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China’s Population Policy: Did It Work?

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, believed his country’s power came from its growing population.

Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, believed his country’s power came from its growing population.

Mao Zedong and Population Growth

The Communist dictator and creator of modern China, Mao Zedong, believed his country’s power came from its growing population. Until the 1960s, couples were encouraged to have as many children as possible.

National Geographic reports that “. . . government propaganda condemned contraceptives policy, and even banned the import of some. As a result, the population of China doubled over the next few years.”

But, the country ran into problems with water and food shortages, environmental damage, and social and economic problems caused by overpopulation.

Even while Mao was still in charge, efforts were made to cut population growth. In the early 1970s, couples were encouraged to delay marriage and keep their family size down to two children.

Mao died in 1976 and his successors really put the brakes on China’s massive population growth problem.

One-Child Policy

The core tactic to slow growth was the one-child policy. Each family was allowed to have only one child and faced hefty fines if it went over the limit. Even stronger measures were used, such as forced sterilization and abortions.

But there were plenty of exceptions.

The strict one-child policy only applied to 36 percent of the population. More than half the families were allowed to have a second child if their first baby was a girl. Certain ethnic minorities were exempted from the restrictions.

There’s a debate over whether or not the policy worked. The Chinese government claims its strategy prevented the births of 400 million babies. But the authors of an article in The China Journal say that’s stretching the truth:

“ much as three-quarters of the decline in fertility since 1970 occurred before the launching of the one-child policy.”

An Unforeseen Problem

Relaxing the Rules

In 2013, the government started to ease away from its population control program. Twelve million couples were allowed to apply to have a second child, but only a small number did so. In 2016, the one-child policy was closed down with every couple now allowed to have two children.

Why the change? Remember that massive surge in population numbers under Chairman Mao? Those people are now elderly and dropping out of the workforce. By 2030, 219 million Chinese citizens will be over 65, but there will be fewer working-age people to support them. There will also be a labour shortage.

Perhaps the one-child policy worked too well. Over almost four decades, Chinese families have become used to the idea of raising a single child. They like the fact that looking after an only child is less time-consuming and a smaller financial burden. This is behind the reluctance of couples to take up the two-child offer.

The Little Emperors

The law of unintended consequences has hit China’s population control program in another way. Families with only one child have lavished enormous attention on that single offspring. As a result, they have created what the Chinese call xiao huangdi―or "little emperors." These are children who have been pampered and developed a belief that they are the centre of the universe.

A teacher told Clay Chandler (Fortune Magazine) “Kids these days are spoiled rotten. They have no social skills. They expect instant gratification. They’re attended to hand and foot by adults so protective that if the child as much as stumbles, the whole family will curse the ground.”

The editor of a literary journal described the little emperors as “self-centered, narrow-minded, and incapable of accepting criticism.”

The problem is so bad that Time Magazine reports: “In China today, some employers have gone so far as to specify 'no single children' in job postings.”

Gender Imbalance

There has been another downside to the one-child policy; the imbalance between males and females.

In Chinese culture, and in many others, male children are preferred over females. So when it became possible to learn the gender of a fetus, many females were aborted. This disrupted the natural gender balance among humans that for every 100 females born 101 males are delivered. But gender-selective abortion in China has yielded a ratio of 117 men to 100 women.

Today, there are 30 million men of marrying age in China who have no hope of finding a bride. As The New York Times reports, these men “are condemned to living and dying without offspring to support them in old age, as children are required to do by law in China.”

Writing for Forbes Magazine Kevin Lee points out another problem:

“An entire class of potentially angry, frustrated, relatively poor, and uneducated single men can mean serious threats to societal stability... China’s history is full of examples when a group lashes out in defiance and/or violence.”

Economics professor Xie Zuoshi has suggested a solution; two men could share one wife. This practice, known as polyandry, is not unknown in China. Again, here’s The New York Times:

“ . . . from 1700 well into the 1900s, China experienced a similar guy glut. That’s right: in 18th and 19th century rural China, women took two (or sometimes more) husbands. This happened in every province in China, and for the most part, their communities tolerated or even accepted it.”

But in the 21st century, Professor Xie’s idea caught a lot of abuse on social media.

These issues highlight the difficulties attached to social engineering. In the process of solving one problem, the Chinese government has created several others.

In 2020, births in China fell to a record low, raising fears of a demographic crisis. So in June 2021, it was time for yet another reset. Now, the two-child policy has been changed to the three-child policy.

But it seems people will greet this with the same lack of enthusiasm they had for the two-child policy. As Al Jazeera reports: “Couples say they are put off by the high costs of raising a child, demanding jobs, and the need to look after elderly parents.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Between 1959 and 1961, China was hit by a massive famine that killed an estimated 15 to 30 million people.
  • According to a United Nation global population study, India will have a greater population than China in 2022.
  • According to the United Nations, China's population in 2021 is 1,444,216,107.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor