Zhongdian, one child poster. Image credit: Flickr
Zhongdian, one child poster. Image credit: Flickr

One-child policy is a nationwide family planning policy introduced by the Chinese government to curb its overgrowing population that was hampering the nation’s economic growth. As per the rule, couples could only give birth to one child. They, however, could go for another child if the previous child died. Couples living in rural areas were allowed to try for a second child if the first kid was a female or was mentally or physically disabled.

When the Chinese Communist Party officially announced the rule in September, 1980, the long-term vision was to ensure the population didn’t increase beyond 1.2 billion by 20th century end. As per a 2015 government announcement, the policy will officially cease to exist by early 2016.


In late 1978, a voluntary population control program was announced by China. As per which, families were encouraged to not have more than a couple of kids, with a single child given higher preference. In 1979, the demand to limit one kid per family grew. During the year, the stricter or mandatory requirement was unevenly applied across provinces – in 1980, a standard policy was introduced. However, the enforcement was still on the lenient side in the rural regions compared to cities.

Why the One-Child Policy?

Till the 1960s, Chinese couples were free to determine their family size. Later, in the 1970s, the government took note of the alarming population growth. There were many Chinese couples with as many as four children, which resulted in economic crisis-like scenarios such as food shortages, abuse of public services, etc. The restriction was implemented to stabilize water and food supplies and reduce the burden on government services, besides enhancing individual prosperity. Managing this population was imperative to ensure quality education and healthcare and good career opportunities to all.


Thanks to the one-child policy, gender imbalance became widespread. Families started preferring a male kid as their only child, for obvious reasons. This gave rise to a flurry of gender-selective abortions, and also female child abandonment and female infanticide. Several baby girls were up for adoption or handed over to relatives with no kids.

As per the Chinese Health Ministry’s 2014 report, there were 336 million abortion and 196 million sterilization procedures carried out in the three decades post 1980. Also, 403 million intrauterine devices (a contraceptive equipment fitted within the uterus to mitigate fertilized ova implantation) were inserted.

The one-child policy, in a way, altered the people’s way of living. People had to think about who to marry, the job to have, retirement years, etc. due to the policy. Single kids couldn’t afford to fail both professionally and on a personal level because their families didn’t have anyone else to count on.

On a positive front, the enhanced economy meant most Chinese kids were not born in poverty. The urban crowd benefited the most. With a sibling not around, their access to things such as higher education and good nutrition was much improved.

Policy Breach Consequences

To ensure strict adherence to the policy, the Chinese government subjected its women to regular pregnancy tests – even women in their ‘40s and ‘50s weren’t spared. Those found to be pregnant had to undergo forced abortions and also sterilizations. The officials’ actions against pregnant women were brutal. There was one instance when a woman with a seven-month-old pregnancy had to abort her fetus. In several localities, the officials threatened policy violators with other stringent punishments, which included destruction of houses and seizure of cattle.

In several million reported cases, Chinese families successfully managed to hide their new kids from family planning authorities. Those caught had the option to remit “an upbringing or social compensation fee”, typically multiples of the average income of the child’s birthplace. The fee was collected to cover the extra child’s healthcare and education costs.