This essay discusses restrictions imposed on the people of China, which stipulated that many couples were forbidden to have more than one child. The essay covers why and when the measure was introduced, the ethics of such a policy and when it might be relaxed. Further, alternative policies are considered, as are the outcomes of the existing policy.
Background to the Policy
The Chinese government’s policy of restricting couples to having just one child was announced in 1979 because the government was seriously concerned about the population explosion. One outcome of the earlier Marxist doctrine prevailing in China was that in the latter part of the 1950s, “population studies had been discontinued.” Then in the mid 1970s, university-based statisticians realized that the Chinese population (of which half were younger than 21) was bound to grow rapidly, even if the average family size was modest. Subsequently, the census of1982 revealed that China’s population had already exceeded one billion, and could reach 1.4 billion by the year 2000. Fearing that such population growth could adversely affect China’s economic growth, and could even lead to future famine, it was decided to settle on an objective of limiting the population to a maximum of 1.2 billion by that date (Kane & Choi 1999).
Although the Chinese government had introduced country wide family planning facilities from 1953, decades free from disease epidemics and conflicts, coupled with a reduction in death rates had seen the population booming. That was in contrast to earlier times when an annual increase in population was circa one percent. This increase in the population was viewed at the time by the regime as an element of “China’s new strength.” However, meeting the people’s needs began to present difficulties, so population growth targets were established along with the introduction in 1970 of a major policy statement known as the fourth Five Year Plan. As part of that policy, facilities for contraception and abortions were made more widely available. Further, by means of government-led campaigns, couples were encouraged to defer marriage, to have fewer children, and to spread the intervals between one child and the next. As a result, population growth had fallen to around two percent by 1975, short of the one percent target set for 1980 (Kane & Choi 1999).
Responsibility for convincing the populace to reduce birth rates was vested in the Chinese government’s “administrative units.” Under the central Chinese government body in Beijing, there are 34 of these administrative units. Of those, 23 are Chinese provinces, five are classified as autonomous regions, and four are categorized as municipalities and are under direct Beijing control. That leaves Hong Kong and Macao, which are defined as “special administrative regions.” (“China’s Provincial Level Administrative Units”, n.d.).
Each administrative unit set its own population growth targets and used persuasion to encourage couples to limit the numbers of children they produced. As part of that persuasive effort, couples were made part of the source of joint funding for healthcare and education, so that would realize the fiscal impact of having more children (Kane & Choi 1999).
The name “One Child” policy is in some respects somewhat of a misnomer, because there were many permitted exceptions to the rule. Official examples of such allowed exceptions included “twins, rural couples, ethnic minorities and couples who are both minors” although there were others who were exempted unofficially if they held positions of influence (“Over 330m abortions in China in 40 years of one-child policy – ministry” 2013).
However, arguing from the standpoint that the policy would benefit future generations, the objective was that all families would have fewer than three children, and that a minimum of 30 percent would produce just the one child. Incentives included “preferential access to housing, schools, and health services.” Having a second or third child was actively discouraged by imposing steep “fines” for each additional child. To further drive the message home, husbands employed by the government received strong hints that their career prospects would be negatively affected. Although details of specific measures varied according to the specific administrative unit, one interesting exception was that, “minorities were excluded from the policy.” (Kane & Choi 1999).
Compulsory abortion and sterilization procedures were an integral part of the One Child policy. The Chinese Health Ministry revealed that in the 40 years that the policy has been in force, there have been 330 million abortions and approaching 200 million sterilization procedures. In addition, government agencies have performed over 500,000 birth control procedures, of which circa 403 million involved the insertion of “intra-uterine devices.” Putting those numbers in perspective, the annual number of abortions performed by the doctors in China averaged 8.2 million – that is “enough to re-populate London, UK, 40 times.” An unintended consequence of the One Child policy is that because Chinese culture favors male children, many parents have selectively aborted female foetuses, resulting in a population today that has “34 million more men than women” (“Over 330m abortions in China in 40 years of one-child policy – ministry.” 2013).
