China's One Child Policy: Facts & History

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  • 0:01 What Is China's One…
  • 0:32 History of the Policy
  • 1:50 Effects of the One…
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Instructor: Gary Gilles

Gary has a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology and has been teaching and developing courses in higher education since 1988.

China's one child policy restricts many couples from being able to have a family of their choosing and imposes stiff consequences for those who don't comply. Learn more about the one child policy, how it was established and the current status of the law and test your knowledge with quiz questions.

What Is China's One Child Policy?

China's One Child Policy is the country's official attempt at population control. The law restricts urban couples to having only one child. If that pregnancy results in twins then two children are permitted. The strict enforcement of the law only pertains to couples living in the densely populated urban areas. Couples living in rural areas are not subject to the one child policy. Approximately one-third of the Chinese population is subject to the one child restriction.

History of the Policy

Until the 1960s, Chinese officials gave couples the freedom to determine the size of their family. Under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976), families were encouraged to have as many children as possible. Mao believed that population growth made the country stronger. In 1970, the Chinese government, growing increasingly concerned that population growth was becoming a significant problem, encouraged couples to marry later and have only two children, but this was not a policy mandated by law. Mao, in line with his theory that a populous China was a prosperous China, prevented the establishment of official 'family planning' programs that were being proposed by others at the time.

In 1979, three years after Mao's death, the one child policy was established by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping as a means of limiting population growth and addressing some of the social, economic, and environmental problems that were associated with the country's tremendous growth. Between 1949 and 1976, the population in China nearly doubled, from 540 million to 940 million. The one child policy was designed to forbid couples living in urban areas to have more than one child or face penalties, such as fees or a reduction in societal benefits.

The Effects of the One Child Policy

Since the one child policy has been in effect, Chinese officials claim that it has prevented more than 400 million births through 2011. Independent scholars outside of China estimate the actual number of prevented births at around 100 million.

Regardless of the actual number of prevented births, the number of live births is significantly weighted toward males, with about 117 males born for every 100 females. Males are the favored gender in Chinese culture because it is believed that males are able to better support the parents financially in their retirement, and a man's parents are typically better cared for than his wife's parents.

The one child policy has been strongly criticized by the international community because it implies an increased number of forced abortions from pregnancies that exceed the one child limit or are known to be female. In 2002, China outlawed the use of force to require a woman to abort her child or undergo forced sterilization, but many local governments still demand abortion if the pregnancy violates the local laws governing the one child policy.

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