Family Planning: Finally, I can have a sibling—legally

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

At its core, China’s one-child policy is a scheme that controls and suppresses one of the most important and personal of human rights—how many children one would like to have.  Not only is it an encroachment of human rights for parents– namely, that they can have only one child and therefore one heir, it is also an encroachment for the single-child—I, the only child from my family in China, cannot legally expect to have a brother or a sister. These reasons alone are nauseating for anyone who would like to have some degree of liberty in deciding something so vitally personal. As young Chinese sterilize themselves after their first child, coupled with horrifying tales of forced late-term abortions, the 1.4 billion people of China seem like prisoners who need brutal restriction and constant supervision.

Human rights aside, some argue that the one-child policy was the “least worst option”. The argument was simple: China during Mao’s era was too economically weak, so much so that the allocation of resources was extremely difficult. Applying Malthusian reasoning, China needed to have fewer people in order to boost the quality of life. Having fewer people would make the allocation of resources much easier for the central government. And, as many people from China now argue with a whiff of patriotism, look what contributions China made towards the environment by reducing its population!

Contributions, to be sure—by limiting the number of people being born, China must have lessened its burden on the environment. But by how much? And what is its toll?

Before the introduction of the one-child policy, China’s fertility rate had already dropped from 6 children per woman in 1965 to 2.4 children per woman in 1979, the year when one-child policy was introduced. The introduction of the one child policy just brought that down to 1.6 children per woman.¹ This is a less than impressive achievement for such a nation-wide, restrictive policy. According to one estimate, this policy managed to prevent around 100 million children being born, not 400 million, as some officials claim. ²

Yet notice the subtle implication in the statistics. Large cities like Shanghai, where the bureaucracy is mature and sophisticated, have much stronger enforcement of this policy than inland villages, where it is very hard to regulate. Shanghai already had it fertility rate at around one child per woman. This skews the statistics by the fact that people from far less developed regions were giving birth to many more children. This is worrisome, because it shows that the one child policy is hitting too hard where it ought not to and not hard enough where it ought. The labor force from big cities like Shanghai are usually better-educated and more cosmopolitan. These would, in turn, provide a higher-skilled labor force than those coming from less developed regions, where people have been having more children. The average skill-level of the labor force suffers as a result.   

Already, China’s labor pool shrank in 2012, for the first time in 50 years. This is bad news for a country that is already facing drastic aging issues. The ratio of taxpayers to pensioners is expected to drop from almost five to one to just over two to one by 2030. This is especially crippling considering that China is facing a slowdown in economic development. In a sense, the legacy of the one-child policy might be a time bomb; there is reason to be very pessimistic about how China’s economy is going to fare around 2030.

Furthermore, it has been repeatedly noted that the generation of single-children are burdened with other people’s dreams—in this case, their families’. The single heir to two sides of the family is expected—and quite understandably—to do what his/her parents, and grandparents, say. Therefore, unlike their peers in many developed nations, Chinese single-children do not have their own space to realize their own dreams. With the exception of the very few from well-established families, whose parents instead give their children more support than they otherwise would, most Chinese people born as a single-child show a lack of passion for their lives. Public opinion forums are in a flurry when discussing this problem.

These arguments against the one-child policy might be missing its true benefits, some argue. Most of China’s great problems, such as poverty, over-crowdedness, poor educational resources, do indeed come from having too many people. Furthermore, with China’s labor costs steadily rising, more jobs will be taken by automation. If there was a bigger pool of unskilled people unable to compete for good jobs, there would surely be higher unemployment, which would drastically wear out societal stability. This argument, however, could be misleading, in that it seems to put the causes of the problems of a developing nation on its population, not on its less-than-satisfactory central-planning.

Recently the restrictions have loosened, allowing all parents in the country to have two children. The effect of this, nevertheless, might not be as observable as expected. The one child policy has made many families unwilling or unable to raise more children when costs of living are spiraling out of control. Attitudes fostered after a  thirty-year trend of suppression of human rights might take a long time to die out, not to mention the 500,000 people working in deeply entrenched bureaucracies doing nothing but make meet quotas—or limits thereof — for the total number of children being born.


  1. United Nations; World Bank; National Bureau of Statistics; Credit Suisse
  2. http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/12/economist-explains-8

Featured image courtesy of saudigazette.com.


    • I’m certainly glad the policy has loosened. But many arguments in the essay are way too assertive. We cannot assume we know enough to comment the country just because we grew up in it. Also Ein Commenter, “presume” is rarely a good idea.

      • Well, I was making a probably circuitous semi-meta reference. I think in this case my presumption should be pretty reasonable if you see it…

  1. I would argue, however, that it makes a lot of sense for families in less developed regions to have more children, since rural work often needs many people for labor. In order for families to continue their farming practices, they need more children.

    Also I believe a few scientific studies have shown that the psychological issues that may emerge from single-child families may be exaggerated, since in many cases, single children could be more independent. This is of course still up for debate.

    Either way, I’m glad we have a more reasonable policy now. I personally think that population control may still be a good idea, but just in a more relaxed form.

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