Analysis of Issues
The One Child policy and the ways it has been implemented raise various issues. One major issue is the compulsory sterilization, abortion, and birth control procedures imposed on many Chinese women under the auspices of the policy.
Forced sterilization is a method of medical control of a woman’s fertility without the consent of a woman. Essentially involving the battery of a woman—violating her physical integrity and security, forced sterilization constitutes violence against women. (“Against Her Will: Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Women Worldwide” 2011).
In a case cited by the above-referenced paper, what are described as “overtly aggressive local government officials” in Puning dealt with women who refused sterilization by detaining nearly 1,400 elderly parents “because their adult children refused sterilization. They were to be detained until their children agreed to be sterilized.” They were held in poor conditions, damp accommodation, often with insufficient space to sit. So, not only were the rights of the women infringed, but their innocent elderly parents were persecuted, too (“Against Her Will: Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Women Worldwide” 2011).
Not only are all such acts deontologically unethical, they constitute fundamental breaches of human rights according to natural law. Birth control is not widespread in China, possibly due to limited sex education and to poverty. As a consequence, a woman falling pregnant with a second or third child (and thereby breaking the law) was a not uncommon event. In such cases – if the family were governed by the One Child policy – the choice was to pay a (large) fine or to have an abortion. Women who could not pay the fine had no choice; an abortion was compulsory (Kaufmann 2013).
Arguing generally in support of the One Child policy, Weiter (2013) points out that the policy has reduced the 1970s fertility rate of six (the root cause of Chinese explosive population growth) to a much lower figure. Weiter sees the need for the policy to continue. Alternatives such as dramatically increasing agricultural output by intensive farming and deforestation to provide more farmland are “environmentally detrimental.” Over-cultivation of farmland in China has already brought about a loss of 20 percent of arable land stocks. Also, because 60 percent of China’s people are rural dwellers, of whom many are poor peasants who practice subsistence farming, the future outlook for them is not good. In contrast to this gloomy outlook, the One Child policy has reduced China’s poverty rate from around 85 percent to below 16 percent. In India – a country with a similar population – the poverty rate is about double that of China’s at almost 33 percent. Furthermore, reports Weiter, improved education in China in recent years has resulted in the better-educated women desiring fewer children. As a consequence, Weiter believes that the population growth rate will remain low even after the One Child policy ends (Weiter 2013).
Whilst generally supporting the One Child policy, Weiter also notes that China has gone through a period of “demographic transition” in which the country possessed a large and reasonably young workforce. That was ideal for China, helping it to go through a period of massive economic growth. However, as pointed out by Weiter, that was a “unique, non-repeatable, occurrence” that has now ended. The country has now moved into a new era where the workforce is aging, and it will be some years before a stable situation is restored. Weiter also noted that the resulting males-females imbalance (mentioned earlier) is believed to have caused problems, such as a perceived increase in violent behavior. To resolve that situation, the Chinese government has offered families inducements to have girl children, including preferential access to medical care for single female child families (Weiter 2013).
In contrast to his mainly supportive stance towards the One Child policy, Weiter deplores the infringement of basic human rights implicit in the forced abortions policy. He cites one incident where an eight-month pregnant woman was “coerced into a late-term abortion.” He reports that the system was abused, partly because “officials were rewarded based on their ability to keep the population low.” Nonetheless, he still considers that the benefits of the policy “greatly outweigh its negative effects.” He sees the policy as needing to continue “for 10 more years” in order to bring the population momentum to a halt. He goes further to suggest that other developing countries such as India should use China “as a model” in order to “propel themselves into the developed world” (Weiter 2013).
