Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The One-Child Policy

So many of you probably know that China has a one-child policy, started in 1978. The government implemented this controversial policy because of fear that the population would grow far too large to be sustainable. The laws are not always concrete though, and slowly I think the government has relaxed upon many restrictions. However, this policy has many social consequences.

The Policy

If you have a second child, you are subject to heavy fines. You may lose your job if you work for the public sector. Therefore, making the wrong decision could cripple your family's finances and future. However, it seems now that instead of viewing the monetary penalty as a punishment, some people (with enough money) see it as the price to pay to have a second child. Additionally, if you work in the private sector, your career might not be affected.

There are many other exemptions. If one of the children is born in another country (or Hong Kong), he or she doesn't count and the parents can have another child. If both parents are single children in their respective families, they can have two children. Farmers in rural areas can have more than one child. Members of minority groups are also not limited to one child.

Therefore, if you are wealthy, you basically can ignore the laws, because you can either afford to pay the fines or afford to go to another country to give birth. However, the majority of the population does not have so much free-spending money. Hence, most people that live in urban areas only have one child.

I have read articles and books about the human rights abuses involved, such as women being forced to be sterilized and have abortions. I'm sure these stories are true though I have not personally heard of or observed any such atrocities. In my opinion, since most citizens seem to be complacent and passive with the government's policies, they accept birth control and abortions as a normal way of life. When I spoke with people about the policy, most of them did not really like it but thought it necessary to control China's population.

The Effects

There are so many concrete problems that arise from the one-child policy, aside from the issues of reproductive rights and privacy. Of course, these issues aren't absolute, because as I mentioned before, there are loopholes where couples can have more than one child. However, the effects are real and growing, especially upon the families.

  • The Parents: It is traditional in Chinese families that when the kids grow up, they support their parents through old age. Children are like insurance. The parents usually are financially and emotionally dependent on their children. This fact explains why in the past, parents liked to have many children - so they could be sure to be well cared for in their old age. However, it becomes an inverted triangle now. Each child has to maintain two elderly parents. A married couple must provide for four elders. Since the aging parents usually live with their children, this creates an issue.
  • The Children: Since children are so important in Chinese society, single children are under a lot of pressure from their parents. After all, each one of them is their parents' only hope for the future. Parents are also overly protective and coddling, spoiling their child. Many parents take this point of view: as long as my child succeeds in school, he can have whatever else he wants. This environment can create many emotional issues, such as overly-stressed students or kids with low emotional maturity. Society becomes extremely competitive as each parent strives to make their own child the best.
  • Babies: Traditionally, Chinese parents prefer sons. After all, it is your son who will support you in your old age. Sons will carry on the family name. But how can you be sure that your only child will be a son? Hence the large numbers of abandoned baby girls. The lucky ones will eventually make it to an orphanage. No wonder all the stories you hear of adopted babies from China are all of baby girls. I've heard that sex-selective abortions are not legal any more but I'm sure there are ways to get around that. I am lucky that my family is wonderful and even though all my cousins are girls (on my father's side), nobody complains, though my grandfather would love a grandson to carry on the family name.
  • Sex-ratio: Because of the preference for boys, the sex-ratio of this generation is skewed. I believe it is around 120 males for 100 females as an average, but in some areas it could be more extreme. It is harder for guys to get married. They also face more competition in the workplace. Many thinkers believe it is unhealthy to a society to have a large population of young and single men, as this demographic is the most likely to be violent and full of unrest.
  • The Economy: China will definitely have an aging population in the near future. It will be tough to have these new, small generation of children supporting a large elderly generation. Healthcare costs will definitely be an issue. Also, with a smaller working population, I wonder if China will be able to keep up its miraculous economic growth.
  • Family: Isn't it kind of sad to think that after my generation, many families will not know of cousins, uncles, or aunts? Each family will be a single nuclear unit. Right now, though my cousins do not have siblings, at least have each other and they treat each other like sisters. But what about their children? Extended family is such an important part of the Chinese culture and tradition.

We don't know what China's population would look like without the one-child policy. Maybe it would have continued exploding like India's population. Maybe there would have been even more social problems, such as lack of basic resources, crowding in cities, destruction of the environment, and famines. Maybe China would have turned out like Japan, where fewer and fewer couples want children, and the population is actually shrinking. This possibility wouldn't be unlikely in the future, with the rise of China's middle class.

