China’s demographic challenges: the long-term consequences of the one-child policy

China’s demographic challenges: the long-term consequences of the one-child policy

China's one-child policy poster [Wikipedia]


June 30, 2021

ESSAY / Rut Noboa

The Chinese one-child policy is the largest and most infamous family planning policy carried out in recent history. Developed within the wider context of family planning and economic development in China, the policy played an important role in achieving a massive decline in fertility in recent years. However, its unintended consequences, including a fertility rate lower than the replacement level, its effects on women, and undocumented births have created some of China’s greatest demographic challenges. With China's growing position in the global economy, these issues and how China chooses to address them will undoubtedly affect the rest of the world.

The historical context of the one-child policy in China

The implementation of the one-child policy takes place within the wider context of family planning in China. At the inception of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the newly installed government had no intention of regulating population growth. The communist leadership saw the large Chinese population as a force for economic prosperity and as the country's most precious capital, leading to openly pro-natalist rhetoric in its early years. However, after the first census revealed the population totaled 590 million, Chinese leadership grew concerned over how this phenomenon could affect economic growth and development. Regardless, due to factors such as a scarcity of efficient birth control methods, shortage of skilled medical personnel, and traditional Chinese reluctance to openly discuss sexual matters, family-planning propaganda failed, having no visible effect on fertility during this period. This failure eventually became practically meaningless since the Chinese government ceased to see population as a problem and abandoned the policies, particularly since it feared that the labor supply would not meet the needs of the ambitious Great Leap Forward.[1] After the massive famine that accompanied the Great Leap Forward, China’s fertility rate rebounded significantly, racing over six births per woman in the early 1960s. This led the government to take early family planning policies, such as the establishment of family planning commissions at the national and provincial levels. However, the early implementation of these measures was halted by the onset of the Cultural Revolution and its ensuing political and social instability. China’s population had reached 800 million by 1969 and economic growth had stagnated, something leaders often associated with overpopulation. This led to a serious family planning campaign to take place in China starting in 1971. The issue rose in importance in such a way that in July 1973, the State Council established the Leading Small Group for Family Planning. One of the key responsibilities for said LSG was calling a national birth planning conference that would be held in December of said year. This conference coined the slogan: “Later, Longer, and Fewer”. This signified “later” marriageable ages, “longer” times between the first and second child, and “fewer” children, implied to be at most two. Whilst this family planning campaign was technically voluntary, in practice, it was considerably coercive. Birth planning officials were placed in communities where they would keep detailed records on women of childbearing age. These records included information such as previous births, contraceptive use, and even menstrual monitoring.[2]

It is also important to note that the one-child policy takes place within an international context concerned about massive population growth and the dangers of overpopulation. This is quite noticeable within the context of family planning programs in other countries in the region, such as India’s infamous forced sterilizations under Indira Gandhi's government. Although China was still considerably isolated at this moment, making it unclear how much China could have been motivated by these trends, the effectiveness of these programs in other countries was not unknown to the Chinese leadership. In fact, China repeatedly denounced them in international forums as being part of an imperialist agenda whilst continuing to implement similar strategies locally.[3] 

Finally, the one-child policy should also be seen within a specific economic context. After Mao’s death and Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power, the new leadership stressed the importance of family planning for China’s economic landscape. At this time, two-thirds of the Chinese population was under 30 years old and many of those born after the demographic boom after the Great Leap Forward would soon be entering their reproductive years. This allowed neo-Malthusian concerns over the risks of overpopulation to intermingle with Deng Xiaoping's “Open Door Policy” to create China’s new economic outlook.[4] 

The policy’s application

Initially, the one-child policy gave incentives to couples who limited their families to one child and penalized those who had three or more children, not necessarily penalizing second births but still actively discouraging them. The policy eventually evolved to its most well-known implementation, forbidding second births except under limited extraordinary circumstances, employing progressively coercive measures to ensuring its enforcement, such as mandatory IUD insertions, abortions, and sterilizations.[5] Asides from these forms of reproductive violence, administrative actions such as suspension of party membership or loss of jobs in the public sector were also common consequences when violations of the policy were committed.[6] 

