One equals Five – on the one child policy in China

Last week I was shocked at the news of the forced abortion conducted on a woman 7 month pregnant. I started to think about the one child policy. Why was it introduced? How does it really work? What are the regulations? And what are the effects – both for China and for us, in the West and all around the world?

I did some research, I read blogs and the New England Journal of Medicine, I visited Wikipedia and the CIA World Factbook. Here are some of the results of my brief investigation of the subject.

1. When and why did it start?
The one child policy was introduced in 1979 in order to ensure economic stabilisation of the country. Rapid growth of the population would have led to overpopulation, malnutrition, spreading of disease, unemployment and other massive problems. It is however very interesting that even before the one child policy there was a slogan of “late, long, few”. It meant – have children later, take more time between pregnancies, have fewer children. Nothing was enforced over people, there were no fines etc and the rate of children per family fell from 5.9 in 1970 to 2.9 in 1979. After the one child policy was introduced in 1979 the ratio fell to around 1.4. The nominal change was twice as big in the no-enforcement period of 10 years that in the strict policy period of 32 years!

Many people argue that the downfall in the birth rate was only partially achieved by the one child policy. Many countries around the world and in the region experienced the same phenomenon in that period. This is a natural effect of development, education, industrialisation and globalisation.

2. Is it really a ONE child policy?
NO! The strict 1 child rule only applies to a minority of Chinese citizens – around 35%. The rest of the Chinese people is subject to numerous exceptions:

  • In rural areas people are generally allowed to have 2 children. In some provinces the second child is allowed only if the first one is a girl. This is motivated by the fact, that sons are helpful in agriculture, whereas girls cannot work that hard. There is, however, a limitation to this rule – a couple has to wait several years (varies) between the pregnancies.
  • Parents of disabled and mentally retarded children are allowed to have 2 children.
  • Disabled parents are allowed to have 2 children, so that one of the children takes care of the parents.
  • Parents with no siblings are allowed to have 2 children.
  • Minorities are allowed to have 2 or even 3 children.
  • People who want to have more children can also do that if they pay a fine based on their income (often a year’s income).

As 70% of the Chinese live in rural areas most of the people are allowed at least 2 children. Therefore the name of the policy is a little radical when compared with the actual figures.

3. How is it implemented?
The policy is implemented on a local and regional level and this causes many inequalities. Some local governments are extremely strict and perform unexpected medical tests in villages. Other remain calm and don’t focus on the topic. This depends hugely on the population rate of a province.

The implementation of the one child policy would not be possible without massive use of contraception methods. The most popular methods are long-term. According to the New England Journal of Medicine male sterilisation amounted to 8% in 2001, female sterilisation to 37%, intrauterine devices to 46%. Condoms were only used in 6% of the cases and oral contraceptive pills in 3%. I assume that the male and female sterilisation is performed mostly on couples that already have the maximum number of children allowed in their situation and do not want to risk the choice – either lose the savings of your life or go for an abortion.

All this is accompanied by a relatively low number of abortions! According to the New England Journal of Medicine only 25% of women of reproductive age have had at least one abortion in China. The same number amounts to 43% in the United States of America!

Unfortunately there are still cases of forced abortions that are murder, not abortions – I mean those conducted on 6, 7, 8 and even 9 month pregnancies. Though these fatal situations happen they don’t seem to be a general rule – many women are allowed to give birth if the pay a fine or agree to sterilisation after the child is born. Many children are also confiscated by the local authorities and sent to orphanages (often adopted by infertile Chinese couples and foreigners).

4. How does this impact the demographic situation?
This is a tough one. Though some claim that this is a very important factor, others find the one child policy only one of the intertwined factors of natural global or regional trends. But what are the trends?

