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China's Former 1-Child Policy Continues To Haunt Families

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The legacy of China's one-child rule is still painfully felt by many of those who suffered for having more children. Ran Zheng for NPR hide caption

The legacy of China's one-child rule is still painfully felt by many of those who suffered for having more children.

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions that may be disturbing.

LINYI, China — Outside, rain falls. Inside, a middle-school student completes his homework. His mother watches him approvingly.

She is especially protective of him. He's the youngest of three children this mother had under China's one-child policy.

Giving birth to him was a huge risk — and she took no chances. She carried her son to term while hiding in a relative's house. She wanted to avoid the "family planning officials" in her home village, just outside Linyi, a city of 11 million in China's northern Shandong province, where the policy's enforcement was especially violent.

What was she hiding from? What could the family planning officials have done to her? She demurs, her voice growing quiet. "All we can do is go on living," she says. "There is no use in trying to make sense of society."

essay on china's one child policy

A mother and a grandmother take care of a child in Beijing on Jan. 1, 2016. Married couples in China in 2016, were allowed to have two children, after concerns over an aging population and shrinking workforce ushered in an end to the country's controversial one-child policy. Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

Her son is part of the last generation of children in China whose births were ruled illegal at the time. Anxious that rapid population growth would strain the country's welfare systems and state-planned economy, the Chinese state began limiting how many children families could have in the late 1970s.

The limit in most cases was just one child. Then in 2016, the state allowed two children. And in May, after a new census showed the birth rate had slowed, China raised the cap to three children. State media celebrated the news.

But the legacy of the one-child rule is still painfully felt by many parents who suffered for having multiple children. For some, the pain is still too much to bear.

"It has been so many years, and I have let the pain go," the mother of three says, eyes downcast. "If you carry it with you all the time, it gets too tiring."

A mother's quandary

One night in August 2008, the mother made a fateful decision. Her body was giving her all the telltale signs that she was pregnant — again.

She already had two children and had gone through four abortions afterward, to avoid paying the ruinously high "social maintenance fee" demanded from families as penalty when they contravened birth limits.

essay on china's one child policy

Medical staff massage babies at an infant care center in Yongquan, in Chongqing municipality, in southwest China, on Dec. 15, 2016. China had 1 million more births in 2016 than in 2015, following the end of the one-child policy. AFP via Getty Images hide caption

But this time she felt differently.

"I had already had two children but my heart just did not feel right," says the woman, now in her 50s, who works part time in a canning factory. NPR isn't using her name to protect her identity because of the trauma she suffered. "I thought this is it — if I do not have this child, my body will not be able to have any more."

Officials in her village were actively policing families under the one-child policy. Enforcement of the policy had begun to loosen by the early 2000s, as horrific stories of forced abortions and botched sterilizations caused policymakers to rethink the rule. But starting in 2005, the authorities began enforcing the policy with a renewed ferocity in Linyi.

So the mother went into hiding to carry her son to term. One night, family planning officials approached her husband, intending to pressure him and his wife into ending the pregnancy. He used a pickax to drive them off and was imprisoned for that for half a year.

An old friend of hers, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng , knows full well what she and tens of thousands of other women in Linyi city went through.

essay on china's one child policy

Chinese parents, who have children born outside the country's one-child policy, protest outside the family planning commission in an attempt to have their fines canceled in Beijing, on Jan. 5, 2016. For decades, China's family planning policy limited most urban couples to one child and rural couples to two if their first was a girl. Ng Han Guan/AP hide caption

"The doctors would inject poison directly into the baby's skull to kill it," Chen says, drawing on recordings he made of interviews with hundreds of women and their families in Linyi. "Other doctors would artificially induce labor. But some babies were alive when they were born and began crying. The doctors strangled or drowned those babies."

The terror of such enforcement of birth limits was widespread in Linyi, even if residents were not themselves planning on giving birth.

"Officials would kidnap you if you tried to have two children. If you were hiding and they could not find you, they would kidnap your elder relatives and make them stand in cold water, in the winter," remembers Lu Bilun, a resident.

Lu says the harassment became so savage that elderly residents of Linyi became afraid to leave their homes out of fear they might be kidnapped. Lu says he paid a 4,000 yuan fine to have his second son in 2006 (about $500 at the time), after hiding his wife for months. "This was not your average level of policy enforcement. It was vicious," he says.

Chen, the lawyer, mounted a class action lawsuit on behalf of Linyi's women. The suit led to an apology from the authorities in Linyi and a reduction in the kidnappings, beatings and forced abortions.

essay on china's one child policy

Children ride a toy train at a shopping mall in Beijing, on Oct. 30, 2015. China's decision to abolish its one-child policy offered some relief to couples and to sellers of baby-related goods, but the government hasn't lifted birth limits entirely. Andy Wong/AP hide caption

But the Chinese government punished Chen for his activism by imprisoning him, then trapping him for nearly three years in his home , in a village just outside Linyi.

In 2012, Chen escaped by scaling a wall and running to the next village, despite being blind and having broken his foot during the escape. There, he was picked up by supporters and driven to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He was able to fly to the U.S . after weeks of tense negotiation. Today, he lives in Maryland with his family.

The price of defiance

"The policy was wrong and what we did with Chen was right," says a neighbor of Chen, the lawyer who sued the city of Linyi. The man wants to remain unnamed because he believes he could be harassed again for speaking of that time.

In the 1990s, he says, family planning officials ambushed him in his home at night and beat him with sticks in an effort to convince his wife to abort their third son.

essay on china's one child policy

Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng attends a rally to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre June 4, 2019, at the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Chen had been persecuted and detained in China after his work advising villagers and speaking out official abuses under the one-child rule. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

"Our country's leaders did not want us to have children and I didn't know why, but we could not do anything about it," he sighs.

He and his wife persevered and had three sons. They did not officially register the last two to avoid paying a fine, but the father says he still paid a bribe to family planning officials to avoid further harassment. These economic penalties depleted his life savings, a financial impact that compounded over the ensuing years.

The policy permeates through Chinese society in other, sometimes unexpected ways. Because many prioritized having a son over a daughter, orphanages experienced a surge in baby girls who were abandoned or put up for adoption. Single's Day, China's biggest online shopping holiday — akin to Black Friday in the U.S. — is a recognition of the many bachelors who are unable to find partners in a gender-skewed society.

"A very unbalanced population gender-wise has also led to a rise in property prices in major cities because families of men have bought apartments to make their sons eligible in a marriage market where there are millions of missing women," says Mei Fong , who wrote a book on the one-child rule. "These effects will be felt in the generation ahead."

essay on china's one child policy

A child walks near government propaganda one of which reads "1.3 billion people united" on the streets of Beijing, China, Tuesday, March 8, 2016. Ng Han Guan/AP hide caption

According to the census conducted last year, the population is aging and there are fewer young children and working-age people, a major demographic shift that comes with its own economic strains. That's pushing policymakers to consider raising the official retirement age — currently 60 for men and 55 for women — for the first time in 40 years.

Yet the authorities still only allow couples to have three children. Why won't China remove all caps?

"Despite all the overwhelming demographic evidence, they're saying, 'We need to control you,'" says the author, Fong. Anxious about already strained public education and health care systems, China's leadership is reportedly considering ditching limits entirely. It has been slow to completely dismantle its massive family planning bureaucracy built up over the past four decades. And according to an Associated Press investigation , it continues to impose stricter controls over births — including forced sterilizations — among ethnic minorities, like the Turkic Uyghurs.

Some demographers in China argue that instituting birth limits was necessary for keeping birth rates low. But Stuart Gietel-Basten, a demographer at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, cautions there is no definitive answer. "There is only one China and there is only one one-child policy, so it is kind of impossible to say the real effect of that was [of the policy]," he says.

Families were already having fewer children in the 1970s, before the policy took force in 1979. "The one-child policy was not the only thing that happened in China in the 1980s and 1990s," Gietel-Basten says. "There was also rapid urbanization, economic growth, industrialization, female emancipation and more female labor force participation."

essay on china's one child policy

A man and a child are reflected on a glass panel displaying a tiger at the Museum of Natural History in Beijing, Dec. 2, 2016. Andy Wong/AP hide caption

It was worth the cost

The fact that the children are alive at all makes Chen, the lawyer, feel his seven years in prison and house arrest were all worth it.

"I really feel happy. Even if I had to go to prison and endure beatings, in the end, these children were able to survive. They must be in middle school or high school by now."

The mother of one of these middle schoolers holds her son close. Part of the reason she demurred when first speaking to NPR was because of how dearly her family fought for his birth.

Her worries these days are more mundane. She wants to start preparing for her son's marriage — a costly endeavor as rural families expect the husband to provide a material guarantee for any future wife.

"That requires buying them a car, an apartment. No one can afford that," she complains.

Her job at a nearby canning factory refuses to hire her full time, she says, because she is a mother of three and needs to leave every afternoon to pick up her son from school.

And so, ironically, now that people are allowed to have more children, they are increasingly reluctant to, because of the high cost of child care and education.

"Women have it all figured out now — they won't have more kids even when they're told to have more!" the mother laughs helplessly.

"People act in funny ways," she says. "There is no point in controlling them."

  • one-child policy
  • Chinese society
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  • Chinese population

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Research Article

Assessing the impact of the “one-child policy” in China: A synthetic control approach

Contributed equally to this work with: Stuart Gietel-Basten, Xuehui Han, Yuan Cheng

Roles Conceptualization, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation Division of Social Sciences, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong, PRC

Roles Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, Software, Writing – original draft

Affiliation Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing, PRC

Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Methodology, Software, Supervision, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

* E-mail: [email protected]

Affiliation Population Research Institute, LSE-Fudan Research Centre for Global Public Policy, Fudan University, Shanghai, PRC

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  • Stuart Gietel-Basten, 
  • Xuehui Han, 


  • Published: November 6, 2019
  • https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220170
  • Reader Comments

Table 1

There is great debate surrounding the demographic impact of China’s population control policies, especially the one-birth restrictions, which ended only recently. We apply an objective, data-driven method to construct the total fertility rates and population size of a ‘synthetic China’, which is assumed to be not subjected to the two major population control policies implemented in the 1970s. We find that while the earlier, less restrictive ‘later-longer-fewer’ policy introduced in 1973 played a critical role in driving down the fertility rate, the role of the ‘one-child policy’ introduced in 1979 and its descendants was much less significant. According to our model, had China continued with the less restrictive policies that were implemented in 1973 and followed a standard development trajectory, the path of fertility transition and total population growth would have been statistically very similar to the pattern observed over the past three decades.

Citation: Gietel-Basten S, Han X, Cheng Y (2019) Assessing the impact of the “one-child policy” in China: A synthetic control approach. PLoS ONE 14(11): e0220170. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220170

Editor: Bruno Masquelier, University of Louvain, BELGIUM

Received: October 24, 2018; Accepted: July 2, 2019; Published: November 6, 2019

Copyright: © 2019 Gietel-Basten et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: All relevant data are within the manuscript and its Supporting Information files.

Funding: The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology provided support for this study in the form of salaries for SGB, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank provided support for this study in the form of salaries for XH, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. Fudan University provided support for this study in the form of salaries for YC, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The specific roles of these authors are articulated in the ‘author contributions’ section.

Competing interests: The authors have read the journal's policy and the authors of this manuscript have the following competing interests: SGB is paid employee of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, XH is paid employees of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, YC is paid employees of Fudan University. There are no patents, products in development or marketed products associated with this research to declare. This does not alter the authors' adherence to PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.