However, an important nuance that is often ignored when it comes to the one-child policy is differing patterns of local-level policy. Due to major resistance from rural communities, on April 13, 1984, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee released Document 7[7] which criticized previous trends of imposing uniform measures on the entirety of China and urged local governments to employ family planning more flexibly. 14 exemptions for second-child permits were established with the most important one being rural couples with only one female child being allowed a second child.[8] Because of differences in local implementation of the policy, it often varied depending on urbanization and provinces. When it came to urbanization, Chinese urban residents could be more easily monitored and sanctioned. When it comes to regional aspects, the western provinces were much less developed and had higher fertility rates than the more developed eastern regions, even before the implementation of massive family planning programs. Because of this, effectively implementing the strategy required a higher degree of societal change.[9]  

Regardless of its irregular application throughout China, the one-child policy managed to achieve its objective of drastically reducing the fertility rate in both urban and rural China. This massive success of family planning programs in China can be easily seen when comparing the high fertility rate of 6.385 in 1965, shortly after the Great Leap Forward, to the current fertility rate of approximately 1.696.[10] 

The role of gender

One of the most drastic effects of the one-child policy takes place within the context of gender. Chinese families have historically favored and preferred sons at the expense of daughters, especially concerning the fact that bloodline is passed through sons in Chinese traditional culture.[11] While this played an important role in internal family dynamics, large-scale repercussions on demography were muted since high fertility often ensured families would have at least one surviving son.[12] However, with the introduction of increasingly aggressive family planning programs in China and particularly the one-child policy, Chinese families progressively resorted to sex selection. Early in this period, this was limited by the unreliability of traditional methods of sex identification, leading families to resort to measures such as infanticide. However, the introduction of ultrasound technology opened the door to the possibility of sex-selective abortion relatively early into the pregnancy, allowing families to abort and reconceive in a smaller time frame and with hypothetically less psychological distress than following infanticide.[13]

These developments led to an imbalance in the Chinese sex ratio that seems to be worsening with the country’s decreasing fertility rate, as evidenced by the overall sex ratio at birth reaching 118 boys for every 100 girls born in 2005.[14] According to the 2000 Chinese census, approximately 12.8 million fewer females were born between 1980 and 2000 than would be expected if China experienced normal sex ratios at birth and gender-neutral mortality rates.[15] However, finding the actual number of women missing from the Chinese population is difficulted by the issue of undocumented births in China, another phenomenon exacerbated by the one-child policy. 

This trend brings up a series of important issues for Chinese society, particularly when it comes to the Chinese marriage market. While scholars believe that China has had a demographic imbalance regarding marriage since 1950, the country now experiences its most several male marriage squeeze. Because of the high sex ratio, the total number of excess males is estimated to reach 41.41 million in 2043.[16] This situation is seen by many as a threat to social stability, leading women to be increasingly pressured to marry young and causing those who are still unmarried by their mid-twenties to be labeled sheng nu or “leftover women.”[17] This pressure is exacerbated by the fact that even though the one-child policy has been lifted there has been no subsequent increase in fertility. Additionally, the Chinese gender imbalance has led to rising transnational human trafficking circles. One key example has been women from the Kachin region in Myanmar which neighbors the Chinese Yunnan province. The region, ravaged by fighting between the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Organization, has provided a massive opportunity for human traffickers in the region. As many of their husbands have taken part in the armed conflict, women have often become the sole breadwinners for their families. Desperate to sustain their families, they cross the Chinese border enticed by traffickers planning to sell them to these single men and their families.[18]

However, a key factor in this issue is that the main motivation behind this market is not necessarily sexual slavery but rather producing a child for one of these leftover men. In fact, many of the trafficked women and girls were told that once they did so they were free to go, under the condition of leaving behind their child or children.[19] 

