Little Emperors to be Dethroned: The End of the One-Child Policy

A little more than a week ago, Chinese news agency Xinhua shocked the world by revealing that a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) communique revealed that the People’s Republic was phasing out the infamous ‘one-child policy’, intending to replace it with a so called ‘two-child policy’. The one-child policy was heavily associated with China, due to no similar rules being enforced anywhere on Earth (save for Iran between 1993 and 2006). It was a controversial law, both within China and outside. Many organizations claimed it to be a violation of the human right to decide “freely… the number and spacing of… children.”, while its supporters claimed it prevented 400 million births which might have done irreparable damage to China’s economy. Approximately 35 years after its creation, the question is asked, what are the effects of the one-child policy?

A poster promoting the one-child policy. Photo:
A poster promoting the one-child policy. Photo:

Between 1949 and 1976, the People’s Republic of China was ruled under its first Communist Leader, Mao Zedong. Mao was obsessed with the idea of revolution. He wanted to change everything that he viewed as backwards and bring China into the modern age. Inspired by the central planning of its then-ally, the Soviet Union, Mao created what were known as Five Year Plans, economic plans designed to stimulate growth in specific facets of industry in an attempt to modernize China. The first one worked, even better than expected. However, the second one, known as The Great Leap Forward is viewed as a colossal failure. The Great Leap Forward tried to bolster trade of Chinese crops with the Soviet Union. However, this resulted in a food shortage in China, killing an estimated 30 million people, mostly through malnutrition. This cut the birth rate in half, which prompted many CCP to encourage many families to have as many children as possible to make up for the dead in the Great Leap Forward. This created a population boom, giving China a population of  940 million by 1976 (It was only 540 million in 1949). In 1970, Mao implemented a two-child policy to curb the growth, but it didn’t work.

Every Chinese citizen was required to have at least one portrait of Mao hanging on a wall in their house.

One of the results of this two-child policy was Anna Wang – born Wang Yu Hui (Yu Hui meaning eternal moon, due to her being born the day NASA left for the moon) – a Mao born Deng raised Chinese American. She recalls how, during the two-child policy, the one-child policy was already starting to take form. “[I]f you opt[ed] to have one-child” says Anna,  “you… received ‘rewards’ such as [a] (very) small bonus in your paycheck, plus you were then commended as a good citizen.”

An example of propaganda from the Maoist era. Photo:
An example of propaganda from the Maoist era. Photo:

When Mao died in 1976, after a brief power struggle, Deng Xiaoping came to power. Deng laid the foreground for many of modern China’s policies, with perhaps his most famous being the one-child policy. Deng was unsatisfied with the glacial effects of the two-child policy, and created what became officially known as the “family planning policy”, restricting families to just one child. Deng intended for the one-child policy to be generational (i.e. impermanent), so as to bring China’s population to 700 million by 2080. The rules of it were that a couple is only allowed one child, anymore will be fined proportionally to the parents’ income (a low wage worker will pay far less than a CEO for an extra child). It was not without exceptions, roughly two thirds of all Chinese couples were exempt from the policy. A couple was eligible for exemption if they were an ethnic minority (China is 93% Han), lived in a rural community or were only children themselves just to name a few examples.

Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s borders to capitalist trade. Because of this, the first Western movie Anna ever saw was The Sound of Music. “Before then, every movie was about war.”

The one-child policy was not without problems. One of the most famous was the gender disparity. Due to men holding a higher position in traditional Chinese culture, many parents sought sex-selective abortions – aborting a foetus if it is determined to be female – or even resorted to outright infanticide. The idea went that if they were to have only one child, it might as well be a boy who can provide for them. This led to approximately 1.17 boy births to every female birth.  That might not sound like a lot, but that is 30 million men who will never have partners. There are more men who will probably never marry in China than there are Australians in the world. This gender dynamic also led to the ‘missing women’ phenomenon. Many parents did not want to have girls, but were unable to perform the abortion. Therefore, many killed their newborn baby girls not too long after their birth, marking them as ‘missing’. There are roughly 40 million ‘missing women’ today.

Under Mao, Anna’s grandfather once feared for his life when he accidentally cut a newspaper with Mao’s face on it.

Another problem that arose from the gender disparity was the rise of caili. Caili are the Chinese equivalent of a dowry, a price paid by a groom to his hopeful bride’s family in exchange for her hand in marriage. Under Mao, cailis were rare, only in rural communities, and cheap, usually costing no more than a bicycle. However, supply and demand took over as more boys than girls were being born. Caili spread to urban areas and spiked in price. Now, the average caili in a city like Shanghai can cost up to the equivalent of $16, 500, roughly the same as four years worth of the average annual income for a Chinese worker. Caili have also been used as a form of fraud, with many con artists and their families receiving a caili and then running away with the money.