In 2015, China finally ended all one-birth restrictions [ 1 ]. The move to a national two-child policy is intended to facilitate a more balanced population development and to counter aging. There is currently a large focus placed on the appraisal of the population control policies (often erroneously thought of as the ‘one-child policy’) imposed in the late 1970s [ 2 ]. The world's most comprehensive national-level population control policy has been subject to many criticisms, both domestically and internationally [ 3 , 4 ]. Sanctioned and unsanctioned instances of forced abortion [ 5 ], sterilization [ 6 ], and institutional financial irregularities [ 7 ] have been identified as bases for criticism. The policies have also been cited as the root cause of other challenges [ 8 ], including skewed sex ratios at birth [ 9 ], the questionable demographic data because of hidden children [ 10 ], and social problems associated with the enforced creation of millions of one-child families (like the social, economic, and psychological plight of couples who lost their only child and are now unable to have more children) [ 11 ].

On the other hand, China's population control policies have also been recognized as being effective. This ‘effectiveness’ is based on the estimations that hundreds of millions of births had been ‘averted’ [ 12 ] and the penalty of “above-quota-births” was found reducing births in rural China [ 13 ]. According to an environmentalist narrative, these births (and the resultant population growth) would have contributed to further climate change [ 14 ]. In 2014, for example, The Economist labeled the ‘China one-child policy’ as the fourth largest ‘action’ to slow global warming, estimated at 1.3bn tonnes of CO2 [ 15 ]. Elsewhere, the popular media, as well as other commentators, regularly espouse a ‘one-child policy' as a panacea to respond to perceived ‘overpopulation' and associated concerns of both an environmental and Malthusian nature. Indeed, UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya, Siddharth Chatterjee, said in 2017 the first annual Africa-China Conference on Population and Development, "China is an example to the rest of the developing countries when it comes to family planning."

These calculations of ‘births averted’ are based on various models, which employ counterfactual history. The estimate of ‘400 million births averted’ is attributed to the one-child population policy [ 16 ], which is usually calculated by holding earlier, higher fertility rates constant. Other estimates compared the Chinese experience with either a country or group of countries considered to be similar to China in terms of certain socioeconomic and political indicators. The problem with such counterfactual histories is that they are inevitably subjective and indicators considered did not enter into the model in a systematic way. Contrast to the estimation of 400 million births averted, the effect of the one-child policy is found to be small, especially for the long-run [ 17 ], which was attributed to the aggressive family planning program in the early 1970s [ 18 ] based on the findings that the birth rate of 16 countries with similar birth rates to that of China in 1970 declined significantly after 1979 and even sharper than what was observed in China [ 19 ].

To evaluate the impact of China’s population control policies, we employ the Synthetic Control Method where we compare China to a constructed ‘synthetic’ control population, which shares similar features with China during the pre-intervention periods. This innovative data- and math-driven methodology is used extensively in many disciplines, including public health [ 20 ], politics [ 21 ], and economics [ 22 ]. One of the caveats of our paper is that we cannot single out the ‘cohort’ effects. In addition to the socio-economic factors, the decline of TFRs might partially be the result that females entering childbearing age in 1970s did not think giving more births is “fashionable” compared to those who entered childbearing age in 1950s. Such mindset changes have been observed in Brazil [ 23 ]. Unfortunately, our approach cannot differentiate the cohort effect from the impact of social-economic factors. We have to bear in mind this caveat in the following analysis.

In the case of China, the first intervention (or ‘shock’) we seek to evaluate is the ‘Later-Longer-Fewer Policy’ introduced in 1973 [ 7 ]. Under this policy, a minimum age of marriage was imposed, as well as mandatory birth spacing for couples and a cap on the total number of children [ 24 ]. The rules were differentiated for men and women in rural and urban areas. Also, like the case in other countries, widespread contraception (and free choice) was introduced, coupled with large-scale education on family planning [ 25 ]. The second ‘shock’ is the ‘One-Child Policy' introduced in 1979, where a one-child quota was strictly enforced. Following initial ‘shock drives' of intensive mass education, insertion of IUDs after the first birth, sterilization after the second birth, and large-scale abortion campaigns, the policy quickly became unpopular and was reformed in 1984 and onwards, creating a very heterogeneous system [ 26 ]. Despite the series of reforms, the majority of couples in China were still subject to one-child quotas in the 1980s and 1990s.

Institutional Background

With high birth rates in the 1970s, the Chinese government had grown increasingly concerned about the capacity of existing resources to support the ballooning population. In response, from 1973, the Chinese government widely promoted the practice of ‘later-longer-fewer’ to couples, referring respectively to later marriage and childbearing, longer intervals between births, and fewer children. Rules were more severe in urban areas where women were encouraged to delay marriage until the age of 25 and men at 28 and for couples to have no more than two children. In the rural areas, the age of marriage was set at a minimum of 23 for women, and 25 for men and the maximum family size was set at three children. Birth control methods and family planning services were also offered to couples. The policy at the time can be considered “mild” in a sense that couples were free to choose what contraceptive methods they would use and the policy on family planning was more focused on the education of the use of contraceptives [ 27 ].

However, such mild family planning program was deemed insufficient in controlling the population, since it would not be able to meet the official target of 1.2 billion people by 2000 despite the large decrease in the total fertility rate (TFR) in the late 1970s. In 1979, the government introduced the One-Child Policy in the Fifth National People’s Congress, a one-size-fits-all model and widely considered the world’s strictest family planning policy. Some exemptions were allowed, and a family could have more than one child if the first child has a disability, both parents work in high-risk occupations, and/or both parents are from one-child families themselves. The State Family Planning Bureau aimed to achieve an average of 1.2 children born per woman nationally in the early and mid-1980s [ 27 ].

From 1980 to 1983, the one-child policy was implemented through "shock drives" in the form of intensive mass education programs, IUD insertion for women after the first birth, sterilization for couples after the second birth, and abortion campaigns for the third pregnancy [ 27 , 28 ]. Policies were further enforced by giving incentives for compliance and disincentives for non-compliance, though these varied across local governments [ 27 ]. Liao [ 29 ] identified the following as the usual benefits and penalties at the local level. Families with only one child can obtain benefits like child allowance until age 14; easier access to schools, college admission, employment, health care, and housing; and reduction in tax payments and the opportunity to buy a larger land for families in rural areas. Penalties for having above-quota births, on the other hand, include reduction in the parents’ wages by 10 to 20 percent for 3 to 14 years, demotion or ineligibility for promotion for parents who work in the government sector, exclusion of above-quota children to attend public schools, and, in rural areas, a one-time fine which may account for a significant fraction of the parents’ annual income.

The tight one-child policy was met by resistance, and the government allowed more exemptions [ 27 ]. Exemptions were drafted at the local level as the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee took into account the diverse demographic and socioeconomic conditions across China [ 30 ]. In 1984, the program allowed two births per couple in rural areas if the first child is a girl or if the family is from a minority ethnic group, but this was done only in six provinces. One significant change in the family planning policy is that couples with one daughter in rural areas could have a second child after a certain interval, which ranges from four to six years, and this was fully implemented in 18 provinces by the end of 1989. The performance of local cadres was also evaluated with family planning activity as the top criterion [ 27 ]. The stringency of the one-child policy was further moderated amid China’s commitment to the International Conference on Population Development held in Cairo in 1994. In 1995, the family planning program changed its stance from being target-driven to client-centered in adherence to international reproductive health standards. More attention was given to individual contraceptive rights, and the government allowed couples to choose their contraceptive method with the guidance of the professional and technical staff [ 22 ].

Throughout the 1990s, provinces amended their own regulations about the exemptions under the guidelines of the State Family Planning Commission, now the National Population and Planning Commission [ 30 ]. According to Gu et al. [ 30 ], the provincial-level exemptions on allowing more than one child in a family can be classified into four broad groups: (1) gender-based and demographic (if the couple living in a rural area had the only daughter, or they belong to one-child family themselves); (2) economic (if the couple work in risky occupations or have economic difficulties); (3) political, ethical, and social (if the couple belong to a minority ethnic group, the man is marrying into a woman’s family, the family is a returning overseas Chinese, or the person has the status of being a single child of a revolutionary martyr); and (4) entitlement and replacement (if the couple’s first child died or is physically handicapped, the person who is divorced or widowed remarries, or the person is the only productive son in a family of multiple children in the rural area).

While the central government had asserted that population control remains a basic state policy, it hardly implemented a uniform set of rules across the country, hence the varying exemptions across localities [ 30 ]. This was until the Population and Family Planning Law of 2001 was put into effectivity. The law summarized the rights and obligations of Chinese citizens in family planning and served as the legal basis for addressing population issues at the national level. This law still promoted the one-child policy, but couples were given more reproductive rights, including the right to decide when to have children and the spacing between children if having a second child is allowed, as well as the right to choose contraceptive methods. It also discussed the imposition of social compensation fees for those who violated the law, which will be collected by local governments and family planning officials [ 27 ].

The one-child policy was further loosened in 2013 when it was announced that two children would be allowed if one parent is an only child [ 31 ]. Basten and Jiang [ 32 ] summarized the popular views on the issues that can be addressed by this policy shift: skewed sex ratio at birth, projected decline of the working-age population, large number of couples who were left childless because of the death of their only child, and evasion and selective enforcement of fines for out-of-quota and unauthorized births. They, however, argued that this change in the one-child policy could only have minimal impact on the aging population and shrinking workforce because of fertility preferences to have only one child and a smaller likelihood of these births to occur.

It was announced in October 2015 that the one-child policy would be replaced by a universal two-child policy. Driven by some evidence that this relaxation of the policy has not achieved a significant birth boosting effect, the Chinese government has started in 2018 to draft a proposed law that will remove all the limits on the number of children families can have [ 33 ].

The Synthetic control method

essay on china's one child policy

As reflected in the above procedure, the core of this method focuses on finding the combination of countries that collectively resemble China before the intervention. The model automatically assigns different weights to different countries in such a way that the distance between the actual and synthetic China before the policy intervention will be minimized in terms of fertility rate and other related characteristics. The optimal weights then are applied to the other countries for the post-intervention period to obtain Synthetic China without either the 1973 intervention or the 1979 intervention.

The next step is to decide what variables should be included in vector Z. We chose to include the childbearing age, life expectancy at birth, and sex ratio of male to female between 0 and 4 years old as the non-economic variables. The childbearing age affects the mothers’ age-specific fertility intensity and the total fertility rate [ 34 , 35 ]. With the maximum fertility age being certain, higher childbearing age might imply lower TFR. The life expectancy at birth is related to age-specific mortality. With a lower mortality rate, fewer births are required to obtain a desired number of children. For example, as observed by Galor [ 36 ], the TFR declined while the life expectancy improved in Western Europe in the past half-century. The sex ratio of male to female represents the inner-gender competition. A higher sex ratio of male to female implies higher competition among males, so it is more rewarding for females to delay marriage and to give birth in exchange for opportunities to obtain a better match with males. Using data from England and a generalized linear model, Chipman and Morrison [ 37 ] confirmed the significant negative relationship between the sex ratio of male to female and birth rate, especially for the three age groups of females at 20–24, 25–29, and 30–34 years old.

