The Politics of Population Control in China
Policy vs. Tradition

Christopher Gunson
Political Change in China
Professor Richard Wilson

China has one fourth of the world's population and a birth rate that is adding tens of millions of people each year. A generation ago the Chinese government undertook a nationwide effort to stabilize the birth rate and slow the population explosion because it could see the inevitable conflict between an expanding population and a tightening economy. The result was a population control campaign that included a series of laws and regulations that were aimed at reducing China's population growth, and even its total size. Perhaps not surprisingly, the efforts to reduce the growth rate have come into conflict with the traditional Chinese way of life. The Chinese people, in particular the rural population, have been reluctant to abandon tradition. Praised and criticized both domestically and internationally, the one truth of the modern family planning policy is that it has, for better or for worse, irrevocably changed Chinese life.


Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978 after decades of social upheaval and low-level conflicts with foreign powers. After years of international disputes and economic setbacks the political scene seemed to have stabilized, and policy began to focus on domestic problems and how to stimulate economic growth. During Deng's economic reforms of the late 1970s, the center of the political debate was the problem of how best to combat economic stagnation. One of the issues addressed was China's soaring population, which had grown from 541 million in 1949 to 962 million in 1978, almost doubling since the Communist Party came to power. This tremendous growth occurred despite a dip in the overall population from 1959-1962 during the catastrophic Great Leap Forward (CPRIC 2000; see figure).

The steep birth rate in the years following the Great Leap Forward created a strong momentum that continued to fuel the population growth in the 1980s and 1990s, despite relatively low levels of fertility. Mao Zedong had been a strong proponent of the large, traditional Chinese family, and during his rule he had punished discussion of population control with party expulsion and imprisonment. Many in the modern government had more pragmatic views and realized where China was going and the limits of its exerted infrastructure. For the first time since the Communist Revolution, population control came to the forefront of the debate as a key measure to tackle the growing population (Huus, "People").

Citation of a few figures makes the catastrophic potential of China's growing population clear. China was attempting to support 20% of the world's population on only 7% of the world's arable land. The ratio of freshwater resources to people was one fourth that of the world's average. Despite a growing economy, unemployment in the late 1970s increased, and the prospect of a whole new generation of workers entering the labor force had serious implications for the future of Chinese society (Hamada, "Population"). Faced with the inevitability of overpopulation, Deng's government laid out a strategy for preventing the population from going beyond China's anticipated economic capacity. A family planning strategy was written up in 1979, and a move towards national population limitation began for the first time in China's history.

The strategy of limiting population growth contained three key points: late marriage, late child rearing, and the promotion of the idea that each family should have only one child. The first two themes of the plan are closely related to human biological logic. Couples often begin to have children soon after marriage, and late marriage facilitates late childbearing, thus naturally encouraging fewer children. The combination of these two strategies did a little to limit the birthrate among the educated urban population. The third strategy, or "one-child policy", was by far the most exacting regulation of the national family planning policy.

The one-child policy introduced a demanding system of population control to the Chinese public. Birth control clinics were set up nationwide to distribute contraceptives and perform abortions. Couples had to apply for a shengyu zheng (birth permit) before they could start a pregnancy; those who began unauthorized pregnancies had to abort the fetus or face fines and sterilization following birth, and unauthorized children were refused a hukou (residence card). Children without this card would receive no education, no grain rations, no health care, and potentially no employment. Fines for unauthorized births were so steep that they often exceeded a family's total yearly income (China Rights 1995, "Discrimination and Unequal Treatment").

The replacement rate for a sustainable population in the modern world is about 2.1 children per couple. Although it was called the one-child policy, the target for China was a national replacement rate of 1.6 children per couple, with provincial goals fluctuating in accordance with local demographics. One child was generally advocated and encouraged in cities, while rural families were sometimes permitted a second child, especially if the first child was a daughter (Lau 1997, 137). The birth of a third child was rarely permitted, and if it happened, whether authorized or not, one spouse had to be sterilized. Having a child without authorization, even if it was a couple's first child, also meant the sterilization of one spouse (Potts 1997, 21).