A traditional Chinese wedding. Photo:
A traditional Chinese wedding. Photo:

Another phenomenon that stemmed from the one-child policy was the creation of so-called ‘Little Emperors’. Because traditional Chinese families all live together in one house – i.e. the child, his parents and their parents will all live together – many offspring of the one-child policy became spoilt. There would be six family members all competing for the love of one child, mostly through food and cooking. Being fat isn’t viewed as negatively in China as it is in occidental nations, quite the opposite, it is sometimes seen in a positive light. Being fat is a sign of wealth, and is a status symbol in some parts of China, therefore a fat child will reflect favorably on their family, as, in China, an individual’s actions and being are viewed as indicative of their family or community.

A stereotypical
A stereotypical “Little Emperor”. Photo:

Not all of the effects of the ‘Little Emperors’ were physical though. Only children are also viewed as spoilt and depressed. This is because their families put more pressure on them than usual. A successful child is a sign of a good family. In families with more children, their is less pressure, as only one successful child is required for a positive view. In only child families however, there is only one chance, thus supposedly causing more stress in the children. While studies on the Little Emperors have yielded inconclusive results, the bias is felt, with the China Railway Construction group once posting a want ad that asked for employees who were, “Non-only children college grads”.

The Sichuan earthquake, a devastating natural disaster which loosened the one-child policy, due to a disproportionate amount of the victims being children. Photo:
The Sichuan earthquake, a devastating natural disaster which loosened the one-child policy, due to a disproportionate amount of the victims being children. Photo:

Many welcomed the new, two-child policy. Many, that is, outside of China. A survey by the National Health and Family Planning Commission found that only have of all couples wish to have two children. This is due to a mixture of financial support and the ‘4-2-1’ problem. Because of the tradition of several generations cohabitating under one roof, many only children ended up having to take care of their parents and grand-parents once they achieved adulthood. Hence, one man would have to look over his two parents and four grandparents, in total having to take care of six people. This tradition isn’t exactly optional either, as Chinese law states that, rather than implement a social security system, it is mandatory for a child to take care of his or her parents if they are to fall ill. Many couples feel like they won’t be able to take care of or even be able to afford the living price two children, as they’re already taking care of the rest of their family.

An example of the 4-2-1 problem. Photo:
An example of the 4-2-1 problem. Photo:

In 2010, China’s birthrate fell to 1.5 children for every mother. Most economists believe a birthrate needed to keep a nation stable is 2.1 births for every mother. China is facing what could possibly be an economic disaster, as the number of retirees is growing and the number of workers is shrinking. This is not necessarily a unique problem. The nearby nations of Japan and South Korea are also faced with falling birthrates (1.4 and 1.2 respectively) and ageing populaces. Many critics of the one-child policy point to these two nations as examples of how to lower a populace without the negative effects linked to the one child policy.

“I think [the CCP] realize that not only is it hard to control [human reproduction], they will need a larger workforce to support the ageing population”

“[The end of the family planning policy] does not surprise me” says Anna. “Quite a few people were already having more than one kid. People found ways around the policy. But abolishing it as a policy is a big deal for the government.” Anna’s life has changed dramatically due to the actions of the CCP, as have those of most other Chinese citizens. Some people claim that China was far more authoritarian under Mao, and that all of the actions to control China’s population have been due to Mao’s Five Year Plans. While life was more controlled under Mao, and life in Xi Xinping’s (the current Chinese Premier) China “is definitely better”, Anna also points out that “The poor are not nearly as protected as life under Mao.” She says that “You have a lot more freedom and choices. Traveling out of the country was out of the question under Mao, now you see Chinese tourists everywhere (sometimes that can be quite unfortunate)”.

A stereotypical crowd of Chinese tourists. Photo:
A stereotypical crowd of Chinese tourists. Photo:

Modern China offers its citizens a choice which might be viewed as difficult in the Western world. While the government is a self-described “democratic dictatorship”, that has not remained necessarily true to the former part of its name. Dozens of journalists have been arrested due to China’s restriction on freedom of speech, the nation still only allows only one political party to form and can even revoke a person’s travel visa if they were to commit enough offences such as playing video-games or using a pun online. However, in return, hundreds of millions of citizens have transitioned from poverty in the last thirty years, and China has become what appeared to be a failing feudal state to the second biggest economy on Earth. Some people may view acts such as the family planning policy as restrictive on human rights, but the compromise is an escape from poverty and a world leading education system. They may be autocratic in European eyes, but people worldwide value their government in different ways. Most polls show that Chinese citizens are generally happy with their current system. Western values aren’t universal, and while this change in policy might seem glorious in Europe’s eyes, it is not that grand in China. While one might be tempted to say that China is run by an authoritarian regime that restricts the rights of its citizens, a Chinese person might reply that the West is run by a series of incompetent governments run by corrupt bureaucrats who are so stubborn as to get nothing done. The one-child policy might seem to be an infringement on humans, or it may be a necessary evil. All that can be said is the effects of it will be felt long after its death.

Sources include The Guardian, BBC, The New Yorker, New York Times, Xinhua, China Daily and the Discovery Network

The information presented in this article does not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of The Update. We are reporting either the facts or opinions held by third parties related to the subject of the article.

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