  • The falling rate of the population growth. Yes, it is falling, but it does remain growth, not decline. Not for long. Many researchers point out that around 2015 the demographics will probably change and soon the Chinese nation can begin to shrink. It is also said that in 2013 the “demographic dividend” (the growing share of working-age adults) will stop growing.
  • To make a long story short – the Chinese society is aging. This may become a very important factor for the economy. Whereas overpopulation causes destabilisation of the economy, underpopulation, and especially the lack of working-age adults may cause stagnation, less effectiveness, less creativity and openness to new trends. This can put the giant dragon of the Chinese economy at a halt.
  • The high male to female ratio. In the age group of under 15 yearl old it is: 1.17 male(s)/female. This means that 117 boys are born for every 100 girls. This may not be a radical number but if you count the actual numbers for the whole chinese society it turns out that milions of young men would never be able to find wives. This will probably lead to frustration, mental problems, agression, kidnapping women (which already is popular: see a short video here) and spreading of diseases such as AIDS due to massive development of sex services. This however is not only a Chinese problem and it had already been present in China before the one child policy had been introduced. The Chinese culture promotes boys and only social campaign aimed at promoting the value of girl will prevent people from gender-based abortions (forbidden by the CHinese law but still popular) and abandoning girls. (This, again, may sound a little bit worse that it is. The New England Journal of Medicine states: “A 1995 household survey carried out in three provinces found a normal sex ratio in the under-14 age group, with the actual number of girls exceeding the number registered by 22 per- cent.” This shows that many girls are neither aborted nor abandoned but hidden from the authorities).

5. The future?
The one child policy had been introduced as a temporary means of dealing with demographic problems. The Chinese authorities made it clear that the policy will not be abandoned at least until 2015, however more and more exceptions are being introduced on the provincial level (such as allowing parents with no sibling to have 2 children). The authorities now experience a growing pressure of scientists and the people. The first inform about pessimistic socio-demographic prognoses for the future. The latter have more and more access to the resources of the whole world and see the anachronisms of the one child policy.

The government is still afraid that abandoning the strict policy will cause a huge shift in the structure of families. However an increasing number of surveys show that the development of the country together with social changes and the governmental policy have changed the culture of the Chinese people into a small-family one. A increasing number of people declares that a perfect family has one or two children. Also the preference of the sexes changes and girls are becoming widely accepted as satisfactory offspring (especially in urban areas).

6. What about us?
We like to be very humanitarian in Europe. We criticise the one child policy as inhumane. But we also love to be green. And combining these 2 is a huge problem. The Chinese economy needs and uses methods that are banned or limited in Western countries. The Chinese emission of pollution into the atmosphere and water is massive. If somebody right now is really working for the greenhouse effect, it is the Chinese who do that. Now let’s stop for a while and imagine, that 300 m more people live on that piece of land, in that poor country. And those additional 300 m people need heat and electricity just as we do. They also need work. And that heavy industry becomes even bigger than it is now… let’s be honest, there’s no other way. All of our economies have passed that stage in their development. Now we can be green because we’ve gone past the smoke period.

Is it all right for the people to live at the expense of the Earth? Is it all right to protect the Earth at the expense of the people? No easy answers to these questions. But next time, before you exclaim “that’s inhumane!” or “that’s against the planet!” – just stop and think. It’s not that easy.

One more problem to finish with, and and explanation of the title at the same time. Why does One equal Five?

The one child policy led China to a family model quite popular in European countries. 4 grandparents, 2 parents, 1 child. This is called the 4:2:1 phenomenon in China.

One child in a family equals 5 people that have to be sustained by one couple. Yes, it’s normal in aging societies. Yes, we will support our parents and grandparents in the future but one thing is very easy to miss while looking at things from our perspective. The social insurance system is extremely weak in China. People pay for healthcare and for education. And very little of them will ever have access to pensions. Sustaining all those people will really mean sustaining – not buying a holiday trip once in a while or taking to birthday dinners but feeding, clothing and providing access to medicine – this will be the responsibility of the children and grandchildren – them alone, with no siblings.

Luckily, the Chinese government has already started to address this problem. But I don’t believe it would cause visible changes anytime soon.

Sources (and some interesting reading at the same time): – The most surprising demographic crisis The Effect of China’s One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years