The end of China’s one-child policy

Starting in 2016, all Chinese couples are allowed to have two children. This marks the end of China’s one-child policy, which has restricted the majority of Chinese families to only one child for the last 35 years.

To enforce the one-child policy, China carried out massive sterilization and abortion campaigns. A large proportion of these procedures were involuntary.

Now couples are no longer required to seek approval from the government to have a child. It may be only a matter of time before Chinese families are free to choose when and how many children to have.

The one-child policy was introduced in 1980 to control China’s population growth and to facilitate economic growth under a planned economy that faced severe shortages of capital, natural resources, and consumer goods. China’s economic boom over the last few decades has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, sent almost 100 million young men and women to college, and inspired generations of Chinese, both young and old, to purse their economic goals. But this economic growth resulted from reform policies that loosened state control over the economy, not from the one-child policy.

By the year 2000, China’s fertility had fallen below the replacement level. China began to face the mounting pressures associated with continued low fertility.

China’s one-child policy will be remembered as a costly lesson of misguided public policymaking. Much of China’s fertility decline actually began in the 1970s when the government called for later marriage, longer birth intervals, and fewer births. The one-child policy created many of China’s 150 million one-child families today. For these families, the damage caused by the policy is long-term. Population aging in China is a burden for Chinese society as the support ratio between the working-age population and the elderly declines. It also harms the many workers who are only children.

Furthermore, there are an estimated 20 to 40 million more men than women in China.

The very low fertility in China is likely the result of choice rather than of policy restrictions. Other societies in East Asia also have low birth rate even though they have introduced pro-family policies.

Future generations will struggle to understand China’s one-child policy. Why did a society based on respect for the family, kin, and filial piety enforce a policy that effectively terminated many kin ties for at least a generation?

Source: The end of China’s one-child policy
Copyright 2023 The Brookings Institution

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