The other group of variables included in vector Z is economic variables, such as GDP per capita and years of schooling. The New Home Economics approach [ 38 ] emphasizes the negative relationship between income and fertility rate through the role of the opportunity cost of parenting time. The model suggests that more children will consume more parenting time, which could otherwise be used to generate more income. Galor and Weil [ 39 ] strengthened the reasoning by arguing that the increase in capital per capita raises women’s relative wages because the complementary effect of capital to female labor is higher than to male labor. The increase in women’s relative wage raises the cost of children. Because of the resulting smaller population effect, the lower fertility further raises the GDP per capita. In addition to the parenting opportunity cost, the economic development might result in fertility declines through two other channels:(1)With economic development, the living standards improved and the mortality rate decreased so that parents can have the same desirable living kids with fewer births; and (2) With the economic development, people have more tools to save, for example, the pension system, which reduces the needs of having more offspring to finance the retirement. The relationships between the macro-economy and the fertility patterns are documented for China [ 40 , 41 , 42 ]. The years of schooling also affects fertility through the opportunity costs channel. Higher education is associated with higher productivity, which would induce the higher opportunity cost of raising children.

Our analysis uses the TFR data in the period of 1955–1959 from the United Nations’ World Population Prospects (WPP) and the annual TFR data in 1960 to 2015 from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (WDI) except for the following five economies. For Curaçao, Luxembourg, Serbia, Seychelles, and Taiwan, we use the UN’s WPP data in the entire period of 1955 to 2015. Like in the TFR data, we use the life expectancy at birth data in the period 1955–1959 from the UN’s WPP data, while annual life expectancy data in 1960 to 2015 is obtained from the WDI, except for the following four economies. For Curaçao, Serbia, Seychelles, and Taiwan, we use the UN’s WPP in the entire period of 1955 to 2015. The whole data series of the male-to-female ratio of the population aged 0–4 years old are obtained from the UN. We use the expenditure-side real GDP at chained PPPs and the size of population data from the Penn World Tables 9.0 (PWT 9.0) to calculate the GDP per capita and get its natural logarithm. The average years of schooling data obtained from the Barro-Lee Database is used to measure the average level of education in a given country. Historical schooling data are only available at five-year intervals, so we apply a linear interpolation method to infer the annual data from 1950 to 2010. The average childbearing age data are from the UN’s WPP in the entire period of 1955 to 2015. Additionally, all WPP data, except the male-to-female ratio, are only available at a five-year interval, so we also employ the linear interpolation method to get the annual estimates.

The original dataset consisted of 184 countries, but after removing the countries with missing data for the needed variables from 1955 to 2010, only 64 countries remained in the final dataset for the analysis, including China. The final list of countries included in the analysis is provided in Table A in S1 File .

Empirical result

For simplicity, we label synthetic China as Synth China, whose characteristics are constructed using the values of the other countries and the countries’ corresponding weights. We present the average values of our target variable TFR and fertility-related variables for Synth China and our comparator in Table 1 . The column on China shows the actual numbers for China, while the column on Synth China displays the values for the counterfactual Synth China for the pre-1973 period and pre-1979 and post-1973 period. For comparison purposes, we also include the average values of all countries in the sample as our comparator to show how different it would be between actual China and the whole sample in the absence of synthesizing. Looking at the pre-1973 period, Synth China has the same average TFR of 5.85 as actual China, while our comparator has an average of 4.71. For the remaining variables, the values of Synth China are all closer to that of actual China than those of our comparator, which indicates that Synth China resembles actual China not only in terms of TFR but also in terms of other fertility-related characteristics. Looking at the pre-1979 and post-1973 period, the TFR of Synth China is again almost the same as that of actual China.


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All the other variables of Synth China are more comparable to actual China than to our comparator, except for average years of schooling. The significant difference (1.65 years) in years of schooling for the period of 1973–1979 between China (4.66 years) and the Synthetic cohort (6.31 years) is mainly due to the school-year-reduction-reform to taken by the Chinese government during the cultural revolution period (1966–1976). The original 6 years of primary schooling, 3 years of middle school, and 3 years of high school (6-3-3) for the pre-1966 periods were reduced to 5-2-2, respectively [ 43 ]. That means the same length of years of schooling represented higher accomplishment in terms of a diploma during 1966–1976. Five years of schooling in this period indicated completion of preliminary school while it used to represent the unaccomplished preliminary school. Most countries included in the studies adopted the 12-year schooling system. If we measure the accomplishment of education by using the relative years of schooling, which is to scale down by the years required for completion of high school—52% (4.66/9) for actual China and 53% (6.31/12) for Synthetic cohort—we would have quite close level of relative years of schooling between China and the Synthetic cohort. Additionally, the difference in years of schooling between actual China and the Synthetic cohort was not as significant for the pre-1973 intervention period (1965–1973) as for the pre-1979 and post-1973 period is because even the implementation of the school-year-reduction-reform was started from 1966 it requires five years for the effects to be fully materialized. The education system was changed back to 6-3-3 system after 1976.

In the following simulation, we use the periods 1973–1979 and 1980–2015 as the post-intervention periods to quantify the impact of the first and second shocks, respectively.

The TFR simulated for Synth China assuming without the 1973 shock, with the 1973 shock but without the 1979 shock, and the actual TFR are plotted in Fig 1 . The dashed blue line represents synthetic China's simulated TFR in the period 1955–1979 assuming without 1973 shock. The gap between the Synth China and actual China (represented by the solid black line) between 1973 and 1979 is the reduction in the TFR caused by the 1973 intervention. The dotted green line is the TFR of Synth China estimated for the period 1973–2015 with the period 1973–1979 as the pre-intervention period set to search for the optimal weights, which is to find the best comparable countries with fertility behaviors like China with 1973 shock but without 1979 shock. The simulated TFR for periods after 1979 is supposed to represent the TFR of China with the 1973 policy but without the 1979 policy. Contrary to the commonly claimed radical effect, the “One-Child” policy in 1979 only induced a small dip in the TFR.



As shown in Fig 1 , the TFR in synthetic China is already well above the real TFR, even before the 1973 shock. The reason is that the best fit found by the algorithm cannot match the whole pattern of actual TFR (a complete overlap of actual and simulated China) for the pre-intervention periods, especially for the pre-1973 period (blue line). As shown in section 3, the target function for optimization is ‖ X 1 − WX 0 ‖, which measures the distance between the mean of actual China and Syn China without the policy of 73&79 for years before 1973. When the pattern of actual TFR is not well regulated, the simulated TFRs for the pre-1973 periods cannot match actual China for each year of the time series but to match on the average over the periods. It is why for pre-1960 periods, the blue line is above the black line while for the periods of1960-1970, the blue line is below the black line. Our conjecture on the reason for the irregular pattern of actual China in pre-1973 periods is that the government had been in a population policy struggling during this period [ 44 ] and the after-effect of the great fluctuations caused by China's Great Leap Forward famine (1958–1962). For example, right after the promotion of birth control policy in 1957, the birth control was catalyzed as anti-government in 1958. Not until 1962, birth control was encouraged again. Such changes of direction of the policy were very hard to simulate by finding the best comparable. Additionally, we identify the official announcement of "Later-Longer-Fewer Policy" in 1973 as the "shock." The informal introduction of such an idea started from 1971 when the encouragement of birth control was included as a "national" strategic policy. But only until 1973, the policy was announced officially with details. This explains why the SynthChina with FP 73&79 is already above actual China in 1973.

One interesting observation is that the TFR of Synth China with 1973 shock but without 1979 shock is lower than the observed TFR since 2003. Combining with the fact that the TFR reported in the Sixth Census in 2010 is lower than the TFR of Synth China, this appears to be providing indirect evidence on the common suspicion that the statistics on fertility rate might be “too low” and therefore the fertility effect of the 1979 policy could have been overstated.

Next, we apply the permutation test to evaluate the significance and robustness of the estimations. To do this, we produce a simulated sample of 500 countries by randomly drawing with replacement from the actual sample of 63 countries with China being excluded. Each country is treated as if it were China and is subjected to the 1973 and 1979 shocks. We construct the synthetic TFRs by following the same procedure carried out for Synth China. For each year, we calculate 500 simulated gaps between actual and synthetic TFRs, as shown in Fig 2 . The gaps for the simulated countries are represented by the grey lines, while the 95% confidence intervals by the red lines. The solid line denotes the gap between actual and Synth China, which is well below the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval from 1973 to 1979, indicating a significant reduction impact from the 1973 shock ( Fig 2 ). Meanwhile, the TFR gap between actual and Synth China stays within the confidence interval from 1980 onwards, implying that the 1979 shock had no significant impact ( Fig 2 ).


(A)Permutation test with 1973 policy–gap between true TFR and synthetic TFR. (B) Permutation test with 1979 policy–gap between true TFR and synthetic TFR.


Population projection is carried out by using Spectrum 10 , wherein the actual TFR was replaced by the synthetic TFR from 1979 to 2015.

As Fig 1 and Fig 2 show, had China not implemented its later-longer-fewer set of population control measures in 1973, the fall in TFR would have been much shallower. Translating this into total population, this would amount to a difference of around 85 million by the end of the 1970s ( Fig 3 ). The impact of the second ‘shock,' namely the introduction of the stricter control measures in 1979, appears to be much more muted. While there are differences in the 1980s as a result of the reform involving the regulation on marriage age, the TFR for Synth China and actual China are broadly in sync from the early 1990s. In terms of total population difference, Synth China is some 70 million lower than actual China by 2015, as shown in Fig 3 . As discussed above, this puzzling outcome of the second shock might be due to the overstating tendency of the fertility statistics. Based on the permutation tests shown in Fig 2 , we can conclude that the 1973 policy significantly reduced the population by 85 million, while the 1979 policy does not have a statistically significant impact.



Furthermore, we use a bootstrap strategy to get the confidence interval for the population estimates assuming without the shock of 1973 policy. We randomly drew 500 sub-samples with the size of 90% of the original sample without replacement. For each sub-sample, we repeated the synthetic control approach to search for the best synthetic China in terms of TFR. Among the 500 subsamples, two samples cannot converge. Therefore, in the end, we have 498 Synthetic China. We further get the 5% lower and upper bounds of TFRs among simulated Synthetic China. Building on the 5% lower and upper bounds of TFRs, we further calculate the resulted population, with which to compare the actual population and get the corresponding reduced population. The lower and upper bounds of the reduced population serve as the 90% confidence interval of Synthetic China in terms of the population without 1973 policy shock. The corresponding reduction of the population associated with the 1973 policy is between 60 and 94 million.

As shown in Table 2 , the countries used to construct Synth China differed significantly between the 1973 and 1979 shocks. Before the 1973 shock, the greatest contribution was made by India (with a weight of 36.9%), a country that implemented a weaker family planning system and was characterized by high fertility throughout the 1970s [ 45 ]. Jordan, Thailand, Ireland, Egypt, and Korea came as the second to the sixth most comparable countries to China. All of them, except Ireland, had family planning policies. Jordan started family planning measures in the 1980s [ 46 ]; Thailand had done three rounds of family planning measures starting from 1963 to 1980 [ 47 ]; Egypt implemented three rounds of family planning measures in 1966, 1970, and 1979 [ 48 ]; and the family planning policy started in Korea in 1961 and lasted until the 1980s [ 49 ]. Even without any institutional background information, the synthetic control model has been able to select countries with family planning programs automatically.



