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The one-child policy was an initiative to reduce overpopulation via economic pressures in the People's Republic of China. Adopted in 1979 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, and partially funded by the United Nations Population Fund, the policy limits families to
one two three children for the 36% of the population to which it applies.
The policy has successfully reduced population growth, and improved economic and environmental conditions to some extent, since families and communities are expending less money and fewer resources on children. However, critics have claimed that these benefits could have occurred anyway as part of economic trends or under less oppressive policies. The latter argument seems to have won out, with Xi Jinping starting to loosen the policy in 2013. In October 2015, the CPC announced they would replace the policy with a two-child policy. Which was replaced with a three-child policy in 2021. Which was likely done to slow down China's rapidly aging population.
The policy has its origins in the work of Song Jian, a top-level Chinese scientist, who was trained in cybernetics and military science. Song did not have experience in demography, but was instead influenced by the Club of Rome's views on population and the environment as published in The Limits to Growth. Rather than seek out the advice of demographers, as there were none in China at the time, Song instead applied his expertise in cybernetics to population control.
The policy is applied at a provincial level, and enforcement naturally varies. One-child restrictions apply most rigidly within urban areas. Couples in rural areas are often allowed a second child if their first child was a daughter. Enforcement is also the most strictest when applied to the Han, China's dominant ethnic group; ethnic minorities are allowed to have two, three or four children, depending on the regional policy. In some rural areas, the policy is largely relaxed.
Affirmative action policies exempt ethnic minorities from the policy, although they are usually restricted to two children in urban areas. In Tibet, family restrictions are not enforced, at least among the native Tibetans. The policy has not been extended to the Special Administrative Regions of Macao and Hong Kong, which were reunited with China in recent years.
Couples must be married before they have their child, must apply for permission, and undergo a rigorous screening process. Families in rural areas can apply to have a second child, and so can urban families under some special circumstances, such as if the first child is physically or mentally disabled, or if both parents are from one-child families. Where second and subsequent children are allowed, "birth spacing" is expected, meaning that the first child must be at least three or four years old first.
Contraception is freely available and its use is mandatory to avoid illegal births. Abortion is also widely used, sometimes against the couple's wishes, although forced abortions are now officially illegal. Couples who are found to have had multiple children without permission are fined heavily, and made to pay schooling and health care costs which would otherwise be state-funded. Unofficial practices reported in some jurisdictions include forced abortions, forced sterilizations, and infanticide. Many parents simply choose to not register their children at birth.
Human rights issues
The policy's human rights implications are highly controversial, leading to criticisms from both within and outside China, some tensions in international relations, and rocky relations between the United States and the UN Population Fund, which backs the measure. The issue is also falsely used by some anti-abortion activists in the US as some sort of boogeyman to suggest what would happen to the country if those nasty pro-choice people had their way.
In itself, the principle of restricting a couple's right to reproduce is regarded by many as an infringement of civil liberties, regardless of the economic reasons behind such a restriction. Enforcement methods can violate human rights, including some of the official and unofficial practices mentioned above, such as involuntary abortions or sterilizations.
The screening process, undertaken before marriage is highly controversial, essentially amounting to eugenics. Physically or mentally disabled individuals, including those with common conditions such as dyslexia, are banned from marrying and procreating. The intent is to promote a "healthy population," and this attitude is reflected within society, with disabled people being stigmatized, and couples wanting a healthy child. Disabled children are often given away for adoption, officially or unofficially, and may even be abandoned or killed.
There is also a strong preference for sons for cultural and economic reasons. This means that female foetuses are often aborted, and female infanticide is widespread in some areas. Although these practices are illegal, they have had a notable effect on birth ratios, with male to female births now up to almost 12:10.
Pressures on children
Chinese couples invest a heavy burden of expectations in their child. The child is expected to excel at school, attain a successful career, find a respectable marriage partner, and ultimately support a family as well as aging parents. Although these pressures are common in many countries, they are intensified by placing the onus on a single child.
From a young age, children are under pressure for academic achievement, with much of their time spent cramming in schooling and extra-curricular activities chosen by their parents, such as music or competitive sport, and little time given over to conventional childhood activities such as play. The expectation to excel continues throughout life, with those who are unsuccessful in their work or personal life suffering shame and disrespect.
Since the policy is now into its second generation, one-child couples are often caring for or supporting their retired parents and grandparents, as well as their children, to a much greater extent than in countries where care for the elderly is shared among larger families.
- Birth control
- Cornucopian vs. Malthusian debate
- Reproductive rights
- Voluntary Human Extinction Movement: For those who'd prefer a zero-child policy.
- Nicolae Ceauşescu: Romanian dictator who instituted a bizarre inverse of the policy, banning abortions altogether and punishing women with low birthrates with a celibacy tax.
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- The costs and benefits of China’s one-child policy, The Conversation
- The consequences of China's one-child policy, Washington Post
- Missile Science, Population Science: The Origins of China’s One-Child Policy by Susan Greenhalgh. China Quarterly 182, June 2005, pp. 253-276.
- Six Consequences of One-Child Policy Reform, The Atlantic
- China’s One Child Policy at 30, Brookings Institution
- China reforms: One-child policy to be relaxed, BBC
- , BBC
- China allows three children in major policy shift, BBC
- The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind by Donella H. Meadows et al., (1972) Universe. ISBN 0876631650.
- Golden Venture: Human Rights in China
- In a Chinese Orphanage, The Atlantic
- Zeng Yi, Tu Ping, Gu Baochang, Xu Yi, Li Bohua and Li Yongpiing. "Causes and Implications of the Recent Increase in the Reported Sex Ratio at Birth in China." Population and Development Review Vol. 19, No. 2 (Jun., 1993), pp. 283-302 
- Third of Chinese primary school children suffer stress, study finds, The Telegraph