This was China's new approach to family planning, but in practice most of the regulations were not enforced in the first few years, as national efforts were concentrated in the areas of education and propaganda aimed at teaching the public. There was a slight decrease in the urban birth rate during the first few years of the program while the rural rate remained relatively unchanged. The lack of results, combined an increasing fertility rate in 1981 (an increase of sixteen million people), moved the focus of government policy away from passive encouragement to strict enforcement of the 1979 one-child policy. In 1982, additional regulations were added to the plan to vigorously counter the population growth, and the one-child policy was enforced to the full extent of the law. In 1983, the peak year since the implementation of the plan until 1990, 21 million sterilization operations were carried out, 18 million IUDs were inserted, and 14 million abortions were performed. Of the sterilization operations carried out that year, 79 percent were performed on women while only 21 percent were performed on men (China Rights 1995, "Health Effects").

China's national family planning, while having some successes, faced setbacks because the potential of having a population that was drastically split in its geographic and economic demographics. Urban families tended to comply with the government's family planning policy while the rural population did not. This was partly to do with better education, but also because centralized enforcement was more uniformly carried out in the cities. There was also clear difference between the rich and the poor, as the educated upper class followed the program more closely than the uneducated lower class. The reason most violations occurred in rural areas was the lack of centralized enforcement. This was exacerbated by insufficient education; many families did not understand the seriousness of the population problem, but they did understand that more children meant more help tilling the fields. Unless the poorer rural population started adhering to the policy more strictly, overall population control was unlikely to be successful.

The reasons for the differences between the rural population and the urban population were more than mere education (although giving the people an understanding of the big picture of China's population problem was a major part of the early efforts). Political expectations had fundamental conflict with tradition. Families that owned farms and needed children to carry on the family business were reluctant to follow the population control policy. The biggest problem facing the one-child policy, however, was Chinese tradition and culture. Unlike government policy, the established way of life could not do an about-face in a few short years. According to this tradition, daughters left their parents when they married to join their husband's family. Married daughters were often unable to care for their elderly parents. Couples that followed the one-child policy strongly encouraged mothers to have a son to carry on the family name, care for elderly parents and work the family farm. When daughters left they took with them their usefulness to their original family, not to mention the years of effort and expenditure of family resources necessary to raise a daughter. If families were to be limited, female children were not desirable.

The preference for sons led to a troubling gap in the ratio of sons to daughters. Sex-selective abortions, infanticide, and adoptions to foreign parents have created a distorted sex ratio: from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, the sex ratio in China averaged 117 sons for every 100 daughters. By the end of the century it is estimated that the newborn population will be disproportionately male, with over 70 million excess growing bachelors, and no spouses available once they mature. International adoption programs that seek to find overseas parents for Chinese orphans have extremely low sex ratios of 27 to 36 boys per 100 girls (China Rights 1995, "Discrimination and Unequal Treatment"). The likelihood that parents will give away daughters rather than sons, combined with the restrictive provisions of the one-child policy, has intensified the gender gap in adoption rates (Potts 1997, 18-21).

Rural towns with local birth control enforcement authorities were pervaded with an atmosphere of civil disobedience. Families were resistant to local officials limiting the number of children they were allowed to have, and many peasants followed a path advocated in the grand tradition of Confucius, who taught that government should be followed -- unless if it was unjust. Women would refuse to show up at clinics for abortions and/or sterilization operations, hide at the home of a relative until giving birth, or claim the child was adopted or belonged to a relative. Many families living in areas where the law was not uniformly enforced simply had children and never registered them with the government. The fallout from having unregistered children was potentially very serious for a poor family with little available equity, but despite the risks, people living in rural areas often had extra children and escaped detection. This led to a large number of babies dubbed the "black population;" children born in secret to prevent government detection.

