This week, as school is just starting at UC San Diego, Prospect is revisiting some of our most popular pieces from the previous academic year. We will begin posting new material soon; until then, enjoy our look back!

By Shengyi (Sandy) Chang
Contributing Writer

Despite evolving standards of international human rights and an odious shift in China’s demographics, the One Child Policy is still in effect to control the reproductive lives of Chinese citizens. Today, coercive methods, such as forced abortion and sterilization, are still used to implement the One Child Policy by many local authorities despite its violation against both international human rights laws and China’s domestic social policies.Though the policy was instituted to limit China’s population to a sustainable level, several economic challenges have come into play that should prompt China to consider revising the One Child Policy. In essence, there is an impending demographic nightmare fueled by serious questions concerning its fiscal sustainability and moral legitimacy. More specifically, China is witnessing an increasing percentage of the senior population for the next half century coupled with the decline of young labor to take their place in the job market. Hence, China should start to phase out the One Child Policy and replace it with a two-child policy. Eventually, the right of reproduction should be returned to the Chinese citizenry after the demographic transition has stabilized. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the practice of violent and coercive enforcement mechanisms should be strictly prohibited under Chinese law.

The Problem

One can posit that international human rights are a somewhat fluid and nebulous notion, however, one cannot debate the empirical facts surrounding Chinese demographics. The Sixth National Population Census demonstrates the upcoming challenges that China will face as a consequence of the One Child Policy – a remarkable slowdown of annual population growth rates in China. This translates to a growing percentage of both working and senior population who will soon require elder care and a d corresponding decline in the proportion of children aged under 14 who will soon attempt to support them (Singh 6).

According to the Chinese census, the annual growth rate of China in the last decade was 0.57 percent, and “people aged 60 years and above accounted for 13.26 percent of the population, an increase of 2.93 percentage points from 2000” (Jing). Simply put, the rapidly growing elderly demographic will become a financial burden on the social safety system as there are far fewer Chinese youths to support the tax base. Yet, no corrective policy has been put forward. However, the counteractive policy cannot be uniform as population rates differ dramatically as one moves from urban to rural.

A 2005 study published by Wang Feng, a University of California, Irvine professor of sociology whose is fielded in comparative demographics, shows that the urban population aged 65 and over was at 10 percent. In slightly more than 10 years from the date of the study, the proportion of urban population older than 65 will reach 15 percent, which is a comparable figure to that seen developed countries. In rural areas, however, the level of aging population will come more than 10 years later(Jing 4-5). The rapid economic development in China relied heavily on its young and productive labor force , yet the One Child Policy harms this crucial dynamo of Chinese economic growth (Wang 244). As a result, the decline of the labor force combined with “escalating cost associated with aging population could put China at a competitive disadvantage relative to its neighbors” (Friedman 1). Since China is a major economic power in the world and still has the world’s largest population, the implications of the demographic crisis in China will almost certainly spread from the domestic to the international arena.

A Brief History of The One Child Policy

During the 1950s and 1960s, Chairman Mao introduced his philosophy that “more children equaled greater strength”, causing the population to swell (Gregory 48). However, as the population skyrocketed, the standards in housing, health, food and employment declined. In turn, economic backwardness became an increasing concern for Chinese leaders. Fearing that the problem of overpopulation would hinder China’s economic development and social advancement, China instituted the One Child Policy in 1979 to limit the population to a manageable level.

The One Child Policy limits every couple to have only one child, and the implementation of the policy includes “government-sponsored use of contraceptives, abortion, sterilization, and economic incentives to avoid over-quota births” (Gregory 45). However, it’s important to note that the interpretation and enforcement mechanisms of the policy are usually left to local authorities. Thus, the policy implementation could vary from region to region – from urban to rural and even within the same localities. Some local officials, especially those in rural areas, adopt violent and coercive methods when executing the family planning policy. This often appalling behavior is driven by the desire to get ahead of demographic shifts and prove their success in managing fertility (Li 804). However, the One Child Policy punish local officials for failing to enforce the policy – not for violating women(Steven 1558).

By 1984, the state put forth numerous exceptions to allow couples to have more than one child. Generally speaking, urban couples are only allowed to have one child, while rural couples are allowed to have two if the first born is a girl. Ethnic minorities are normally exempted from the policy. Married couples are allowed to have children if both of them are the only child in their family. Due to the Chinese traditional beliefs favoring sons over daughters, the government bans the use of ultrasound B machines in order to prevent sex selective abortions (Currier 370).

Following the international outcry after the recent scandal concerning the forced abortion of a 7-month pregnant woman, Feng Jianmei, the Population and Family Planning Commission in Beijing issued an order on August 30, 2012. This order prohibits forced abortion, particularly late-term abortions, when enforcing the One Child Policy (Kwon).

When one considers the contemporary implications of this history, it shows the Chinese leadership has the capacity and willingness to reform laws that are too monolithic in concept or outright counter-productive to national interests. In light of the mountain of data suggesting China is on course for a demographical disaster, it reasonably follows that a new policy has the potential to emerge in the near future. However, some ideas are incomplete in theory and unsuitable for their assimilation into governmental action.

Critique of Suggested Policies

The most recent report to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) indicated, “We must adhere to the basic state policy of family planning, [and] improve the health of newborns, steadily improve the population policy and promote long-term and balanced population growth.” The report indicates that the Communist Party is aware of the problem of unbalanced population in terms of sex ratio and regional population. Also, the government has devoted some attention to its declining population growth rate in the long run as well. While the report signals a potential change in China’s population policy, it still reveals the government’s persistent effort in maintaining the established policy.

