Introduced by the Chinese leadership in 1979 and considered to be one of the most invasive governmental social experiments of our era, the one-child policy in China, on the surface level, appears to have succeeded in its goal of stymieing the growth of the population to a manageable rate. The policy, however, regardless of whether or not it should be credited with the modern-day decreasing fertility rates in China, also brought about unintended social consequences. Despite the fact that this policy was enforced at least in part as a way for the central government to reassert its power in the wake of the cult of Mao and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, it has proven to be another lens through which we see the central government struggling to retain its slipping control over the population, due to the unforeseen social impacts the policy has caused, the number of loopholes in the policy, and the continual changes made to the policy to accommodate popular opinion. 1979 was the beginning of a new age for China. Positioned at the end of the Maoist era, the new leadership recognized that it could not carry Mao’s strategy of inciting revolutions into this new age to serve as the basis of its legitimacy. Headed by Deng Xiaoping, China turned its attention toward economic development instead, making it “the new mandate and the fundamental basis of its political legitimacy” (Wang et al 118). Because one measure of successful economic development is advances in the standard of living – measured by “per capital GDP growth” – the post-Mao government made the one-child policy its brainchild. Of course, the Chinese population was huge at this point, and given that the “baby boomers of the 1950s and 1960s were entering their reproductive years,” taking measures against the further bloating of the population was warranted. By decreasing the overall population while increasing the pace of economic development, the CCP could cite a rise in overall standard of living and a strengthened economy as evidence of its political legitimacy, even if it meant casting the population as a “lifeless number [and] not an aggregation of individual lives” (Hesketh et al 1171, Wang et al 119). Additionally, the one-child policy was another means through which the CCP could control a vital interest of the population during a time of expanding global connectedness and information transmission to attain an edge of coercion over its population going into the 21st century. With this central, self-serving logic of the CCP as its foundation, the socially-disastrous one-child policy was born. Within these past few decades, China has experienced a myriad of social issues stemming from the adoption of the policy, including the emergence of an extremely skewed gender ratio, an increase in sex-selective and illegal abortions, and an exacerbation of the issue of providing for the aging population. Chinese culture has historically been fixated on the importance of having sons for two main reasons – the continuation of the family name and ensuring economic support for the parents in their elderly years. Family names are passed through male progeny in China, and sons have traditionally been the bread-winners of the family before the integration of females into the modern-day workforce, with the responsibility of providing for their aging parents solely on their shoulders. In contrast, daughters, in economic terms, traditionally are considered to be married out of the family and devote their time and labor to their husband’s side of the family. Though these gender roles are not held by all Chinese today, especially not by many urban dwellers because of the increased involvement of women the post-industrial workforce in cities, many people in rural areas still subscribe to these traditionalist views. The current gap between the number of males and females in China therefore may not be the result of simply the one-child policy, but evidence suggests that the implementation of the policy, combined with “China’s strong cultural imperative for male offspring,” has significantly increased the incentives of parents, especially those in rural areas, to either abort their female fetuses or to practice female infanticide in their search for a male successor (“The Most Surprising Demographic Crisis”). According to statistics collected, this gender gap will leave millions of men wifeless, intensifying the competition between males and causing “increased mental health problems and socially disruptive behavior among men” (Hesketh et al 1173). Furthermore, a side effect of this gender gap is an increase in human trafficking and incidents of female kidnapping, “with a potential resultant rise in human immunodeficiency virus infection and other sexually transmitted diseases” (Hesketh et al 1173). Though the aging population is a concern for many countries around the world, the one-child policy has only aggravated the already-delicate situation of caring for the elderly. Because China has historically made providing for the elderly the responsibility of the able-bodied adult relations of the elderly, it does not currently have a consistent welfare system in place for the elderly beyond coverage available to “those employed in the government sector and large companies” (Hesketh et al 1174). Today, the baby-boomers in China are on the brink of retiring, but the one-child policy has sufficiently played a part in limiting the number of adults available to provide for and counteract this increase in the elderly population. The gap between the number of elderly and the number of working adults has never been this vast, and the continued upholding of the one-child policy will only continue to expand this quagmire. This gap furthermore produces the 4:2:1 episode, “meaning that increasing numbers of couples will be solely responsible for the care of one child and four parents,” thereby putting increased economic pressure on the only-children born out of the one-child policy (Hesketh et al 1174). The fact that people associate bringing in profit to care for the elderly with males only feeds into the previously-discussed gender gap as well, creating a self-perpetuating cycle that only worsens the existing social issues – issues that the CCP will have to eventually address as a result of its initial lack of consideration of the potential social implications that would proliferate with the one-child policy. This alarming oversight on the part of the CCP indicates a lack of thorough analysis in their decision-making; however, if the CCP pressed forward with the policy even with the