• A Chinese family of three poses for a photo on the Tian'anmen Square in Beijing, China, 2 January 2015. (AAP)Source: AAP
An in depth look at a complex attempt to avoid overpopulation.
Shane Cubis

4 May 2016 - 12:43 PM  UPDATED 17 Aug 2016 - 4:53 PM

Previously on SBS, The Story of China took a close look at a fascinating nation that has seen many changes over its long history. One of the changes was the instalment of the One Child Policy. [This week, Dateline takes a look at the future of the population police tasked with enforcing the now abolished policy in "China's Family Planning Army".]

Between 1949 and 1976, the population of China almost doubled from 540 to 940 million. Such a massive growth rate in that short period was causing a variety of problems, as you’d expect, and the government decided it was time for drastic measures. Inspired by international discussions on the potential effects of global overpopulation, they put together the One Child Policy.


1. It was introduced by Deng Xiaoping

In order to curb growing demand for resources like water and housing, leader Deng Xiaoping took the drastic step of limiting Han Chinese population growth. Coming into law in 1979, the One Child Policy was initially a straightforward, blanket rule – one child per couple – and was only intended to last one generation. Over the years, regulations varied depending on situation, location and other factors, but the law remained in force.

2. It didn’t apply to everyone

Broadly speaking, the One Child Policy was aimed at the Han Chinese people living in urban areas. Minorities were excluded, and rural-based Han Chinese were given an exemption if their first baby was a girl. Also, if neither you nor your partner had any siblings, you were allowed to have two children. Over the years there were also special exemptions if a couple’s first child was disabled, born overseas and so on. By 2007, the policy only strictly affected 36 per cent of the population.


3. It was promoted with incentives...

Men and women were “encouraged” (forced) to delay getting married until their mid-to-late 20s, and couples with one child would receive a certificate that entitled them to better child care and housing, as well as longer maternity leave, cheap fertiliser and interest-free loans. One of the more charming and idiosyncratic enticements to obey was the denial of anaesthetic to women giving birth – in the hope they wouldn’t want to go through it again.


4. ... and enforced with harsh punishments

China took enforcement very seriously. Law-breakers could face fines, salary reductions, being fired from work and difficulty gaining government assistance. That’s getting off light compared to the forced sterilisations and late-term abortions that were also handed down. These brutal crackdowns led to “birth tourism”, with women popping over to the policy-exempt Hong Kong to have their second child.

5. It was bad for girls

Every family wanted to have a baby boy, which meant the birth of a girl was often a crushing disappointment. This line of thought led to neglect, abandonment and informal adoptions, as well as darker actions like sex-selective abortion and the murder of female infants before their birth can be reported to the government.


6. But it’s been good for women (kinda)

Not everyone who had a daughter was a female-hating psychopath. With only one child to focus on, girls received more focus and attention, providing them with more educational opportunities and support to get better jobs – all the better to support their parents in old age. Of course, with 32-36 million more males than you’d naturally expect, there’s a strong gender imbalance, which has had negative social effects.

7. It might have been good for the country

While it’s difficult to ascertain the effect of births that didn’t happen, China claims the policy prevented roughly 400 million people from being born, keeping the population at a manageable 1.37 billion. This has meant less competition for resources, easing the strain on the country and helping to lift people out of poverty.


8. It was becoming bad for the country

With an ageing workforce, China is facing a future that’s unbalanced and unfair, with all those only children taking on the burden of supporting their parents (and, in some cases, their grandparents, too). This will make future economic growth difficult, as the elderly population puts more strain on China’s resources.


9. It’s been abolished... mostly

In October last year, the government announced they were getting rid of the One Child Policy, but that doesn’t mean the Chinese people can return to producing tribes of kids. These days families are limited to two children.


Watch Dateline's "China's Family Planning Army":

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