The Chinese government has recently come to terms with the reality of the situation and the government has worked to accommodate the "black population." The threat of no education, no employment and no health care for unregistered children is a potent deterrent to dissuade parents, but it is not effective domestic policy. As a result, for the census conducted in October to November of the year 2000, the government appealed to the people to cooperate with the census-takers by promising unregistered children permanent residence cards. The government also promised that no punishments would be administered for breaking the one-child policy. The exact number of children who will be discovered and added to the total population is as of yet unknown, but it has been estimated by some experts that the number may be as high as 200 million additional children (Bezlova, "China's").

Modern China is still male-oriented and favors men, but a relaxation of traditional values did take place in the years preceding the institution of the one-child policy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was credited in passing progressive change in social policy, notably the Marriage Law of 1950, a statute that called for the equality of the sexes. Bride prices, concubines, and prearranged marriages were outlawed under the 1950 law, and women gained the right to divorce their husbands (Lau 1997, 201). Mere CCP legislation could not change traditional society, but while modern conditions seem unjust in the context of the western world, significant advances have been made in closing the societal gap between men and women.


International opposition to China's one-child policy has come in the shape of a four pronged coalition: free-market economists, redistribution-of-wealth advocates, human and women's rights organizations, and religious groups. Ironically, this coalition includes two powerful interest groups that are completely at odds in the United States, Planned Parenthood and the Catholic Church. Planned Parenthood, despite their support for the right to contraception and abortion, has criticized the Chinese government's authoritarian birth control policy. Malcolm Potts, former medical director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, at the 1994 World Population Conference in Bucharest, Romania, stated that "[h]istory shows that the cruelest dictatorships are the ones that have denied people reproductive choices" (Potts 1997, 13). Potts' organization was just one major player in the coalition that aggressively spoke out against China's population control. Catholic churches have also been vocal in their opposition to China's restrictive family planning policy because of religious beliefs that are in opposition to all forms of birth control and abortion.

Women's rights groups have also been up in arms against China's family planning administration because of a number of women's rights issues. Traditionally, rural Chinese sons and their families stayed at home and cared for elderly parents, while daughters left and joined their husband's family when they married. The pressure to have sons over daughters for financial reasons meant that female babies were often aborted, killed after birth, or abandoned by poor parents (Hamada, "Population"). The use of ultrasound for the purpose of infant gender selection was outlawed in 1993, but the ban was practically unenforceable (Lay 1997, 119). If the sex of a fetus could be determined to be female, she was often aborted. Female infanticide was also prevalent, along with the abandonment of newborn daughters. This desperate behavior by many in China's rural areas revealed the tremendous pressure on mothers from husbands and relatives to bear sons (China Rights, 1995, "Discrimination and Unequal Treatment").

The killing of newborn daughters has been outlawed, but those who committed sex-selective abortions, infanticides and abandonment typically had little risk of being caught or punished. If arrests were made, the law was rarely enforced; provincial governors were required to fulfill population targets, and since they themselves were held responsible by the central government for high birth quotas, punishing infanticide was not a priority. Even then, condemning a guilty mother or father for the desperate act of killing a baby girl does not bring all guilty parties to justice, nor does it explain the complex cultural factors involved. With heavy pressure from family and relatives who favor sons over daughters, a society run on male-oriented tradition, and an authoritarian government determined to limit the population, disciplining a mother guilty of infanticide does not account for the causes or eradicate the possibility of future killings of unwanted daughters.