realization that it would result in unintended consequences, it only unmasks the CCP’s desperation to keep power, even at the expense of the population. The Chinese government often totes the one-child policy as a success, citing 400 million averted births. Judging from numbers alone, it does appear that the policy accomplished its goal in controlling the burgeoning population; yet, closer analysis shows that by the time of this policy’s introduction, the fertility rate in China was already on a downward trend, and that the “most dramatic decrease in the rate actually occurred before the policy was imposed,” reflected in the decrease of fertility rates from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979 (Hesketh et al 1172, Wang et al 121). This calls into question the necessity of the policy in the first place. What further casts doubt on the effectiveness of the policy is a closer examination its enforcement. Though the central government publicized the implementation of the policy in an Open Letter, it was "left to each province to translate the policy into concrete requirements to specify the exemptions allowed,” causing enforcement to vary from area to area (Wang et al 120). The policy itself is a bit of a misnomer – in actuality, “less than 40 percent of the population is restricted by the family planning policy to having one child,” because of the variation in enforcement and the existing loopholes in the policy (Guan). In cities, exceptions to the one-child policy includes “at least 22 ways in which parents can qualify for exceptions,” such as cases of second marriages in which one partner has not yet had a child or families in which the father has a dangerous occupation (Zhu 463). In Sichuan, after the earthquake catastrophe, officials allowed families that lost a child a chance to produce a second, and in many rural areas, “families of four and more are still tolerated,” since implementation of the policy is strictest in urban areas (Zhu 463). The darker side to official enforcement of the policy encompasses “widespread abuses, including forced abortions, because many local governments reward or penalize officials based on” population numbers” (Wong). The increased physical mobility of people further adds to the difficulty in the enforcement of this policy. While these loopholes and difficulties in enforcement can be used as evidence in an argument for how the CCP’s implementation of the policy is not as draconian as we believed, they strongly call into question the credibility of not only the government’s estimate of the 400 million averted births, but also of the effectiveness of the policy as a whole. If the policy is so easy to by-pass in so many different ways by providing numerous exceptions to the rule and is so difficult to enforce, there seems to be little logic in the CCP’s clinging onto its implementation, especially given the avenues to corruption that it opens up – corruption that the CCP is supposedly working hard to combat. As stereotypes often note, only-children are wont to become spoiled by his or her relatives, causing hundreds of cases of obese children to emerge recently in China. Other than introducing the phenomenon of childhood obesity, however, the emergence of this disproportionately large, artificially-created population of only-children intersects with the least censorable time period for information. Given the penchant that only-children have for selfishness and egotism, predictions have been made that this well-connected and easily mobile generation will be less tolerant of the CCP’s invasive policies. Furthermore, despite the changes that the CCP has once again made to the one-child policy late last year in allowing “married couples in which just one parent is an only child” to have two children, the concern over housing and schooling prices in urban areas is deterring many couples from pursuing the option (Levin). Regardless of the modifications that the CCP makes to the policy, it ultimately serves as “evidence of the state’s grip on all aspects of life, beginning in the womb” (Levin). The fact that the CCP continues to relax the stipulations of its procreation laws reflects not only that they are relaxing their stance and conceding that the outdated policy has issues, but more importantly insinuates that they no longer possess the power to point-blank ignore the opinions of the population. Given the social consequences resulting from the policy, the difficulties in enforcing it, and the fact that it oppressively infringes on some of the most basic of human rights, the CCP is better off simply abolishing the one-child policy before it loses even more credibility through its almost constant policy revisions and inflames more people by obstinately refusing to acknowledge and reverse its mistake in implementing this policy. Through basing its legitimacy on something as turbulent, unpredictable, and unsustainable as continual economic growth, the CCP has shown that it is quickly running out of ideas to retain its power. While the threat of a growing population in China in the late 1900s was indeed a cause for concern, it is unlikely that it would have affected the very stability of the Chinese government system. These new issues that have been released by the Pandora’s box of the one-child policy, however, have led to longer-lasting consequences that could affect the stability and inconsistency of not only the CCP, but of Chinese society as a whole.
Feng Wang, Yong Cai, and Baochang Gu, “Population, Policy, and Politics: How Will History Judge China's One-Child Policy?” Population and Development Review, vol. 38 Supplement s1 (Feb 2013), pp. 115-129. Guan, Xiaofeng. "Most People Free to Have More Child." Most People Free to Have More Child. China Daily, 11 July 2007. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
Hesketh, Therese, Li Lu, and Zhu Wei Xing. "The Effect of China's One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years." New England Journal of Medicine 353.11 (2005): 1171-176. Print. Levin, Dan. "Many in China Can Now Have a Second Child, but Say No." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
"The Most Surprising Demographic Crisis." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 07 May 2011. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
Wong, Edward. "Reports of Forced Abortions Fuel Push to End Chinese Law." The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 July 2012. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
Zhu, W. X. "The One Child Family Policy." Archives of Disease in Childhood 88.6 (2003): 463-64. Print.