China’s One-Child Policy to End

Children attending elementary school in Qapqal, China

A demographic crisis three decades in the making has finally forced a change to China’s family-planning policy. China’s infamous one-child policy, in effect since around 1980, has been blamed for countless forced abortions and sterilizations, female infanticide, and marital misery. This policy is now set to end in early 2016, modified to allow for couples to have two children. But its far-reaching consequences will continue to unfold for years to come.

The one-child policy was initiated to curb the growth of China’s already enormous population, which passed the one-billion mark in 1982, in order to spur economic growth. Although the policy allowed some exceptions, for most Chinese families it meant they could have no more than one child. Chinese traditions, especially in rural areas, put a higher value on sons, who inherit the family name and property and are expected to care for elderly parents. The policy drove parents to sex-discriminate in favor of male children. Such parental choices, abetted by the advent of ultrasound testing, led to a rise in abortions of female fetuses. Baby girls were even killed so that a couple could try again for a male child.

The resulting gender gap in China’s population—the number of males is 3–4 percent higher than that of females—has widened to the point of crisis. There are far fewer females available for marriage, and thus a lot of lonely men. The feudal practice of bride-price (cai li) has made a comeback, adding financial hardship to other stresses.

Falling birthrates and fertility rates achieved a reduction in the population growth rate. However, together with increased longevity—that is, a drop in the death rate and rise in life expectancy due to better health care—these factors have skewed China’s demographics: The decline in the number of young people is compounded by the growth in the proportion of the elderly. People over 50 now make up about 30 percent of China’s total population of 1.36 billion. Senior citizens in China rely on their children for support in old age, but younger people are in short supply—relatively speaking.

Image credit: © Adam Dean/The New York Times/Red

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