boy. The policy was most effective in urban areas, where it was generally well-received by nuclear families, more willing to comply with the policy; the policy was resisted to some extent in agrarian communities in China.

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. 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.

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.


There were various methods of enforcement, both through incentives and sanctions. For those who complied there were financial incentives, as well as preferential employment opportunities. For those who violated the policy, there were sanctions, economic and otherwise. At times, the government employed more draconian measures, including forced abortions and sterilizations.

The one-child policy was officially discontinued in 2015 and the government attempted to replace it with a two-child policy. The efficacy of the policy itself, though, has been challenged, as it is true that populations, generally, naturally taper off as societies get wealthier. In China's case, as the birth rate declined, the death rate declined, too, and life expectancy increased.

One-Child Policy Implications

The one-child policy had serious implications for China's demographic and economic future. In 2017, China's fertility rate was 1.7, among the lowest in the world.

China now has a considerable gender skew—there are roughly 3-4% more males than females in the country. With the implementation of the one-child policy and the preference for male children, China saw a rise in female fetus abortions, increases in the number of baby girls left in orphanages, and even increases in infanticide of baby girls. There were 33 million more men, with 116 boys for every 100 girls, as compared to women in China.

This will have an impact on marriage in the country, and a number of factors surrounding marriage, for years to come. Lower numbers of females also mean that there were fewer women of child-bearing age in China.

The drop in birth rates meant fewer children, which occurred as death rates dropped and longevity rates rose. It is estimated that a third of China's population will be over the age of 60 by 2050. That means more elderly people relying on their children to support them, and fewer children to do so. So, China is facing a labor shortage and will have trouble supporting this aging population through its state services.

And finally, the one-child policy has led to the proliferation of undocumented, non-first-born children. Their status as undocumented makes it impossible to leave China legally, as they cannot register for a passport. They have no access to public education. Oftentimes, their parents were fined or removed from their jobs.

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.

Article Sources
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  4. Britannica. "Great Leap Forward."

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  6. Library of Congress. "China’s One Child Policy."

  7. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. "One Year Later, Initial Impact of China’s Population Planning Policy Adjustment Smaller Than Expected."

  8. The World Bank. "Fertility Rate, Total (Births per Woman) - China."

  9. Britannica. "Consequences of China’s One-Child Policy."

  10. U.S. Congress. "Gendercide: China’s Missing Girls."

  11. Pew Research Center. "Without One-child Policy, China Still Might Not See Baby Boom, Gender Balance."

  12. Gao, Fang., Li, Xia. "From One to Three: China’s Motherhood Dilemma and Obstacle to Gender Equality,"Women, 2021, pp. 252-266. 

  13. World Health Organization. "Ageing and Health in China."

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