In the period 1973 to 1979, Korea overtook India as the country that most resembled China (75.2%). While the GDP per capita was considerably different between these two countries in this period (even in the current period), in the 1980s, they shared similarities in terms of the other variables not included in the model, including the GDP growth rate and the presence of an authoritarian political regime [ 50 , 51 ]. Furthermore, the Korean family planning system was extraordinarily comprehensive and was founded on new social norms around family size, as well as the development of rural areas in general [ 52 ]. Thailand still played an important role with a contribution of 16% to Synth China.

Robustness check

We further carried out several robustness checks by including the add-on policy intervention or altering the data coverage.

We examined first the impact of the commonly acknowledged temporary relaxation of the one-child policy during the late 1980s until the beginning of 1990s by using 1991 as another intervention year (Table B and Fig A in S1 File ). No significant impact was found.

A second robustness check done was performed by extending the coverage of the dataset. The baseline dataset of 64 countries used in the analysis was constructed by excluding countries with any missing value for the input and output variables from 1955 to 2010. Therefore, there is a possibility that countries sharing great similarities with China were excluded because of unavailable GDP per capita data in 1955 and onwards. The GDP per capita data were obtained from PWT 9.0, which is mostly accepted as one of the most reliable and complete sources of GDP data, especially when comparison across countries is required. To examine whether such exclusions would alter our conclusion, we revised our data construction by relaxing the time coverage requirement and allowing an unbalanced dataset for each shock. That is, if the input variables of a country for the required years by the Synthetic Control Method were available, we included it in the dataset. For example, countries previously excluded from our baseline model because of missing data on GDP per capita from 1955 to 1964 were included for assessing the impact of 1973 shock, and the availability of the GDP per capita data was only required from 1965 to 1973. It resulted in a dataset containing 103 countries for the 1973 shock and 123 countries for the 1979 shock (Tables C and D in S1 File ). Consistent with our baseline results, there was a significant decline in the TFR associated with the 1973 shock but insignificant impact with the 1979 shock (Table E and Fig B in S1 File ).

The final main robustness check done is restricting the coverage of countries in the dataset. We selected 25 countries as a focus group that had been subjectively recognized by previous literature as having similar fertility behavior as China (Table F in S1 File ). The focus group dataset with available data consisted of 17 countries for the 1973 shock and 20 countries for the 1979 shock. India, Indonesia, and Thailand were selected for Synth China in evaluating the 1973 shock and Korea, and Thailand was selected for Synth China in evaluating the 1979 shock, which was fewer than in our baseline analysis (Table G in S1 File ). Interestingly, the permutation test showed that even for the 1973 shock, the gap between the TFR of Synth China and actual TFR is located within the 95% interval. This indicates the insignificant impact of the 1973 shock. However, since there were only 16 countries used to do the random draw for the 500 paths, the variation contained in the permutation test is very limited, which weakened the reliability of the test (Fig C in S1 File ). The lower bound of the 95% confidence interval was dominated by Korea. Korea experienced a much sharper decline in TFR in the 1970s. Excluding Korea, China had the largest gap in the TFR.

As a robustness check, we also replace the TFRs used in our analysis with the UN-provided interpolated annual TFRs. The result is consistent with our baseline findings (see Table H and Fig D in S1 File ).

Limitations and conclusions

Of course, our study has various limitations. Firstly, from a data perspective, it is arguable that the veracity evidence derived for China–and, indeed, reconstructed for other countries–over the past seven decades is to be open to interpretation. This potential challenge is acknowledged and would, indeed, affect any and all studies of Chinese population history. However, the main argument of the likely impact of these two shocks still holds. Secondly, by considering China as a national unit, we do not disaggregate and consider the impact of the interventions (and policy differentials) at the sub-national unit. For example, it may be that the 1979 intervention had a more significant impact in one province than in others, dependent on the social and economic conditions of that region, coupled with the particular ‘history’ of birth control policies there. By considering only the aggregate level, we lose this granularity. Such an exercise would be a fruitful future avenue of research. The final criticism is a more holistic one. Is the size, complexity, the political, and economic system of China so unique that it is possible to create a ‘synthetic China’ at all? For sure, China is ‘different’ to most, if not all, countries of the world. However, the principle of the synthetic control approach is simply to draw similarities from other places if and where they exist. In this way, such an approach is more systematic, transparent, and viable than simply drawing on a single country comparator or a basket of other regions. Indeed, it could be argued that all possible units of analysis (countries, regions, towns) are ‘unique’ in their own way.

In this paper, we used the synthetic control method to assess the impact of the "One-Child" policy in China. Our findings strongly suggest that had China followed a standard development trajectory combined with the continuation of its comprehensive population control policies introduced in 1973 (‘later-longer-fewer'), the decline in the TFR and hence total population size would have been similar under the conditions of the stricter one-child policy and its various reforms thereafter. While the policies implemented in 1973 were restrictive in terms of spacing, timing and the quantum total number of children, and were also stricter than almost any other contemporary family planning program, they were, undoubtedly, less restrictive than what followed.

The implications of this study are two-fold. Firstly, by suggesting that the impact of the birth control policies may have been exaggerated in the past, we can better understand why the response to their relaxation has been relatively muted–or, at least, well below popular expectation. Secondly: it is impossible to ignore the fact that the strict birth control policies introduced in 1979 brought with them numerous negative and possibly unforeseen consequences. As well as the sanctioned activities and corrupt abuses which occurred within the birth control policy framework, the policies have been linked to the highly skewed sex ratio [ 53 ], the presence of millions of shidu fumu families who have lost their only child [ 54 ] as well as other challenges in both the development of family systems and individual behavior. The long-term psychological consequences of prioritizing one-child families have yet to be fully explored, not least in the context of possible efforts to spur childbearing in the future.

In this context, our analysis suggests that the population control policies implemented from 1979 have no significant demographic effect compared to a looser operationalization of population control and economic development. An important lesson for other countries that are planning to introduce population controls: the stricter controls might not be the effective one.

Supporting information

S1 file. appendix..


S2 File. Program and data.



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The authors are responsible for any remaining errors in the paper.

The authors would like to thank Ma. Christina F. Epetia for her excellent research assistance.

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China’s One Child Policy

How it works

China is considered to be the highly populated country across the world. History says that China has the largest population which has ever been witnessed. By 1979 China’s population was estimated to be approximately one billion. This number of people made the country to look for a way they can do to reduce this population before it was too late. That’s when they came with a policy of one child. This policy has affected this country negatively. Firstly, according to AJ 2015, this one child policy has a lot of negative impacts.

They say that this policy has prevented over 400milion births which have highly created the labor shortage. China is well known for its industrialization hence a lot of laborers are needed hence this policy has created a shortage in labor supply. Again according to AJ 2015, the policy has cut fertility rate to 1.4-1.7 children per woman. This policy has created a big effect on gender balance.

China has experienced the most ever seen gender imbalance in the world. This is because parents prefer male children than girls making the parents to abandon the girl child. In this way, China has many boys than girls which is a major effect in future. According to AJ 2015, the county has tried to impose this rule in different ways. First, they have taught girls in school about this policy and also they have legalized abortion which to me is a negative effect on the girl child. A girl can die in the process. Also, they have taught the people about the use of contraceptives. Also according to the interview done to some people, they said that this policy is going since having one child you will concentrate your love to him, and the child will do better than any other child. This reason contradicts the economy since according to AJ 2015 they say that, with more people, the economy will be the best.

This is because people will be more hence production will be high making this policy to affect the economy negatively. When we look at NG 2010, they say that traditionally baby boys are most preferred a thing which is still witnessed today. When this policy came parents do not want to have the girl child. They prefer the boy child since the boy child will carry the family name, provide for labor and also take care of the family at old age. Due to this, the girl child has been an endangered gender in China. NG 2010, says that 12 percent of girls born in China are abandoned every year, approximating to 100000 girls. The girls abandoned are adopted to other countries, and others die in the process. The NG 2010 also say that one out of every four girls adopted overseas to the United States come from China.

Also according to NG 2010, the population of boys is growing very high in China. By this rate, men will lack women to marry. They also say that by 2020, 40 million men will lack women to marry. All this is because of the effect one child policy in China. This one-child policy in China according to NG 2010, has created gender imbalances which have created many crimes. Some of the crimes include prostitution, forced marriage, and also kidnapping. Again they also say that one child in a family get spoiled since that child does not miss anything. They argue that such a child can get very fat which is a danger to the child??™s health. In conclusion, from the above discussion, it is very clear that the one child policy in China has really created more negative effect than the positive effect. Therefore this policy should be abolished.

Ebenstein, A. (2010). The ‘missing girls’ of China and the unintended consequences of the one child policy. Journal of Human Resources, 45(1), 87-115.Hesketh, T., Lu, L., & Xing, Z. W. (2005). The effect of China’s one-child family policy after 25 years.


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Population, Policy, and Politics: How Will History Judge China’s One-Child Policy?

Subscribe to the china bulletin, feng wang , feng wang former brookings expert, professor - sociology, university of california, irvine, professor - fudan university in shanghai yong cai , and yc yong cai baochang gu bg baochang gu.

February 25, 2013

Content from the Brookings-Tsinghua Public Policy Center is now archived . Since October 1, 2020, Brookings has maintained a limited partnership with Tsinghua University School of Public Policy and Management that is intended to facilitate jointly organized dialogues, meetings, and/or events.

One of the main puzzles of modern population and social history is why, among all countries confronting rapid population growth in the second half of the twentieth century, China chose to adopt an extreme measure of birth control known as the one-child policy. A related question is why such a policy, acknowledged to have many undesirable consequences, has been retained for so long, even beyond the period of time anticipated by its creators.

With the world’s population growth rate now at half its historical peak level and with nearly half of the world’s population living in countries with fertility below replacement level, we can look back at the role politics played in formulating, implementing, and reformulating policies aimed at slowing population growth (Demeny and McNicoll 2006; Robinson and Ross 2007; Demeny 2011). In this context, an examination of China’s unprecedented government intervention in reproduction offers valuable lessons in appreciating the role of politics in the global effort of birth control in the twentieth century.

Aside from the rise and fall of Communism, family planning programs along with the Green Revolution could be considered two of the most consequential social experiments of the twentieth century. These two experiments differ, however, in both content and approach. The Green Revolution was aimed at feeding the population, while family planning programs were designed to curtail its growth. The Green Revolution was technological, economic, and global, while family planning programs were social, political, and often country specific.

Nowhere in the world did politics and policies figure more prominently in the effort to control population growth than in China. The policy of allowing all couples to have only one child finds no equal in the world and it may be one of the most draconian examples of government social engineering ever seen. In this essay, we cast China’s one-child policy in the changing global context of population policymaking, we revisit the supposed necessity of such a policy by examining the claim that the policy was responsible for preventing 400 million births, and we discuss the reasons such a policy, with all its known negative consequences, has been allowed to stay in place for more than thirty years since its inception.

Editor’s Note: this paper first appeared in Population and Development Review , published by the Population Council.

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Was the One-Child Policy Ever a Good Idea?

China’s “one-child” policy has been relaxed, and now married couples may have two children. But according to scholars, the damage is already done.

A child sitting in front of a window on a bed

China’s infamous “one-child policy” came to an end in 2016, when family limits in the nation were raised to two children.

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The policy was always controversial. Back in 2016, sociology scholars Wang Feng, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai reported on  drastic measures that had been taken to enforce the former policy , including an alleged 14 million abortions, 20.7 million sterilizations, and 17.8 million IUD insertions, many of which may have been involuntary.

The greatest irony of this is that the policy may have been a misguided measure from the start.