Undocumented births and heihaizi

Another key consequence of the one-child policy is a considerable number of undocumented births. Since families exceeding the birth quota would often face severe penalties for infringing the one-child policy, many chose to not report these births, especially if they did not have the economic means to pay the fines. These children, referred to as heihaizi or “black children,” are not integrated into their family's hukou, the Chinese household registration system.[20] This hinders their access to basic needs such as medical care, education, or employment, particularly in urban areas where not only was the one-child policy most strictly implemented but also where government control and monitoring is easiest. Gender also plays an important role regarding undocumented births. Within the context of the one-child policy, the general framework of strict family planning policies in China, and the preference for sons in traditional Chinese society, many families reserve hukou registration for their sons, even if their daughters are older.[21]

The difficulties faced by heihaizi in China are extremely concerning. Asides from the societal repercussions of having an important segment of the population not being able to access basic social services, one must also think of the consequences this poses to a Chinese economy with a withering labor supply. The fact that this population does not have access to many of the factors that are crucial for a highly productive population, such as quality education, is a threat to a China that that will have to increasingly invest in the quality of its human resources when considering current demographic trends such as a low fertility rate and an aging population.

Consequences on the Chinese economy

The demographic shifts caused in part due to the one-child policy will have important social and economic repercussions, not only in China but also at a global level. Reduced fertility in combination with an increasingly aging population will lead to a rising dependency ratio between working people and retirees as well as a shrinking labor supply. Additionally, the difficulties faced by heihaizi further exacerbate this problem since their undocumented status keeps them from obtaining many of the foundations needed to effectively contribute to the Chinese economy, such as quality education and formal employment. This could make this segment of the population an economic burden, something particularly concerning when considering the decreasing labor supply.

To continue projecting itself as a major economic and political power, China may have to restructure its ongoing strategies. One initial alternative is implementing natalist policies. However, considering that having few children has become ingrained in Chinese society and that the fertility rate continues to decrease even after a transition to a two-child system, this seems highly unlikely to work. China should also consider heavily increasing its investment in its human capital. Examples in the region, such as Singapore, have shown how quality education can be the cornerstone of economic growth in Asia, even within the context of a small population. However, this alone cannot address the threats brought about by China’s current demography. China could also consider increasing its retirement age, which could partially offset both the number of people leaving the labor force due to retirement as well as the increasing average age of labor force entry that results from longer time spent in education, an important consequence of the rising quality of life in China.[22] When it comes to heihaizi and its causes, even though the transition to a two-child policy could partially reduce the issue, the Chinese government will also have to face the fact that strictly prohibiting births will undoubtedly lead to some cases of heihaizi. Additionally, policymakers will have to choose between establishing comprehensive mechanisms for these citizens to obtain hukou or continuing to ignore their ongoing situation. Finally, one of the most promising ideas is fostering international immigration. This could include policies to attract young foreigners to study and work in China and facilitating their permanent relocation to the county or even to ease the return of members of the Chinese diaspora.[23]

One must also consider how these issues will affect the global economy. With China becoming the world’s global supply chain in recent years, any decrease in its labor force will affect supply chain logistics worldwide. Multinational corporations will have to choose between trusting in the Chinese government's policies to mitigate these trends and face their potential failure or reworking their supply chains today to reduce the risk of future disruptions. China’s initiatives abroad such as the Belt and Road Initiative will also be impacted by the reduced Chinese workforce. One common criticism against China’s infrastructure projects within the BRI is that they tend to strategically replace domestic workers with Chinese workers. However, with China’s dwindling labor supply, this will be practically impossible to sustainably maintain. 

On academic debate, discourse, and limitations

A thorough analysis of the one-child policy and its role regarding China’s ongoing demographic challenges would be incomplete without addressing academic disagreement on the matter. The Chinese economic context is an issue that stirs up scholarly debate when it comes to the effects of the one-child policy. Many scholars believe that, regardless of whether the one-child policy had been implemented, fertility rates in China would have still decreased as a consequence of its economic development. In studies comparing declines in the total fertility rate of other developing countries over the same period of the policy’s implementation, other states with high economic growth rates experienced similar noticeable declines in fertility rates.[24] Here examples such as South Korea and Thailand are particularly relevant since they are examples from the region that showed high economic growth rates during the same years as China’s opening to the world but that chose to implement voluntary family planning programs. While they did not experience such a steep decline in fertility rates like China did, they have now fallen to rates equal or below those found in China.[25] 