The Chinese government did have good intentions but I think the policy was implemented poorly. If it was incentive-based rather than founded on fear and penalty, the policy would have been much more acceptable in terms of human rights. However, what financial incentive would be enough to stop a couple from having another child to insure their security in the future? Without a doubt, it was a tough policy decision to make. The main choice mirrors many topics we are debating today: Is it okay to violate the rights of individuals in order to benefit society at large?

It's only been 32 years since the policy has been instated - only one generation of children has been without siblings. The population growth has not stopped because of the lasting effects of population momentum. It's too soon to tell what the lasting societal effects will be.

What have you heard of the one-child-policy? What are your thoughts?


  1. This is actually really interesting. I have, of course, heard of the one-child policy, but It's great to get an idea of it from someone who gets to see it first hand.

    From a sustainability standpoint, we can of course see the sense in in implementing a one-child policy. But of course, it is morally difficult to accept and I, for one, believe it is unacceptable.

    However, the alternative could be just as abhorable, since overcrowding could bring about even worse conditions for children, which I think is just as, if not more terrible than a one-child policy. It's frustrating with issues like this where neither solution is acceptable. Who know what can be done?

  2. It definitely is hard to decide when you cannot predict what will happen. Sometimes no amount of statistics and models can predict how humans will act or react. I guess the policymakers get the worst deal - no matter what they chose, if something goes wrong they will be to blame for it.

  3. I think the problem can be broken into three parts:

    1. Limited Resources: A growing population that needs to secure more resources while maintaining for the long-run.

    2. Aging Population: A smaller number of youths providing for a growing number of elders.

    3. Family Life: The mixture of social engineering and family culture, which is probably the most complicated of the three.

    The first problem seems simple. China needs to incentivize the jobs that it needs done, whether the job is being a doctor or scientists or engineer or educator. And it needs a task force focused on maintaining China for the long-run. I am sure the country is already thinking about that, but those are the basics of governance.

    The second problem seems more complicated, and would probably be the job of the task force that I mentioned earlier. It seems to me to be a ratio problem of population to resources. A triangle, whether it's youth heavy or elderly heavy, haven't heard of a middle-heavy though that would create an elderly heavy triangle in the future, is going to put a strain on resources. The problem then becomes ensuring that a country has the resources to provide for its current population as well as maintaining, expanding, or exchange its economic providers. A perfect relationship would be 1 person : 1 resource unit, not that everyone would want the same resources, but provisions whereby everyone is generally provided for. And I believe this problem is an extension of the first problem, China needs to incentivizes its people and its economy to move together over time. For example, China does need to decrease its population because its economy is currently not able to provide for all of its people, much like India, but its economy also needs to cater to a shrinking population, such as more affordable health care and raising children with more ability, education, skills/training, and maturity is definitely a part of that.

    And the third problem seems to be at the heart of this issue: How a family balances social engineering and a fulfilling family culture. I agree with Brock. This is where the one-child policy goes wrong, and it stood out as a highlight to me in your blog. There is nothing, in and of itself, wrong with parents deciding to have one child or not to have children; it's a personal choice and affects the familial relationships. For example, having a child when one does not want one could emotionally damage the child and the parents, defeating the purpose of having a child, all because the social engineering/family planning didn't match the familial relationship/family culture. The same problem occurs when a family that wants more children has only one. While there is a problem with an exploding population, causing people without bright futures, as Brock mentioned, a controlled people become dissatisfied and lose incentive to support their society. That is why I believe this cannot be addressed economically, it should be addressed culturally. The people need cultural incentives to do such things as adopt instead of having children or to visit family more often to get more value out of fewer family members (which, for a large family, could incentivize having fewer family members), and I am sure there are many more ideas much better than mine. But I think the one-child policy is not only ethically wrong, determining one's lifestyle is the responsibility of the individual, but it approaches the problem from the wrong direction. Culture isn't as simple as market forces.

  4. Sorry for the dissertation. Wanted to make a full statement and got carried away.

  5. For your first point, I think "resources" could apply better to natural resources such as water, coal, oil, land, etc., though it is important to have enough trained professionals. China does need more doctors, teachers, engineers, but human knowledge and expertise is still easier to increase as the population increases.

    You are also correct that cultural aspects may matter more than economic incentives. However, I think that many factors that we think of as cultural had economic-based roots in the past, and if we change the economic incentives the culture may slowly adapt as well.

  6. I agree with you on both points. Culture and cultural change requires a deep understanding, and, on the resources, the less deep we get with those, the better :)