Potential mothers also faced harassment if they resisted the abortion of unauthorized pregnancies. If propaganda, threats and coercion were ineffective, local authorities were known to carry out "night raids" to capture women who were hiding or trying to flee from local birth planning workers. One former population control official described these night raids conducted by his team:

[I]f the woman does not show up at the clinics on time [for abortion or sterilization], we go to her house trying to find her. If she is not home, we go again at night, often with 4 or 5 tractor-loads of local militia or police, each carrying a large flashlight. We go into the village quietly, surround the woman's house and then knock on her door. When someone opens the door we try to take the woman away... if we catch the woman, she is sent to the township clinic to get sterilized in the middle of the night by half-asleep nurses and doctors. The woman usually screams and kicks, and our men hold her down for anesthesiac (China Rights 1995, "The Use of Violence")

Evidence suggests that this was not an isolated incident. Inhumane practices of coerced sterilization and abortion have been linked to China's system of population control.

Women not only suffered the risks and pains of pregnancy, but both the family planning policy and the expectations of society placed sole responsibility for children and birth control on the shoulders of mothers. Although the population control regulations specifically repeat that "both spouses have the obligation to practice planned birth", birth control agencies, particularly in rural areas, have not striven to counterbalance the societal tendencies. China's family planning clinics have estimated, in accordance with their contraceptive distribution statistics, that only 16.49 percent of male partners use any contraception as opposed to 83.51 percent of females (Hamada, "Population"). Most men considered birth control to be the business of women, with more than 10 percent of men regarding abortion as a method of contraception (Lau 1997, 48). The male-dominated culture considered the use of contraceptives or vasectomy as a loss of face for men. Yet the law required that too many children or unauthorized births should lead to the sterilization of one spouse. In 1991 the male sterilization rate was 12.1 percent of the national population while the female rate was 38.8 percent (China Rights 1995, "Rights Violated in China's Population Control Policies").

Sterilization was not only sexually biased, but the surgery was often dangerous to the health of the patient because of unsanitary conditions. Although regulations included sanitation requirements for operations, in practice there were provisions of the population control campaign's health laws that were fundamentally at odds with each other. In order to meet rigid quotas, doctors were ordered to perform a huge amount of operations in a short period of time. Medically unsuitable conditions and rushed operations increased the risk of pelvic infections, internal bleeding and pelvic hematoma. Insertion of O-ring IUDs, made of steel for easy X-ray detection, were also a common form of birth control for women who had given birth to one or more children. Although less dangerous than sterilization, and reversible, IUDs sometimes resulted in pelvic infections and more frequent menstruation (Huus, "People"). International groups claimed that involuntary birth control was a gender-specific violence against the women of China.

Despite vocal international criticism, the one-child policy was not without its overseas supporters. Proponents of China's population limitation program include activist Garrett Hardin and media mogul Ted Turner. (Turner, "Too"). Environmental groups have also praised China's population control policy. Despite the vocal criticism of human rights organizations, environmentalists and economists have compared and contrasted the differences between China's hard-line population control policy and India's public awareness and propaganda-based campaign. China's efforts have succeeded in limiting the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), even though they have created demographic imbalances. India's population control campaign, based on education and public promotion, has had some limited success with the urban population but the rural population has continued to increase.

The strict, and sometimes brutal, enforcement of the one-child policy in China was due in part to the Chinese way of thinking. Western values generally place the rights of the individual over the importance of social stability, while the Chinese Communist Party viewed the rights of individuals as secondary to society as a whole. If the demanding regulations of the one-child policy produced a lower population growth rate and a higher standard of living for the general public, the welfare of individuals, while important, were put after the welfare of society. Many human rights organizations that have criticized China are western organizations with a western view of the importance of the individual over the group.

It must be kept in mind that the government did not perform abortions, force sterilization or use strong-armed population control tactics with malicious purpose. It was the goal of the Chinese government to ensure the welfare of the entire country; without strong population control the nation faced potential devastation on a scale that would far surpass the human rights violations that took place in the process of enforcement. This does not excuse the psychologically deranging effects of China's population control efforts, but it does explain the big picture in comparison to individual human rights.

