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Formulation of the One-Child Policy in China

The following is a guest post by Bing Jia, a foreign law intern in the Law Library’s Global Legal Research Center.

It is said that being an only child has pros and cons: not having to share stuff is an upside, while loneliness is a downside; being spoiled is a bright side of being an only child, while being too attached to one’s parents is a downside. People also have different perspectives for and against China‘s one-child policy. Many people view this policy in a negative light, arguing that couples are robbed of the choice to decide for themselves the size of their families. Moreover, allegations about how the government enforces the policy have raised human rights concerns. The other side of the argument is that China faced a situation where it needed to put in place some sort of policies on family planning and family size largely because its population was exploding far beyond the country’s means.

Good or bad, no one would doubt that the one-child policy has significantly changed the Chinese society. Its formulation, however, was not linear. I recently researched the processes that established this policy in the 1970s and 1980s. What I found was so interesting I thought it was worth sharing with In Custodia Legis readers.

Population control or “family planning” had been endorsed by the central leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese government long before the idea of one-child-per-couple. As early as 1973, one-child-per-couple had been suggested by the government in a campaign that included a slogan “one is not few.”

In March 1978 the state regulation of population growth was made a constitutional obligation. The CCP aimed to have the population stabilize at 1.2 billion by the end of the twentieth century. At the time, the country’s leaders were concerned about various issues including whether a one-child policy would be feasible and, if adopted, how strictly it should be enforced.

Then, Song Jian, a cybernetic scientist, used quantitative analyses to show decision-makers that if they did not impose a national one-child policy, the country would face food and water shortages (p. 271-272) very soon. In September 1980, the CCP produced an influential Open Letter, which introduced the one-child policy as the universal policy in China. Jian’s study is credited with having convinced policy makers to end their debate and fully embrace the policy.

The following were key events in the formation of the one-child policy:

  • In 1978, female faculty members in Tianjin Medical School announced their support for the policy with the following slogan: “Having Only One Child for the Revolution.” This was followed (p. 230) by similar announcements by women in other cities, such as Xiamen, Kaifeng, Rongcheng.
  • In 1978, the CCP Central Committee Document No. 69 advocated “one is best, two at most, spacing for at least three years.” This was said to be the first official advocacy (p. 261) for the one-child policy by the CCP. “One is best, two at most” quickly became the official slogan. Although the central government merely preferred and encouraged one child, ten provinces went further and implemented the policy as law in 1978-1979.
  • In February 1980, in response to the public’s doubt over the feasibility of the one-child policy, Song Jian published his quantitative analyses and conclusion in the People’s Daily.
  • On June 26, 1980, the one-child policy was approved by the Secretariat of the Central Committee, then the highest decision-making body in China.
  • On September 7, 1980, the “one child per couple” concept was mentioned in the Central Government Keynotes.
  • On September 25, 1980, the CCP announced the development of the Open Letter to members of the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Youth League, advocating “one-child per couple.” The Open Letter is considered to be the beginning of China’s one-child policy, “for it was the first central-level ‘policy’ advocating one child for all couples country-wide that bore the imprimatur of the nation’s top decision-making body.”
  • On April 13, 1984, in Document 7, the CCP Central Committee, largely in response to resistance of rural families, carved out “small holes” in the policy allowing local governments flexibility to  make exceptions.

The initial purpose of the one-child policy was to release national economic growth from the burden of a fast-growing population. Three decades later, the policy has substantially changed Chinese family values as well. Traditionally, people associated having a large family with wealth; the larger a family, the wealthier it was considered. This is no longer a widely held belief. However, this policy is still not everyone’s cup of tea. Chinese attitudes towards the one-child policy remain mixed. Since the advent of the 21st century there has been a spike in couples who would like to have more than one child. However, the number of young “double income no kids” families (popularly known as DINK families) is also growing.

Some of the negative views on the one-child policy are tied to various social issues, such as gender imbalance and population aging. Parents of only children also tend to be more anxious about their “only future” and struggle with the fear of losing their only child. The good news for these parents is that, under recently announced changes to the policy, if at least one of the parents is an only child, they may soon be allowed to have a second child.  This change was included in the CCP policy reform plan to 2020, which was released on November 15, 2013, while I was in the middle of drafting this post.  Currently, various localities allow families to have a second child only if both mother and father come from single child families.

The following materials from the Library of Congress’s collection were used in preparing this post:

  • Tang Zhaoyun, Nongcun Jihua Shengyu Yu Renkou Kongzhi [Family Planning in Rural Areas] (in Chinese), 230 (Jiangsu Daxue Chubanshe, 2009);
  • Song Jian, Tian Xueyuan, Li Guangyuan & Yu Jingyuan, Concerning the Question of the Target for Population Development (in Chinese) ( People’s Daily, March 7, 1980);
  • Hua Guofeng, Zai Quanguo Renmin Daibiao Dahui Di Sanci Huiyi Shang de Jianghua [Keynotes in the Third Session of the Fifth National People’s Congress Conference] (in Chinese), Sep. 19, 1980); and
  • CCP Central Committee, Zhonggong Zhongyang Zhuanpi Guojia Jihua Shengyu Weiyuanhui Dangzu “Guanyu Jihua Shengyu de Baogao [CCP Central Committee’s Comments on the Report Regarding Family Control by CCP Committee in National Family Planning Commission] (in Chinese), CCPCC Document [1984] No. 7 (promulgated Apr. 13, 1984) (commonly referred to as Document 7).

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