The restriction on family sizes was introduced in the 1980s. According to Feng et al., the policy was meant to be a temporary way to slow population expansion and facilitate economic growth at a time when the nation “faced severe shortages of capital, natural resources, and consumer goods.”

But many say China may have seen its much-desired decline in fertility happen naturally. Feng et al. note that “the answer to China’s underdevelopment did not come from its extreme birth control measures, but from reform policies that loosened state control over the economy.” They continue:

China’s economic boom over the last few decades has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, sent almost 100 million young men and women to college, and inspired generations of Chinese, both young and old, to purse their economic goals…Contrary to the claims of some Chinese officials, much of China’s fertility decline to date was realized prior to the launch of the one-child policy, under a much less strict policy in the 1970s calling for later marriage, longer birth intervals, and fewer births (Whyte, Wang, and Cai 2015). In countries that had similar levels of fertility in the early 1970s without extreme measures such as the one-child policy, fertility also declined, and some achieved a level similar to China’s today.

A decline in fertility rates often accompanies these cultural shifts, as families focus on careers, invest in education and gain access to family planning services.

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Moreover, according to the scholars, the harmful one-child policy lingered too long. The one-child policy became a part of a larger social conversation that “erroneously blamed population growth for virtually all of the country’s social and economic problems.” This is a cultural psychological belief that will take much more than a government act to reverse.

Additionally, The Guardian reports myriad negative reactions to the removal of the policy. According to the article, exhausted mothers can’t imagine enduring the pressures of having more than one child in China’s fast-paced, high-pressure environment. Some women who had their child and then went back to work are suddenly now seen as a liability in their workplaces again because they might now leave to have an additional child. Sociologist Ye Liu told The Guardian that women she had interviewed in China “feel like they were experiments of the state. They were the experiments [under the one-child policy] and now they are another experiment. They feel like they are forever being used by the state laboratory.” Plus, a struggling economy has some parents wondering what the point of bringing another child into the world would be. One parent is quoted as saying, “It’s not that I’m worried about [my son’s] future. I have no hope for it at all.”

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LUANG PRABANG, LAOS - APRIL 09: The China-Laos Railway passes by a China Railway cargo shipment on April 09, 2024 in Luang Prabang, Laos. The China-Laos railway, a key project of China's Belt and Road Initiative, is a high-speed railway connecting Kunming, the capital of China's Yunnan province, to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. This railway is the biggest public infrastructure project ever undertaken by Laos, with a total length of 1,035 kilometers and a cost of US$5.9 billion, which is equivalent to around one-third of Laos' gross domestic product in 2019. The railway is dedicated to both passenger and freight traffic services, creating a new link between Laos and China, the former's neighbor and closest partner. The Laos section of the railway is part of a vision to build a Pan-Asia railway that will ultimately connect China, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, improving the efficiency of goods movement for export-driven economies along the route, opening up travel and extending China's influence deep into Southeast Asia. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

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One-Child Policy and Its Influence on China Essay

Introduction, background and concept of one-child policy, the effects of china’s one-child policy, populace growth, the sex ratio, rights to life, proportion of old age dependency, the future of the policy, works cited.

China’s one-tyke family strategy has affected the lives of almost a fourth of the world’s populace. The Chinese government guaranteed that it was a transient measure to move toward a little intentional family culture. Thus, we will analyze the influence of China’s one-tyke policy, its accomplishment, and recommendations. This paper will discuss why the approach was presented and how it is actualized. We will analyze the results of the arrangement about populace development, the proportion amongst men and women, and the proportion between grown-up kids and elderly guardians. Finally, we will examine the significance of the strategy in contemporary China.

As China rose out of the social interruptions and monetary stagnation of the Cultural Revolution, its government dispatched market changes to revive the economy. In 1979, perceiving that populace control was vital to raise expectations for everyday comforts, the one-tyke family approach was presented (Kang and Wang 91). The one-child policy has exposed the challenges of human freedom. It is morally unsuitable to take a human life, be it by homicide, capital punishment, or premature birth. Numerous social orders acknowledged premature birth to safeguard the mental and social prosperity of the mother.

This strategy restricts family estimate, empowers a late marriage, childbearing, and the dividing of kids when second kids are allowed. Family spacing panel at neighborhood levels created immediate techniques to support the policy. However, the one-tyke principle applies to urban inhabitants and government workers (Hao 171). In rustic zones, a second child is permitted following five years, if the first is a woman. A third kid is authorized in some ethnic minorities and in remote, under-populated regions. Financial motivations for consistence, significant fines, seizure of property and loss of employment, were utilized to authorize the approach.

The strategy depends on general access to contraception and premature birth. By implication, Eighty-seven for each penny of wedded women used contraception. Most women acknowledged the technique suggested by the family physician, which supported one-child policy (Hao 172). Dependence on long haul contraception kept the premature birth rate low (25 for every penny of Chinese ladies of regenerative age have had no less than one fetus removal, as contrasted 43 for each penny in the United States). Premature births are authorized when contraceptives are ineffective or when the pregnancy is not affirmed. However, Unattended and unsanctioned conveyances do happen.

In 1979, the Chinese government left with an aspiring system of business change taking after the financial stagnation of the Cultural Revolution. Sixty-six percent of the populace was under the age of 30 years, and the children of postwar America of the 1950s and 1960s were entering their regenerative years. The administration saw strict populace control as key to monetary change and a change in living standards. As a result, the Chinese government presented the one-kid family arrangement. The strategy comprises of an arrangement of directions administering the affirmed size of Chinese families. These controls incorporate limitations on family measure, late marriage, and childbearing, and the separating of kids (where second kids are allowed). Family-arranging advisory groups as common and regional levels devise immediate systems for execution. Despite its name, the one-kid principle applies to a minority of the populace; for urban occupants and government workers, the arrangement are upheld, with a couple of exemptions (Festini and de Martino 360).

Special cases incorporate families in which the main kid has an inability or both guardians work in high-hazard occupations, (for example, mining) or are themselves from one-youngster families (in a few zones). In areas where 70 percent of the general population lives, a second child permitted following five years, yet this arrangement occasionally applies if the main youngster is a woman (an unmistakable affirmation of the conventional inclination for boys). The influence of China’s one-tyke policy affected the sex ratio and population growth. However, the policy increased abortion to astronomical heights.

The one-child policy is a standout amongst the most critical social approaches ever executed in China. The approach, set up in 1979, restricted couples to just having one tyke. The policy was influenced by China’s amazingly vast populace development, which was seen as a danger to the nation’s future monetary development and expectations for everyday comforts of the general population (Festini and de Martino 359). At the season of being actualized, China’s populace was around 970 million (Festini and de Martino 360), thus, it was the Chinese government’s objective to enforce populace development to keep the aggregate populace focused around 1.2 billion for the year 2000 (Hao 170). China’s aggregate populace was around 1.26 billion in 2000 (Hu 5), so the objective was accomplished, yet maybe was marginally higher than what the legislature estimated. For the arrangement to be effectively executed, the administration presented motivating forces so that the populace would follow the directions.

These impetuses have been monetary, including duties and fines for the individuals who do not go with the policy. For instance, families have favored access to lodging, social insurance and instruction (Festini and de Martino 368). There have been both positive and negative effects connected with the one-tyke policy in China. It has been effective in avoiding between 250 million and 300 million births (Festini and de Martino 370), and in addition, diminishing the aggregate ripeness rate (TFR) from 2.7 youngsters for every woman in 1980 to 1.7 in 2011 (Festini and de Martino 369). This figure in TFR has prompted the diminishing of the aggregate populace of China accordingly dodging a populace blast, keeping up monetary development, and enhancing expectation of everyday comforts. Nonetheless, there are worries that the current TFR that is underneath the substitution level of 2.1 may bring a different demographic circumstance. This low TFR may decrease to lower level, potentially prompting a populace decrease that supports ‘minimal low’ richness (TFR of 1.3 or beneath). By implication, there will be an absence of individuals in the working age populace and the prospect of a maturing populace (Kang and Wang 91). This would influence the reliance proportion of the nation and put gigantic weight on the administration to give monetary and social backing to the elderly populace.

A standout amongst the impacts of the one child policy has been China’s sex proportion and the “missing young ladies” marvel. China has encountered a skewed sex proportion for quite a while, before tyke policy was presented. This issue has been exacerbated subsequent to the presentation of the approach. In China, having male kids is favored over girls. This inclination is particularly present in rustic territories because male children are in charge of supporting relatives once they have achieved maturity. As a result, the child inclination has prompted an expanded skew in the sex proportion during childbirth. Prior to the strategy in 1979, the sex proportion was 115 boys per 96 girls marginally higher than the world sex proportion of 109 boys per 90 females. The amazingly skewed sex proportion in China has prompted the “missing young ladies” wonder, which means many young women are “lost” from China’s populace registers. There are four fundamental clarifications for this: female child murder, disregard, or relinquishment; underreporting of female births; reception of female kids; and sex-particular premature births (Riley 34).

Abortion, which is the primary driver of China’s sex proportion, was an aftereffect of the policy. Through the presentation of ultrasound machines in the mid-1980s, Chinese couples could illicitly discover the sex of their tyke and after that could complete a fetus removal if their first kid was a female, making it workable for them to have a child (Kaiman14).

Lately, there have been arrangements with the Chinese government to unwind the policy. Notwithstanding, there is levelheaded discussion whether this will make a populace blast inside China. The monetary weight of having a kid has deflected numerous couples from having a second tyke; subsequently this unwinding of the arrangement might not affect the populace development of China. Consequently, numerous couples from provincial regions will probably have a second tyke as they depend more on their sons to bolster the family. There could even be a plausibility of the policy being suspended by 2020 (Kaiman14), however this will rely on upon future demographic patterns and if the legislature will surrender one of the greatest strategies ever presented in China.

At the point when the one-youngster approach was presented, the administration set an objective populace of 1.2 billion by the year 2000 (Kaiman16). The census count of 2000 puts the populace at 1.27 billion. The strategy itself influenced the diminishing in the ripeness rate. The most sensational abatement, in the rate really happened before the arrangement was enforced. Different interpretations have been advanced to clarify why 118 young men are conceived for every 101 young women conceived with sex-particular fetus removal picking up the amplest acknowledgment. Indeed, even in other Asian nations without populace control projects, for example, South Korea and Taiwan, the solid social inclination for children joined the entrance to cut edge innovations, for example, ultrasound has brought about expanded male sex proportions during childbirth. In the United States, some Chinese outsiders utilized sex fetus removal to sustain the male child ratio. Sex-selection birth includes couples picking premature birth if the embryo is observed to be a female tyke. In June of 2006, the Chinese governing body declined to case, sex-selection premature births a wrongdoing, though abortion is illegal. Since sex-premature births abuse, family control strategy, the legislature has guaranteed to rebuff the policy (Kaiman 4).

The social weight applied by the one-kid strategy has influenced the rate at which guardians surrender undesirable youngsters in state-supported housing, from which thousands are embraced both universally and by Chinese guardians. The guardians offered them up for formal or casual selection. A greater part of youngsters who experienced formal selection in China in the late 1980’s was young women, which has increased in the recent survey. The acts of receiving undesirable young women are steady with both the child inclination of numerous Chinese couples.