For the government’s policy to become more ethical, the One Child policy with its compulsory restrictions on family size should be replaced by a voluntary system of population control. A widely practiced system of two children per family maximum would limit population growth, but for it to be observed on a national basis by all families would require a combination of changes. The first would be a dramatically increased government-led initiative of sex education, particularly in the rural areas where educational facilities in a wider context are in many cases inadequate. Secondly, free contraceptives would help keep the birth rate low. Thirdly, free but voluntary abortion and sterilization facilities should be made available to women throughout the country, in order to help families comply with the two children maximum guidelines. If the policy suggested were to be accompanied by families delaying the time to start a family and then spacing out the interval between the first and second child, the policy would be even more effective. In the opinion of this researcher, that solution would represent the best course of action, in that it removes the compulsory systems that are unethical and breach human rights, yet focuses on the objective of controlling population growth for the good of future generations.
It is evident that removal of all restrictions on the numbers of children is not the answer. China could not sustain another burst of population growth, and needs a period of stability. Furthermore, a negative aspect of the One Child policy that had perhaps not been considered by the policy makers was that as the first generation of “One Child policy” children reached maturity, they have found themselves faced with what has become known as the “4-2-1 problem” which means that the one adult offspring could find himself having to support and care for his two parents and four grandparents, In the absence of other means of support, such as pension funds, or savings, many of China’s senior citizens could find themselves entirely dependent upon that one individual for support (Torrent 2012).
Had the Chinese authorities predicted the consequences of unrestricted population growth sooner, the need for mandatory restrictions on population growth might have been avoided. However, because in Chairman Mao’s era population increase was considered a “good thing” and Mao had “denounced population control policies as imperialist tools” the Chinese population increased rapidly and – when Mao died in 1976 – the population stood at 850 million with a birth rate of around 25 (“Population Policy” 2010).
Four decades of the One Child policy have reined in China’s unsustainable population growth to a manageable level. However, that has been achieved at the expense of many breaches of fundamental human rights arising from unethical government-sponsored acts, including compulsory abortion and sterilization procedures, threats to husbands in government employment, and more. It is reported that now that a more moderate level of population growth has been achieved, the Chinese regime is preparing to relax the policy.
If the One Child policy continues unchanged, China’s population growth rate will remain at a sustainable low value, but at the expense of ongoing infringements of fundamental human rights, especially for women who face unethical mandatory abortions or sterilization. Furthermore, the present male-female imbalance could worsen. If, however, a voluntary code (say, a two-child system) replaced it, (supported by better education and family planning support) the population growth rate could be sustainable in the longer term, yet immediately restore basic rights to the population in an altogether more ethical system.
“Against Her Will: Forced and Coerced Sterilization of Women Worldwide.” (2011). Open Society Foundations. Retrieved from: http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/against-her-will-20111003.pdf
“China’s Provincial Level Administrative Units.” (2013). China Radio International’s English Service. Retrieved from: http://english.cri.cn/7586/2013/10/31/3481s795333.htm
Kane, Penny & Choi, Ching, Y. (1999). “China’s one child family policy.” British Medical Journal 1999 Oct. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1116810/
Kaufmann, Maria. (Feb. 2013). “Human Rights Alert: Forced Abortion and Sterilization in China.” Women’s Rights Without Frontiers. Retrieved from: http://www.turtlebayandbeyond.org/2013/abortion/human-rights-alert-forced-abortion-and-sterilization-in-china/
“Over 330m abortions in China in 40 years of one-child policy – ministry.” (2013). RT.com. Retrieved from: http://rt.com/news/china-abortions-population-control-353/Lluis
“Population Policy.” (2010). Polazzo’s Page. Retrieved from: www.polazzo.com/Reading27.pdf
Torrent, Lluis. (Aug. 2012). “One-child policy in China: Pros and Cons.” United Explanations. Retrieved from: http://www.unitedexplanations.org/blogs/china/2012/08/28/one-child-policy-in-china-pros-and-cons/
Weiter, William. (May 2013). “China’s One Child Policy.” Global Awareness Society International 22nd Annual Conference – Rome, Italy, May 2013. Retrieved from: http://orgs.bloomu.edu/GASI/2013%20Proceedings%20papers/weiterChina's%20One-Child%20Policy.pdf