China’s One-Child Policy: The Debate Revived – Analysis


By Namrata Hasija

The one-child policy was first introduced in China in 1979 soon after liberalization, to control its increasing population. The policy exempted not only ethnic minorities but relaxed some norms for the rural couples as well. However, its ruthless implementation resulted in averting many child births and paved the way for increase in female foeticide. Both within and outside China, many people held the one child policy responsible for the country’s skewed sex ratio which recently led Chinese officials to take a close look at the feasibility of the policy. After much hype that the policy might be repealed, the central government decided not to repeal it. According to latest reports, a fresh debate is raging after Feng Jianmei’s relatives posted photographs of her deceased 7 month-old foetus on the Internet. This incident has outraged different sections within and outside China. The question however remains as to why the policy is still not being repealed? Further, which sections of society are pressurising the government and why?

Incidents push Repeal of Chinese Law


Several incidents have come to fore which expose the callousness of the government. Pan Chunyan from Fujian province was forcefully grabbed from her grocery store when she was eight months pregnant. She was coerced into putting a thumbprint on a document which said that she agreed to abort her foetus and was subsequently injected with a drug. Left on a hospital bed by doctors, she gave birth to a stillborn baby. Similarly, a chemistry professor, Cao Tingbing, at Remin University in Beijing, committed suicide by jumping off a nine-storey school building in March. He was under the double stress of losing his job and also facing punishment after he was accused by his colleagues for violating the one-child policy according to a message posted by a fellow professor on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. In another incident in early June, Feng Jianmei who already had one child was asked to pay a fine of US$ 6,300 which she was unable to pay. The local officials in north-western Shaanxi who picked her up tortured her to sign abortion papers. Her husband Deng Jiyuan took on the authorities by posting the photos of their aborted child next to his wife on Weibo, which resulted in triggering a debate even outside China. The recent diplomatic crisis over Chen Guangcheng was also linked to this whole issue as he was an advocate who fought against forced sterilizations and abortions in China and was punished for the same by local officials.

The Debate

The debate that has started after these incidents through Weibo and also surprisingly through state run newspapers is not limited to Human Rights Violations alone. Certainly, there has been a debate as to the right of a citizen and a human being to decide how many children are wanted other than the usual coercive methods used on women and the health issues regarding abortions in the last trimester of their pregnancy. However, scholars and economists now demand the repeal of the one-child policy on the grounds of an aging population which is resulting in labour shortage. Liang Jianzhang, an economist and Li Jianxin, a demographer estimated that by 2040 the number of people above 60 years in China will be 411 million and the working population between ages of 20-40 would drop to 696 million from 817 million today. A group of scholars and policy advisors criticised the policy at a forum at Peking University co-organised by the National Bureau of Statistics to discuss the results of the 2010 census. The participants, who were outraged by the Feng Jianmei incident, sent a petition signed by scholars and business executives to the National People’s Congress demanding repeal of the law. Even some former officials who were instrumental in formulating the policy were present at the forum which raised hopes that the petition will reach the members of the National Population and Family Planning Commission.

Earlier the government in a surprise move relaxed the policy as part of an experiment to analyse how much the birth rate will actually accelerate in Shanxi province. It was noticed that not many families went for more children due to the huge cost incurred in their upbringing.

The Outcome

Abortions in the last trimester are illegal in China by law. However, this law has been openly flouted in the past and at present. Local officials are forcing these abortions because if they do not meet the government’s population control goals, they will be penalised and will not be promoted. The other hurdle is the Family Planning Commission itself which continues its strict adherence to the policy citing numbers to point its success i.e. 400 million births. Even the National People’s Congress is unlikely to consider any petition for repealing the act unless it is supported by the top levels of the Communist Party. Incidents like Feng Jianmei, when highlighted, are usually addressed in the same pattern i.e. the local officials apologize and the central authorities pitch in with some remedies. Time and again party leaders give lip service and publicly acknowledge that they are re-thinking the policy. However, with the leadership change due soon, the question of repealing the policy looms into oblivion even despite the immense pressure from all quarters.


Namrata Hasija
Research Officer, CRP, IPCS
email:[email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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