The impact of the strategy on the sex proportion has gotten much consideration. The sex proportion during childbirth, characterized as the extent of male births to female ranged from 1.03 to 1.07 in industrialized countries. There has been an enduring increment in the reported sex proportion, from 1.08 in 1979, 1.12 in 1988, to 1.19 in 2001. Thus, the policy supported sex-selection ratios in China (Hesketh and Xing 1172). By implication, parents abort a female fetus, which they consider a liability to family stability. This assumption has been widely criticized by human rights institutions (Hesketh and Xing 1173).

What transpires the missing young women involves hypothesis. Sex-fetus removal after ultrasonography without a doubt represents a decrease in female births. Actual figures are difficult to get, because sex-premature birth is illicit and not documented (Hesketh and Xing 1171). Consequently, non-registration of female birth adds to the sex-proportion gap. A survey completed in three areas found a typical sex proportion in the under-14 age bunch, with the genuine number of young women surpassing the number enlisted by 22 percent (Hesketh and Xing 1173). Although child murders of young women are extremely uncommon now, fewer treatments of female newborn are uncommon.

Numerous human rights institutions have scrutinized the “One-Child Policy”. They considered the one-youngster approach is against the human right of proliferation. Reactions mostly concentrate on the very conceivable social issues, for example, the “One-Two-Four” issue, while perceiving the significance of having such an approach for the nation. Identified with this feedback are sure the side-outcomes that are ascribed to the one-kid strategy, including the utilization of sex-selection birth. Birth proponents argue that the one-tyke strategy is an infringement of human rights. Consequently, practices purportedly used to actualize this arrangement are illegal. China has been blamed for meeting its populace prerequisites through the gift, intimidation, constrained disinfection, constrained premature birth, and child murder, with most reports originated from rustic zones (Hesketh and Xing 1173).

An online report revealed that in 2005, share of 20,000 constrained premature births in Guangdong province was set because of the reported carelessness of the one-tyke approach (Hesketh and Xing 1175). The exertion included utilizing compact ultrasound gadgets to find premature birth applicants. The report stated that women as far along as 8.5 months pregnant were compelled to prematurely end by infusion of saline arrangement into the womb. Because of the procedure, the mother is exposed to extraordinary mental and physical torment. Thus, utilization of constrained disinfection and controlled birth is in disagreement with formally expressed approaches and perspective on China as indicated by government authorities (Susan 165).

It is obscure how regular child murder is in China, however, government authorities say that it is uncommon. There are stories of guardians executing their female newborn in remote and country regions for various reasons. Beside evasion of the punishments and confinements of the state prevention arrangement, the main drivers of child murder, particularly for infant, girls, would be needed in rural China alongside the customary inclination for boys. Thus, the Chinese government has recognized the unfortunate social outcomes of this sex lopsidedness. The deficiency of girls has expanded mental issues and social conduct among men. Although the one-kid arrangement has been reprimanded for the high sex proportion, it is one contributory variable. There was a high sex proportion in China in the 1930s and 1940s, because of child murder of girls, and afterward the proportion declined in the years after the Communist Revolution of 1949. However, sex-fetus removal would proceed at a lower rate without the one-child policy.

The quick abatement in the birth rate, joined steady or enhance future, has prompted an expanding extent of elderly individuals and an increment in the proportion between elderly guardians and grown-up children. The rate of the populace beyond 65 is at par with adolescents. Although these figures are lower than those in industrialized regions are, the absence of sufficient annuity scope in China implies that money related reliance on posterity is still fundamental for 65 percent of elderly people. Pension scope is accessible to those utilized in the administration part and extensive organizations. This issue has been named the “four-to-one” wonder, implying that expanding quantities of couples will be in charge of the consideration of one youngster and four guardians. Activities are under an approach to enhance access to government benefits for private annuities trying to diminish the weight of the 4:2:1 phenomenon.

The Chinese government is confronting a critical test: the need to adjust the human right of proliferation with populace development. Thus, the unwinding strategy must be tailored to align with the rights to life. There is presently great proof that China is turning into a little family culture. Thus, government institutions must abolish the policy to avoid workforce shortage. Perceiving that ultrasonography encourages sex premature birth, non-administrative associations effectively campaigned to sanction the law. Improving the financial and social estimation of women will require creative projects. Enhanced instruction and pay employment offer in parental property will add to the improved status of women.

Indeed, even the tyrant legislature of China must make concessions to the social male inclination in permitting most of its populace to the second tyke when the first is a young woman. Along these lines, while sex determination is illicit in China, a high extent of kids (particularly the second youngster) is young men demonstrating that the prohibition on fetus removal is not extremely successful. Consequently, the Chinese government has declared “particular strategies for young women in medical services, training, and income. We have seen from China’s case that laws influencing societal states of mind are hard to uphold. In India, the two-tyke strategy has been implemented by denying employments to those with more than two kids. The punishments have influenced primarily those from the lower position and class while the upper ranks and classes have the capacity to maintain a strategic distance (Barry 122).

The one-child policy has exposed the challenges of human freedom. It is morally unsuitable to take a human life, be it by homicide, capital punishment, or premature birth. Numerous social orders acknowledged premature birth to safeguard the mental and social prosperity of the mother. Women activists have battled long and difficult to make fetus removal lawful and effectively accessible to women. By implication, women must have the supreme right to life (Barry 134). The monstrous movement to urban zones could clear much of the ills ascribed to sexual irregularity in China (Hu 6). A few guardians may over-enjoy their exclusive tyke creating adolesenct issues.. Since the 1990s, a few people have stressed that this will bring about a higher propensity toward poor social correspondence and participation abilities among children. However, no social studies have researched the proportion of these over-reveled kids and to what degree they are reveled. With the original of youngsters conceived under the strategy, achieving adulthood, such stresses are reduced.

Barry, Naughton. The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth , Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Festini, Filippo, and de Martino, Matiq. “Twenty Five Years of the One Child Family Policy in China.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 58.1 (2004): 358-373. Print.

Hao, Yuri. “China’s 1.2 Billion Target for the Year 2000: ‘Within’ or ‘Beyond’?” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 19.20 (1988): 165-183.

Hesketh, Therese, and Xing, Zhu. “The Effect of China’s One-Child Family Policy After 25 Years.” The New England Journal of Medicine 353.11 (2005): 1171-1176.

Hu, Huiting 2002, Family Planning Law and China’s Birth Control Situation . Web.

Kaiman, Jonathan 2013, China’s One-Child Policy to be Relaxed as Part of Reforms Package The Guardian . Web.

Kaiman, Jonathan, 2014 Time Running Out for China’s One-Child Policy after Three Decades the Guardian . Web.

Kang, Cun, and Wang, Yuri 2003, “Sex Ratio at Birth In: Theses Collection of 2001.” National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Survey 23.1 (2003): 88-98.Print.

Riley, Nancy. “China’s Population: New Trends and Challenges.” Population Journal 60.2 (2004): 14-45.

Susan, Greenhalgh. “Science, Modernity, and the Making of China’s One-Child Policy.” Population and Development Review 29.1 (2003): 163-196. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020, August 17). One-Child Policy and Its Influence on China. https://ivypanda.com/essays/one-child-policy-and-its-influence-on-china/

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section China's One Child Policy

Introduction, historical and cultural roots of china’s population, family, and child-rearing.

  • General Works on Population Trends and Policies after 1949
  • Prelude to the One-Child Policy: The 1970s and the “Later, Longer, Fewer” Campaign
  • Overviews of the One-Child Policy
  • How and Why the One-Child Policy Was Launched
  • Changing Policies and Enforcement in the One-Child Era
  • One-Child Policy Enforcement and Human Rights Abuses
  • The Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Chinese Singleton
  • The Role of the One-Child Policy in China’s Dramatic Fertility Decline
  • Infant Abandonment, Orphanage Care, and Adoption of Abandoned Chinese Children
  • Distortion of Sex Ratios at Birth: Missing Girls and “Bare Sticks”
  • Looming Demographic Challenges: Rapid Population Aging and Young Worker Shortages
  • The Ending of the One-Child Policy in 2015
  • The Demographic, Historical, and Political Legacy of China’s One-Child Policy

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China's One Child Policy by Martin K. Whyte LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024 LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0221

For centuries, China has had the world’s largest population, although it will soon lose that title to India. When Mao Zedong and his colleagues seized national power in 1949, they were not sure how many Chinese there were (the first modern census was not conducted until 1953), and Mao initially argued that having a large and rapidly increasing population was a blessing for China, rather than a curse. However, the challenges of managing such a large and poor country soon changed the official view, and during some intervals in the 1950s and 1960s, China carried out voluntary family planning campaigns to try to reduce the birth rate. However, those campaigns were largely ineffective, with the only notable decline in fertility during those decades produced by the Great Leap Forward–induced mass famine of 1959–1961, not family planning efforts. As of 1970 the projected number of babies the average Chinese mother would have in her lifetime (termed the total fertility rate [TFR]) was still close to six. (China’s cities, where less than 20 percent of the population lived at the time, is an exception to these generalizations, with the 1960s family planning campaign playing some role in reducing the urban TFR in 1970 to 3.2.) Early in the 1970s, when Mao was still in charge (he died in 1976), China made a dramatic shift from voluntary family planning to mandatory birth limits under the slogan, “later (marriage ages), longer (birth intervals), and fewer” (births—no more than two babies for urban families and three for rural families). The “later, longer, fewer” campaign was enforced very strictly, using many of the coercive measures that later became notorious during the one-child campaign, and China’s fertility rate fell dramatically, to less than three per mother by the end of the decade. Despite this success, in 1980 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched an even more demanding and coercive campaign that attempted for the next thirty-five years to limit Chinese families to having only one child. The fertility rate actually went up in the early 1980s but then began to decline again, reaching sub-replacement fertility (TFR = 2.1) by the early 1990s. Most experts estimated that China’s TFR fluctuated in the 1.4 to 1.6 range between 2000 and 2015, although some analysts have calculated slightly higher estimates. (The subsequent decline in births, discussed in the final section of this essay, reduced China’s TFR in 2020 to 1.3 according to the census that year, approaching the very low fertility of the richest countries in East Asia.) The CCP in late 2015 decided to end the one-child limit, with Chinese families since January 1, 2016 allowed to have two children (raised to three children in 2021). Debates about the controversial one-child policy have spawned a large literature that examines many issues, including the reasons the CCP launched this campaign, how effective it was in reducing birth rates further, what human rights abuses resulted, how child-rearing and children have been affected, and in what ways Chinese society and the people of China have benefited or have been harmed by the demographic distortions produced by mandatory, state-enforced birth limits.

The backdrop for China’s unprecedented effort to enforce a one-child policy after 1980 is a strong set of family and child-rearing traditions stretching back millennia as well as debates about that country’s population dynamics and trends over the centuries. Baker 1979 presents a good summary of the literature on patterns of Chinese family life and kinship relations prior to 1949. Thornton and Lin 1994 provides an overview of family change patterns in Taiwan that can be compared with the literature on family change in mainland China. Ikels 2004 contains a series of essays focusing on the role of the central Chinese child-rearing value of filial piety in contemporary East Asian societies. Saari 1990 uses historical sources to convey how rising Western influence was challenging traditional child-rearing patterns and family authority relations in China around the turn of the 20th century. Kessen 1975 is a trip report made by a delegation of American child psychologists who visited China in 1973, prior to the start of the one-child policy. Whyte 2003 presents analyses based upon a survey of parent–adult child relations in a middle range Chinese city in 1994. Lau 1996 is a collection of essays on contemporary patterns of child-rearing in the People’s Republic of China and in the Chinese diaspora. Taken together, these studies convey a picture of China’s traditional family patterns having changed in substantial ways prior to the launching of the one-child policy, but with families still displaying distinctive patterns even today compared with their counterparts in Western societies (e.g., with higher likelihood of living with parents after marriage). In terms of historical trends in China’s population size, Ho 1958 is an early account by a historian of patterns of growth of the Chinese population over many centuries prior to the 20th century. Hajnal 1982 presents data and theorizes in support of the conventional view that in premodern times families in northwestern Europe were distinctive compared to families in Asia, particularly by more rationally adjusting their fertility levels to prevailing economic conditions. More recently, Lee and Wang 1999 uses historical demographic records from Qing Dynasty China to challenge the Malthusian view of Chinese families advanced by Hajnal and others.