The conflict between Western and Eastern thought is evident in the international disputes that took place as a result of the population control campaign. A perfect example of this conflict of values is the criticism of the population control law titled the Maternal and Infant Health Care Law (MIHCL). Human rights organizations, including the United Nations, were particularly critical of this provision that was aimed at improving the overall quality of life for the Chinese populace. In coincidence with the population control policy, the MIHCL promulgated health requirements for marriage, preventing those with hereditary diseases from marrying, and sterilizing certain types of people. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of men and women with hereditary diseases, mental retardation, low intelligence, or those with extensive criminal records have been sterilized. From the vantage point of the Chinese government, such measures were prudent ways of creating a better society. Human rights organizations, on the other hand, saw these measures as violations of individual freedoms.


The goal of China's one-child policy and the population control campaign was to reduce the overall growth rate to a national average of 1.6 children per couple. The measure of the program's success can be measured in the TFR, which has fallen to 1.2 children per couple in urban areas. Despite this headway, the rural TFR continues to hover well above the replacement rate at close to 2.5 children per couple. In the past two decades, supporters of the plan have claimed that birth control efforts have freed China from an additional 260 million people (Bouvier 1999, 24). They would also argue that fewer births led to an increase in the Chinese quality of life, with schools and hospitals able to focus more attention on fewer students and patients.

The success of the Chinese Communist Party's family planning policy can be found through a comparison with India, for like China, India has also faced a skyrocketing population in the past half-century. From 1950-1980 the population growth of the two countries mirrored each other, but from 1990 onwards China's population growth began to slow down while India's continues unabated (see figure for details on normalized population growth of China, India, Japan and USA). India has undergone a far less draconian attempt at population control than China, with a campaign based mainly on public advertisements and propaganda. The problems of overpopulation in India and China are potentially very similar, but the democratic system of government in India makes an enforced population control campaign impossible. In the early 1980s India began a forced sterilization program wherein local authorities were given sterilization quotas, and many citizens were made to undergo sterilization operations. An outraged public voted out the incumbent political party in the next election and ever since it has been considered political suicide to address the population issue (Mehta 220-243).

This suggests that only an authoritarian, undemocratic government can handle the problem of overpopulation by carrying out a campaign of enforced birth control. Evidence from outside India and China has proven otherwise. Japan has reached a replacement rate of 1.5 children per couple without any federal propaganda campaign or enforced birth control. Meanwhile the United States has maintained a replacement rate of less than the sustainable 2.1 children per couple, but the population continues to expand because of high immigration. These two examples, where population has limited itself without enforced government policy, corroborate the alternative postulate that prosperity and education can lead to a population without runaway growth. A libertarian style of government may be more effective in preventing overpopulation than an authoritarian government.

The solution to China's overpopulation must then be an alternate pursuit, that of education and an increase in the standard of living. Finding and achieving this alternative is the key to improving China's population control system. The politically enforced one-child policy, despite its successes in limiting the population, has led to a huge disparity in the male and female infant population, frequent infanticide, and other unnecessary suffering. In many cases it is the conflict of tradition with the expectations of a demanding political system that have led to sexual incongruities in the child population and an unbalanced rate of urban to rural births. If the one-child policy is to continue, further sexual equality, the modernization of tradition, and more accessible education are essential for its improvement. Only then is it likely that a reduced TFR and human rights can go hand in hand.

Notwithstanding these comparisons and facts, criticism from the west should be administered with restraint. From an outsider's point of view, China's enforcement of the one-child policy may have seemed cruel, but given the situation and the catastrophic potential it is possible that there was no other choice. Unlike many post-industrial western nations, China has made a concerted effort to preserve its traditions instead of abandoning it in the face of rapid modernization. These historical cultural tendencies and traditional ways of thought have influenced the management of the population control program, predictably favoring the welfare of the country over the well-being of individuals. Coming from the western perspective, critics of the one-child policy may not have understood that population control in China is a necessity, not an ideological pursuit, and the price for that necessity may be too high for the uninformed westerner to understand.


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