While this argument should be considered when evaluating how relevant the one-child policy was in achieving China’s current fertility rate, it fails to acknowledge some of its other important ramifications, including the previously mentioned perspectives of gender and heihaizi

It is also important to note that several factors have limited studies on the one-child policy. Firstly, since the one-child policy has only been recently relaxed in favor of a two-child policy, current studies are mostly focused on its short-term effects while long-term effects continue to be difficult to evaluate as well as particularly understudied, difficulting the process of producing effective long-term policy recommendations.[26] Another key factor is the secretive behavior of the Chinese Communist Party, a phenomenon that does not just provide a limitation to studies on the one-child policy but also other controversial areas of Chinese politics. The authenticity of any data provided by the Party is often highly disputed within the context of China’s heavy reliance on government censorship and this will probably remain true for demography, particularly considering China’s present policies to suppress population growth of ethnic minorities, such as Uyghurs in Xinjiang.


[1] Guo, Zhigang, and Baochang Gu. 2014. "China’s Low Fertility: Evidence from the 2010." In Analysing China's Population: Social Change in a New Demographic Era, by Isabelle Attané and Baochang Gu, 15-35. Springer.

[2] Zhang, Junsen. 2017. "The Evolution of China’s One-Child Policy." Journal of Economic Perspectives 31 (1): 141-160.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Short, Susan E., and Zhai Fengying. 1998. "Looking Locally at China's One-Child Policy." Studies in Family Planning (Population Council) 29 (4): 373-387.

[6] Huang, Wei. 2017. How does the one child policy impact social and economic outcomes? doi:10.15185/izawol.387.

[7] Goitom, Hanibal. 2013. Formulation of the One-Child Policy in China. November 19.

[8] Greenhalgh, Susan. 1986. "Shifts in China's Population Policy, 1984-86: Views from the Central, Provincial, and." Population and Development Review ( Population Council) 491-515.

[9] Zhang, Junsen. 2017. "The Evolution of China’s One-Child Policy." Journal of Economic Perspectives 31 (1): 141-160.

[10] World Bank. 2019. Fertility rate, total (births per woman) - Korea, Rep., China, Thailand.

[11] Sotomayor, Kristal. 2020. The One-Child Policy Legacy on Women and Relationships in China. February 5.

[12] Ebenstein, Avraham. 2010. "The “Missing Girls” of China and the Unintended Consequences of the One Child Policy." The Journal of Human Resources (University of Wisconsin Press) 45 (1): 87-115.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cai, Yong, and William Lavely. 2003. "China's Missing Girls: Numerical Estimates and Effects on Population Growth." China Review (The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press) 3 (2): 13-29.

[16] Huang, Kuangshi. 2014. "Marriage Squeeze in China: Past, Present, and Future." Journal of Family Issues 35 (12): 1642-1661. doi:10.1177/0192513X14538027

[17] Sotomayor, Kristal. 2020. The One-Child Policy Legacy on Women and Relationships in China. February 5.

[18] Human Rights Watch. 2019. Trafficking of Kachin “Brides” from Myanmar to China. March 21.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Refworld. 2007. "China: Treatment of "illegal," or "black," children born outside the one-child family planning policy; whether unregistered children are denied access to education, health care and other social services (2003-2007)." Refworld. June 26.

[21] Li, Shuzhuo, Yexia Zhang, and Marcus W. Feldman. 2010. "Birth Registration in China: Practices, Problems and Policies." Population Research and Policy Review 29 (3): 297-317. doi:10.1007/s11113-009-9141-x.

[22] Bruni, Michele. 2014. "Dwindling Labour Supply in China: Scenarios for 2010–2060." In Analysing China’s Population: Social Change in a New Demographic Era, by Isabelle Attané and Baochang Gu, 227-254. Springer.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Zhang, Junsen. 2017. "The Evolution of China’s One-Child Policy." Journal of Economic Perspectives 31 (1): 141-160.

[25] World Bank. 2019. Fertility rate, total (births per woman) - Korea, Rep., China, Thailand.

[26] Huang, Wei. 2017. How does the one child policy impact social and economic outcomes? doi:10.15185/izawol.387.