Baker, Hugh. Chinese Family and Kinship . New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-86123-1

This is a wide-ranging overview by an experienced anthropological fieldworker of patterns of family life and kinship relations in China prior to 1949 and how they compare and contrast with family patterns in Western societies.

Hajnal, John. “Two Kinds of Preindustrial Household Formation System.” Population and Development Review 8 (1982): 449–494.

DOI: 10.2307/1972376

In this influential article, Hajnal presents data comparing premodern family patterns in England and other countries in northwestern Europe with their counterparts in Asia, including China, leading him to conclude that in Europe changing economic conditions led families to adjust their marriage rate, age at marriage, and fertility, whereas in Asian societies pronatal values and institutions did not promote such “rational” adjustments, thus encouraging more rapid population growth in the East than in the West.

Ho Ping-Ti. Studies on the Population of China, 1368–1958 . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

In this early study, a distinguished historian assembles such estimates as were available at the time to present an overview of when and why China’s population grew from less than 100 million at the start of the Ming Dynasty to about 600 million by the 1950s. More recent and accurate data have largely superseded this work.

Ikels, Charlotte, ed. Filial Piety: Practice and Discourse in Contemporary East Asia . Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

A set of essays, mostly by sociologists and anthropologists, detailing their investigations into what role the central Confucian value of filial piety (basically, the cultivation of extraordinary obligation and subordination by children even as adults to their parents and other elders) plays in contemporary East Asian societies, including China.

Kessen, William, ed. Childhood in China . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

In 1973 a delegation of a dozen distinguished American child psychologists visited China and provided this report on their observations in the preschools and primary and secondary schools they visited, although they were unsuccessful in their efforts to meet Chinese child psychologists with whom they could discuss their observations.

Lau Sing, ed. Growing Up the Chinese Way: Chinese Child and Adolescent Development . Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 1996.

This collection of essays, mainly by child and social psychologists, presents recent research studies on many different aspects of child-rearing, parent–child relations, and school performance in China. Two of the essays in this volume deal specifically with comparing only children and children reared with siblings, and those essays are cited later in this review ( Falbo, et al. 1996 ; Wu 1996 , both cited under the Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Chinese Singleton ).

Lee, James, and Wang, Feng. One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

DOI: 10.4159/9780674040052

This prize-winning volume, by a historian and a demographer, analyzes data on Chinese family patterns and demographic behavior in the 19th century, leading to a revisionist view that even in premodern times, contra Hajnal and others, Chinese were as much or more “rational” in adjusting their childbearing to economic conditions than Western families and not more pronatal. The authors also contend that the share of the world’s population that is Chinese today is not any larger than it was 2000 years ago.

Saari, Jon. Legacies of Childhood: Growing Up Chinese in a Time of Crisis, 1890–1920 . Cambridge, MA: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 1990.

DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1tg5mpf

A historian of China uses documentary and literary sources to examine the tensions and strains as Chinese parents and their children tried to adjust to rapid social change and Western influence at the turn of the 20th century.

Thornton, Arland, and Hui-Sheng Lin. Social Change and the Family in Taiwan . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

The authors rely on multiple surveys conducted in Taiwan since the 1960s to present an overview of the patterns of change and continuity in Chinese family patterns on that island.

Whyte, Martin K., ed. China’s Revolutions and Intergenerational Relations . Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 2003.

A collection of essays based upon a survey conducted in the city of Baoding, Hebei Province, in 1994. In that survey a representative sample of older residents and one randomly selected grown child of each older respondent were both interviewed to examine current patterns of relations between older urban Chinese and their adult offspring. Some essays include comparisons with comparable surveys that had been conducted earlier in Taiwan.

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  • Understanding the One-Child Policy


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Does China Still Have the One-Child Policy?

  • Did China's One-Child Policy Increase Its Economic Growth?

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What Was China's One-Child Policy? Its Implications and Importance

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essay on china's one child policy

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The Chinese government implemented the one-child policy mandating that the vast majority of couples in the country could only have one child. The phrase “one-child policy,” used often outside China, can be a bit misleading: the one-child rule didn't apply to all, exceptions were frequently made, and local officials had discretion over how population limits were achieved. These collective efforts were nevertheless intended to alleviate the social, economic, and environmental problems associated with the country's rapidly growing population. The rule was introduced in 1979 and phased out in 2015.

Key Takeaways

  • The “one-child policy” is a name given to Chinese government laws for controlling population growth. According to estimates, it prevented about 400 million births in the country.
  • Introduced in 1979 and discontinued in 2015, the policy was enforced through a mix of incentives and sanctions.
  • The one-child policy has had three important consequences for China's demographics: it reduced the fertility rate considerably, it skewed China's gender ratio because people preferred to abort or abandon their female babies, and resulted in a labor shortage given the increasing proportion of the population who were older adults.

Understanding China's One-Child Policy

The one-child policy refers to a set of laws implemented beginning in 1979 in response to explosive population growth that government officials feared would lead to a demographic disaster. China has a long history of encouraging birth control and family planning. In the 1950s, when population growth started to outpace the food supply, the government started promoting birth control.

However, by the late 1970s, China’s population was quickly approaching 1 billion, and the Chinese government considered ways to curb population growth. This effort began in 1979 with mixed results but was implemented more seriously and uniformly in 1980, as the government standardized the practice nationwide.

There were, however, exceptions for ethnic minorities, for those whose firstborn was labeled as disabled, and for rural families whose firstborn was not a boy. The policy was most effective in urban areas since those in China’s agrarian communities resisted it to a greater extent.

Initially, the one-child policy was meant to be a temporary measure, though, in the end, it may have prevented up to 400 million births. Ultimately, China ended its one-child policy after it became apparent that it might have been too effective: many Chinese were heading into retirement, and the nation’s population had too few young people to provide for the older population’s retirement and healthcare while sustaining continued economic growth.

The government-mandated policy was formally ended Oct. 29, 2015, after its rules had been slowly relaxed to allow more couples fitting certain criteria to have a second child. Now, all couples are allowed to have two children.

There were different methods of enforcement, including incentives and sanctions, that varied across China. For those who complied, there were financial incentives and preferential employment opportunities. For those who violated the policy, there were sanctions, economic and otherwise. At times, the government employed more draconian measures, including forced abortions and sterilization.

The one-child policy was officially discontinued in 2015. The efficacy of the policy itself, though, has been challenged, as it's typical that population growth generally slows as societies gain in income, as happened in China during this time. In China's case, as the birthrate declined, the death rate declined, too, and life expectancy increased.

One-Child Policy Implications

The one-child policy had serious implications for China's demographic and economic future. In the early 2020s, China's fertility rate stands at 1.6, among the lowest in the world. (The U.S. is at 1.7.)

China now has a considerable gender skew—there are roughly 3 to 4% more males than females in the country. With the implementation of the one-child policy and the preference for male children, China had a rise in the abortion of female fetuses, the number of baby girls left in orphanages, and even in infanticides of baby girls.

This continues to affect marriage and birthrates around the country. Fewer females means there were fewer women of childbearing age in China. The drop in birthrates meant fewer children, which occurred as death rates dropped and longevity rates rose. It is estimated that the share of adults ages 65 and older will have risen from just 12% to a projected 26% by 2050. Thus, older parents will be relying on their children to support them, and have fewer children to do so. This is compounded by the massive urbanization of China since 1980, with those living in urban areas increasing from 19% in 1980 to 60% in recent years. China is also facing a potential labor shortage and will have trouble supporting this aging population through its state services.

Finally, the policy led to the proliferation of undocumented, non-first-born children. Their status as undocumented makes it impossible to leave China legally, as they cannot register for a passport. They have no access to public education. Oftentimes, their parents were fined or removed from their jobs.

One-Child Policy FAQs

No. China reverted to a two-child policy after its one-child policy ended in 2015, and the restrictions were gradually loosened before its official end.

Did China's One-Child Policy Increase Its Economic Growth?

There's a chicken or egg quality to any answer: China's one-child policy, by initially reducing population growth, could have contributed to economic gains by creating a larger working-age population relative to children, which would have boosted productivity and savings. However, it's also the case that countries with increases in national wealth tend to have population growth that slows down. Thus, the increase in economic growth in China may have helped reduce the number of Chinese newborns over this time, not the other way around. Whatever the case, the long-term effects of these demographic shifts from about 1979 to 2015 include a shrinking labor force and a greater proportion of the population that is retired, posing challenges for continued economic growth and the social safety net.

Yes. China has implemented or increased parental tax deductions, family leave, housing subsidies for families, and spending on reproductive health and child care services to increase the national birthrate since ending the one-child policy formally in 2015. The Chinese government also promotes flexible work hours and work-from-home options for parents. Most interesting are policies one wouldn't consider related to the birthrate at first glance, such as banning private tutoring companies from profiting off teaching core subjects during weekends or holidays. By lowering educational pressure on children and this often costly financial load on parents, China is attempting to lower the burdens of parenting. With greater financial security, parents may feel better able to handle additional children. Another upshot? By reducing pressure academically, especially on weekends and holidays, families can spend more time together, thus fostering greater family connections.

Violators of China's one-child policy could be fined, forced to have abortions or sterilizations or lose their jobs.

China's one-child policy, a phrase used for a set of laws related to population growth implemented starting in 1979, represented one of the more draconian modern attempts to intervene in a country's rising demographics. While the population did slow, the policy also resulted in unintended consequences, such as an aging population, gender imbalance, and a shrinking workforce. Its discontinuation in 2015 and subsequent measures to encourage higher birth rates reflect China's complex challenges in balancing population control with sustainable economic and social development.

J.N. Wasserstrom. "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pages 81-84.

Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. " China’s One Child Policy ." Page 1. 

National Library of Medicine. " The Effects of China’s Universal Two-Child Policy ."

Library of Congress. " China’s One Child Policy. "

David Howden and Yang Zhou. “ China’s One-Child Policy: Some Unintended Consequences .” Economic Affairs. 34/3. Pages 353-69.

The World Bank. " Fertility Rate, Total (Births per Woman) - China ."

Pew Research Center. " Without One-child Policy, China Still Might Not See Baby Boom, Gender Balance ."

Gao, Fang., Li, Xia. " From One to Three: China’s Motherhood Dilemma and Obstacle to Gender Equality ." Women. (2021.) Pages 252-266. 

Population Reference Bureau. " What Can We Learn From the World’s

Largest Population of Older People? "

United Nations. " Revision of World Urbanization Prospects ."

