Understanding China's One-Child Policy

Why some Chinese are eager to keep the controversial policy despite the draconian measures used to enforce it.

Children in Beijing's Shunyi Orphanage.Chairman Mao Zedong famously opposed suggestions that Beijing restrict population growth, saying, “The more people there are, the stronger we are.”

Three years after Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping—the man behind China's economic development—enacted the one-child policy against his predecessor's wishes. Today, more and more Chinese seem to agree with Mao.

Photos of a Chinese mother whom local officials forced to abort after seven months of pregnancy in June are still circulating widely on the Internet, fueling debate on the merits of the policy.

Feng Jianmei, age twenty-three, failed to pay a $6,300 fine to family-planning officials in northwestern Shaanxi province in order to have a second child. Gruesome images of Feng lying beside her aborted fetus are still circulating widely on Chinese social-media site Sina Weibo.

Chinese web users are saying Feng's case is a chilling illustration of how the one-child policy exploits income inequalities: Chinese with greater financial means who can afford to pay the fine Feng could not are able to reproduce more than lower-income families. Critics say this is legislation that promotes economic survival of the fittest.

“Chinese law is the law of the rich. The rich can have as many babies as they want, because they have the money to pay the penalty,” reads a comment posted to Sina Weibo in early August by user Felinsachen. Attached to the message are the infamous photographs.

The other traditional method of skirting the policy—going abroad to have another child—also involves a lot more money than many working-class Chinese families can afford.

Felinsachen offers a modest proposal to amend the policy, in light of the Feng incident, one of many instances of forced abortion.

“I think the only way to enforce family planning is to put the parents (who don't observe the policy) in jail, so that whether or not they are rich enough to pay the fine, they won't have more than one child,” she wrote.

Economic Factors

Why are some Chinese keen to keep the one-child policy, in light of the draconian measures used to enforce it?

In some ways, Mao was right about strength in numbers.

“As the most populous country in the world, China currently still has its advantage in terms of population size. The large population will [continue] to do good for its labor supply and domestic consumption as the Chinese economy keeps growing,” said professor of social policy at Beijing's Peking University Yuegen Xiong in an interview for this article.

The number of young people eager for employment keeps salaries low—there are plenty of replacements for workers not willing to earn a pittance or comply with substandard working conditions at Chinese factories. Lower salaries mean lower production costs, which give China its competitive edge as the world's factory.

On the flip side, Chinese workers are forced to bear the brunt of a large population and its resulting labor supply, as the American public has seen in the past few years of high-profile suicides at southern China's Foxconn factories, where Apple's iPhones and iPads are assembled. “In an overpopulous society, individual workers will face more difficulties in job-seeking and other opportunities,” Xiong added.

Overpopulation essentially has kept China's impoverished factory workers poor and exacerbated economic disparities and competition, even with the estimated four hundred million births the policy has prevented since its inception three decades ago. For a population of over 1.3 billion, there are only around thirty thousand combined undergraduate and graduate spots at the country's leading institution for higher learning, Peking University. Competition is fierce. During my time studying at the university, several professors suggested that there is at least one suicide on campus a year that often does not make it into the media.

The pressure to beat out fellow students to get a coveted spot at a good school like Peking University is insurmountable for some Chinese high schoolers. In 2010 and in 2011, there were suicides related to the infamously tense college-entrance examinations, known as the Gao Kao. A 2007 study of 140,000 high-school students conducted by Peking University and reported in state-owned newspaper China Daily showed 20 percent had “considered committing suicide.” In the country as a whole, some 287,000 people commit suicide each year, according to the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center.

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