Though the One Child Policy was successful in limiting population expansion in order to set the stage for Chinese economic development, it behooves the state’s long-term economic interest. China’s intention to “steadily improve” or to relax the policy is not sufficient to correct the approaching demographic crisis caused by the One Child Policy. A study shows that China will experience its last substantial increase in labor supply until 2015. By 2015, “China will enter a long period of demographic crossover: a consistently declining new labor supply coupled with a consistently rising elderly population” (Wang 9).

Not only is the One Child Policy serving to create a doubtfully sustainable fiscal burden, the issue is highly time-sensitive because for every year of inaction the demographic disparity increases. Compared to other countries that have undergone mortality and fertility declines, “China will have far less time to prepare its social and economic infrastructure to deal with the effects of a rapidly aging population.” If China does not alter the One Child Policy, the working age population will start to shrink in 2025 and the aging population will accelerate at the same time. As a study suggest, “the share of this population aged 65 and over rising to 14 percent in 2025, 20 percent in 2035, and more than 24 percent in 2025 (reaching a peak of more than 28 percent in 2064)” (Wang 10).

Research from Carolina Population Center puts forth a more radical policy recommendation, advocating for the return of full reproductive rights to Chinese citizens. Research fellow Yong Cai believes that people should have the right to determine how many children to have (UNC). His research finding is based on six counties in Jiangsu Province that suggests socio-economic factors have crucial effects on the decrease of Chinese people’s intended family size.

However, it’s important to note that the chosen six counties are “all in the more developed part of Jiangsu that has experience rapid economic growth and sustained fertility decline”, and they might not be generalized to China as a whole, considering China’s disparity in economic development(Zheng 333). In addition, immediate liberalization of reproductive right might lead to an unwanted baby boom, most likely in rural areas. If China is in favor of gradual policy change and aims at promoting a long-term balanced population growth, the immediate return of full reproductive rights to its citizens might not yet be pragmatic.

Policy Recommendation

Reforming the established population policy is clearly necessary, and there should be a graduated, three tier measure enacted. First, the new central government should lead the People’s Republic of China in terminating the One Child Policy immediately. Following the repeal of the One Child Policy, China should institutionalize a Two-Child Policy in urban areas. In addition, violent enforcement mechanisms, such as forced abortion and sterilization, should be strictly prohibited nationwide under China’s law. Eventually, the reproductive rights should be returned in full to all citizens.

In the first stage of reformation, China should accept the policy proposal recommended by the Chinese think tank, the China Development Research Foundation. According to the foundation, it urges the new central leadership to “start phasing out the One Child Policy immediately and allow two children for every family by 2015” (Olesen). The policy makers might have concerns over stability and thus reluctant to promote reformation. Yet the imminent demographic crisis has reached a critical mass. Consequently, mere relaxation of the one child rule done at standard bureaucratic speed is insufficient to correct the looming demographic crisis (Wang 251).

A study shows that the repeal of the One Child Policy is indeed necessary. According to the study, although health care improvement have increased the life expectancy in China and the one child rule has been relaxed in terms of enforcement, it has not led to stable population growth over time. In fact, according to World Bank estimates, “population growth rate have decreased in China from 1.0 percent from 1990-2003 to 0.60 percent from 2003 projected through 2015 (Currier 386). According to the study, Wang Feng warns, “given that demographic changes take time to develop, and that their ramifications are massive and long-lasting, China’s inaction has already proved costly – and will only grow more so the longer it persists.” (Wang 251)

Consequently, the One Child Policy should be replaced by the Two-Child Policy. Because rural couples are already allowed to have two children under the exception that the first born is a girl, the two-child rule should begin in urban areas. Meanwhile, the new Two-Child Policy should allow Chinese couples to raise two children per family regardless the sex of the first born. By replacing the One Child Policy with a Two-Child Policy, the state will still have control over population growth to avoid unwanted rapid population expansion. This analysis will assert that the two-child rule can stimulate sustainable population growth that should lead to more favorable long-term economic development. These favorable outcomes include: an increase in choice, growth in labor supply and a subsequent alleviation of state’s burden on social safety net demanded by the rapidly aging population.

China should reiterate the illegality of forced abortions beyond six months to local authorities, and “take action to improve the rule of law everywhere on its territory, thus preventing local authorities from exerting forceful practices to meet birth-control targets in violation of citizens’ rights duly guaranteed by the Chinese law.” If any local officials violate such policies, they should be suspended and punished by respective domestic law. In addition, by strictly banning the violent enforcement mechanisms when implementing the family planning policy, China will gain international respect and legitimacy via its adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

In the last stage of this proposed reform, China should eventually return the reproductive rights to Chinese citizens. In the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) it grants the same right to women as men to “decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children.” Since the People’s Republic of China has ratified the CEDAW on November 4, 1980, China should further its legitimacy within international institutions by honoring the international human rights law by ultimately abolishing birth quotas. It is within China’s sovereignty to formulate and promote its population policies, but the state should respect the free choice of each individual family (Gregory 70).

The causes for reform are both practical and moral – both economic and social – both individual and societal. While the One Child Policy was perhaps necessary for a given time with certain domestic circumstances, there is no fathomable reason to maintain this schema of population control; especially when the demographics of China have now been reversed since the One Child Policy’s institution.


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International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 7: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation.

Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, Article 16.1.(e): The same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights

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