Altering China’s One Child Policy: What Does it Mean?

Xiao Xiao Meng ’19
Contributing Writer

After 35 long years, the Communist Party of China is finally allowing each family to have two children, signaling the end of its one-child policy.

My first reaction was happiness. After 10 years of living in China, I had heard plenty of horror stories, especially from rural regions where contraception is less available. Families who wanted boys to pass on the family name often abandoned baby girls in fields to starve. I heard from people who had seen firsthand dead infants, left outside for days and covered in ants. Most people in rural China couldn’t afford an extra mouth to feed and would ignore cries if they heard them. Expecting parents were not told whether their children were male or female out of fear that girls would be aborted. Although modern Chinese cities are progressing along with the developed world, the countryside  still suffers from “zhong nan qing nv” (重男), valuing boys over girls. Gender imbalance plagues China, increasing the pressure on single men unable to find wives and make a family.

Unsurprisingly, the government glosses over negative issues and only acknowledges the (debatable) benefits, namely population control, improved quality of life and economic growth. According to an article on, a government-approved news website, China has avoided 400 million births by implementing the one-child policy. The article also claims that China’s policies are not “cut-and-dried” but evolve with the era, citing 2013’s policy allowing parents without siblings to have two children as an example.

The government is certainly not ignorant of the consequences the one-child policy has had, and its end has been long called for. Like their western counterparts, Chinese couples now prefer smaller families. Elder cynics call the younger generation spoiled single children who are too lazy to care for children, but they overlook what the generation born in the ’80s (80 ) have to deal with: the crumbling traditional structure that leaves single children obliged to look after extended families rather than siblings working together to care for the elderly.

My happiness faded when I checked online reactions to the policy change. Aside from the usual cracks at the government that jabbed but didn’t draw blood (or censors), there was a lot of real indignation. It came from people who grew up without siblings or uncles or aunts; who lived in rural China and remembered the harshest years of the one-child policy, when law enforcers knocked down the doors of offenders, collecting fines and anything of value; who are blaming the government for changing China’s social structure, assuming that people fall in line and rejoice with each new policy; who are the generation of single children, sandwiched between two generations that they’re going to have to care for.

To rejoice over this change in policy is to forget that much has already been lost. Families have gone into debt to pay fines. Baby girls have been starved, drowned or thrown away. China’s population is aging, and the next generation is already doomed to deal with the consequences.

Today, society is globalized. Women are working longer hours and have less time to bear and rear children. In cities, there is no need for more children to plough the fields or pick fruit. The culture has already shifted. Reversing the one-child policy won’t reverse any of that.

It’s a prickly problem, the kind that won’t be solved in just one article. Even I am not sure how to feel. My own parents met in the United States, and my brother and I were born outside of the one-child policy. I’m (usually) grateful to have a sibling, and I do agree with the mostly western arguments that the one-child policy is deeply flawed and anti-humanitarian. However, if living in China has taught me anything, it’s that these policies are typical of the government: glorified, forceful and oftentimes ruthlessly straightforward without thought to consequence. Yet, oftentimes, they work.

None of the glossy posters of grinning families of three claiming, “Family planning is advantageous!” ring true. Neither, however, do the claims that the one-child policy has done nothing but evil. Girls who might have stayed home have gone to school instead because they didn’t have brothers to replace them. Population growth has slowed substantially. And this policy, like so many in the past, has fractured China’s cultural identity. We are a people missing much of the past, uncertain of the present and somewhat skeptical of the future offered to us by the government. There isn’t much hope that the government will acknowledge its people’s discontentment anytime soon. The best we can do is to keep pushing these issues into the foreground so the Communist Party can no longer ignore necessary change.

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