World Health Organization. " Ageing and Health in China ."

essay on china's one child policy

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China’s One-Child Policy, Essay Example

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Often we must change and adapt to the trials we encounter; yet small changes can be very difficult. I remember as a child, when I complained that I could not master the art of playing the piano. My teacher brought over a flower pot and asked me what I saw. I told her that it was a bamboo plant. She explained to me that it was not just a bamboo plant. She made me look closely at how the plant had twisted in turned itself in the way she had guided it. There were many different shape patterns that had been formed through her manipulation. She explained to me that if the plant was unable to change or adapt, it would only break. She said that playing the piano and living life was much like this. Most people do not realize that bamboo is actually a type of grass. It has a variety of uses, grows fast, (about two-inches per hour) is very versatile, has a woody stem, and is a perennial. Bamboo has become popular worldwide because of its versatility and ecological benefits. Bamboo is for many things from food to furniture. This plant helps to protect the environment and clean the air. It has been estimated that some bamboo plants can release at least 35 percent or more oxygen than other types of trees. Its branches can help lower the intensity of the sun by blocking its ultraviolent rays. Bamboo is also good at conserving soil. Its roots are used to protect against erosion in some areas. Bamboo is a great way to sustain riverbanks and wind barrier. Bamboo is a renewable resource. Once it is planted, it will produce new shoots each year. The Bamboo stems are tough and durable-So much so, they are often substituted for wood. Bamboo can grow anywhere except Antarctica. It can adapt to many different climatic settings. Bamboo is representative of my hometown and family because of its versatility and ability to grow even in dire situations.

Bamboo belongs to the kingdom plantae, which means plants and is a member of the subkingdom tracheobionta, which means vascular plants. It can be placed further in the superdivision spermatophyte, which means seed plants. It is in the division magnoliophyta, or flowering plants and the class liliopsida, monocotyledons. Bambo is in the subclass commelinidae and the order cyperales. Bambo also belongs to the family poaceae, also known as the grass family. It is in the genus of bambusa schreb, which translates to bamboo.

I believe the bamboo plants represent my hometown because it displays so much versatility. In order to understand this statement, one has to know something about the history and struggle of the Chinese people. The beginning of the Cultural Revolution also known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, dates back to the early 1960s. This movement took place after the Great Leap Forward, a period of active government where more than 20 million people died. During this time Vice-Chairman Li Shaoqi and Premier Zhou Enlai wanted to assume a less active and dominant role in governing the country. They wanted to offer economic reforms based on individual incentives. One incentive was to allow families the opportunity to farm their own land. These actions were detested by more conservative members. Nonetheless, China’s economy grew greatly from 1962-1965as a result of individual incentives.  The Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 was compound social turmoil that stemmed from the struggle between Mao Zedong and other party leaders in efforts to control the Chinese Communist Party.

The Cultural Revolution in China was one of the most multifaceted events in China’s history. Every member of Chinese society was involved and somehow affected by the revolution. Although Mao initiated the movement, it took on its identity. Mao used many manipulation tasks when dealing with the people of China, but during the movement people saw that as an opportunity to express themselves. The Cultural Revolution went through many stages, but the most violent ones were the first two years. Mao even called upon school age students to join in the movement. The widespread violence during the Cultural Revolution was the most unsettling. China had suffered brutality and violence before, but never to the extent of the Cultural Revolution. Students revolted within educational institutions and led to violence. Libraries were burned and schools were vandalized. The violence was so rampant that the military patrolled the streets followed by body trucks looking for the remains of the dead. “The suicide rate drastically increased as people escape persecution jumped from building, drank insecticide and would lie across train tracks, or throw themselves in front of cars”  (  Schoenhals, p. 566  ).  Also, many people died during the Revolution due to illnesses that went untreated due to the refusal of medical facilities to give aid to counter revolutionaries. Fowler said, “Everyone in China was affected; everyone knew someone who had died” (Fowler, p. 1329   ). Yet, China is one of the most prosperous and striving nations. The Chinese people are just as versatile as the bamboo plant.

One negative characteristic of Bamboo is that it spreads through underground runners called rhizomes. This allows for the plant to continue spreading even without visibility. This allows for the bamboo to take over a large area in a very short amount of time. The bamboo trees grow so densely that it can smother other ground level plants. I think this is very similar to my hometown and the Chinese people because the population there has grown so fast. China is one of the most populous countries in the world. For example, in the early 20 th century, Chinese government was baffled about the fast rate at which the population was growing. The one child policy was enacted in 1979 and is currently in effect. The policy is enforced through incentives such as health care, educational opportunities, job and housing opportunities, and disincentives for violators of the policy. Violators face fines, loss of educational access, and other privileges. Nonetheless, the policy has never been uniformly enforced throughout China. Initially, the goal of this policy was to ensure that the Chinese population remained under 1.2 billion. This goal was intended to be met by promotion of contraception and forced sterilizations.  After carefully examining the risks and benefits China’s one child policy, it is believed that a new two-child approach is the best alternative for the future of China.

The one child policy has caused negative demographic consequences. The one child policy had estimated that China’s population would be reduced by more than 300 million in the first twenty years (Mosher, p. 90). Although it has decreased the population, it has created a high sex imbalance with males unequally outnumbering females. The one child policy has also been linked to sex-selective abortions, infanticide, and other social safety problems. There are many speculations about what is happening to the girls in Chinese society. For example

“Medical advancements and technology have played a key role in creating this surplus of boys. The Chinese government contracted with GE to provide cart-mounted ultrasound that could be run on generators so that the most obscure village had access to fetal sex determination. Given the ability to know the sex of their unborn  children , many parents’ aborted female fetuses. Sadly, such abortions do not account for all of the missing girls in China” (Short, p. 282).

Many regulations attempt to guard against sex determination abortion, but evidence shows that there has been an increase in the use of ultrasound B machines, which determines the sex of fetuses (Short, p. 283). The use of ultrasound technology for abortion purposes is illegal, but it is speculated that sex selected abortions account for the great decline in female births (Wan, Fan, & Lin, p. 389). In rural areas, many families simply hide their female children or give them to nearby families in order to avoid reporting the births. Sadly, some girls are just abandoned and left to die (Zilberberg, p. 518).

Having to overcome odds like these are astounding. There are many families that have had to make a choice between having or aborting a baby based upon its sex. Mental and emotional healths are issues that are commonly ignored in Chinese society because disclosure of personal problems publicly has been frowned upon for years. Consequently, data on the mental health of adolescents is very scarce. However, in recent years studies have emerged documenting mental issues that children of the one child policy are encountering. A study was conducted on 266 Chinese adolescents who were products of the one child policy. The researchers used the Beck Depression Inventory and discovered that about 65 percent of the children screened meet the criteria for depressed. About 10 percent of them were in the severely depressed range. Girls were also more likely to show traits of depression than only child’s who were male (Chen, Rubin, & Li, p. 940). Psychologists believe that the increased incidences of depression and anxiety can be directly linked to the increased pressure that is placed upon female only children. According to Fong, gender directly affects a person’s experience in society. This idea is based upon feminist perspective. Accordingly, females experience the world in a different manner than males do. From birth, females have been expected and taught to behave a certain way due to cultural norms. However, due to the one child policy, many women are expected to confront the unwritten rules they have been taught to live by.

The Chinese people and my hometown are so representative of the Bamboo plant because they have been able to overcome so many obstacles over the years. I guess it wasn’t until years later when I was no longer a part of the environment, until I was able to understand just how difficult life had been for my family. Both my parents were affected by the child policies in China, and were determined that no matter how many fees they had to pay, they were going to have whatever gender and how many children they were blessed with. For this I am very thankful. There are several negative side effects of the one-child policy. China does not have a national social security plan. Taking care of the older generations will fall upon the one-child generation. This is what my father experienced because he was an only child. Persons over the age of 65 currently make up about 25 percent of the population. Consequently, a one child will be responsible for taking care of four grandparents and two parents. This has become known as the “4:2:1 problem”. Another negative consequence is what has grown to be called the “Little Emperor Syndrome”, which discusses the psychological effects the one-child policy has on the children. These children have been called the spoiled generation because they are doted by parents and grandparents. My mother can be called a little emperor. As a child, she suffered from obesity. The rise in childhood obesity has been linked to this syndrome. One in every five Chinese children is obese (Zhan, 2004). China has been traditionally known for great health and dietary practices.  My parents are just like the bamboo plant because they were willing to maneuver around and bend to make the best possible life for their children. Like the bamboo, they had to be aggressive and force their way into society and take what they felt was theirs. Often they had to break rules and face possible retaliation. I see them as the bamboo plant traveling and growing underground right under the eyes of those watching, but never being noticed.

Some people view the aggressiveness of the Chinese people as negative characteristics, but you must understand all of the oppressions and mental anguish they have endured. So, now that they have the opportunity to do the things they have never been able to do in the past, they are aggressively trying to be the best. The bamboo is so aggressive that it will stamp out the life of other surrounding plants. However, because of its versatility, anyone who plants the bamboo really has all that they need in the lines of plants. It helps replenish oxygen, can shade the owners and help block out harmful UV rays, and some people even eat the shoots as a nutritious meal.

Works Cited

Chen, X., Rubin, K.H., & Li, D. (1995). Depressed mood in Chinese children: Relations with school performance and family environment. J ournal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 63 , 938-947.

Fowler, Erin Malia.  An exploration of the life experiences of the survivors of China’s Cultural Revolution … US: ProQuest Information & Learning.   69(2-B), 2008.  p. 1323-1330.

Mosher, S. W. (2006). Winter. China’s One-Child Policy: Twenty-Five Years Later. The Human Life Review : 76-101.

Schoenhals, Michael. Unofficial and Official Histories of the Cultural Revolution—A Review Article , The Journal of Asian Studies 48 (1989): 563-570

Short, S. E., M. Linmao, et al. (2000). Birth Planning and Sterilization in China. Population Studies 54 (3): 279-291.

Wan, C., C. Fan, and G. Lin. (1994). A Comparative Study of Certain Differences in Individuality and Sex-Based Differences Between 5- And 7-Years Old Only Children and Non Only Children. Acta Psychological Sinica 16 : 383-391.

Zhan, H. J. 2004. “Socialization or Social Structure: Investigating Predictors of Attitudes Toward

Filial Responsibility Among Chinese Urban Youth From One and Multiple Child Families.” International Journal of Aging and Human

Zilberberg, J. (2007). Sex Selection and Restricting Abortion and Sex Determination. Bioethics 21 (9):517-519.

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    Chinese parents, who have children born outside the country's one-child policy, protest outside the family planning commission in an attempt to have their fines canceled in Beijing, on Jan. 5 ...

  3. The Chinese One Child Policy, Its Origin and Effects

    The Chinese one child policy. The one child policy as adopted in the people's republic of China was introduced in the year 1979. The aim of the Chinese one child policy was to control the country's population which was seen as a threat to the country's resources. In its application of the policy, the government of China strived to ...

  4. Assessing the impact of the "one-child policy" in China: A synthetic

    The stringency of the one-child policy was further moderated amid China's commitment to the International Conference on Population Development held in Cairo in 1994. In 1995, the family planning program changed its stance from being target-driven to client-centered in adherence to international reproductive health standards.

  5. One-child policy

    one-child policy, official program initiated in the late 1970s and early '80s by the central government of China, the purpose of which was to limit the great majority of family units in the country to one child each.The rationale for implementing the policy was to reduce the growth rate of China's enormous population.It was announced in late 2015 that the program was to end in early 2016.

  6. China's One Child Policy

    By 1979 China's population was estimated to be approximately one billion. This number of people made the country to look for a way they can do to reduce this population before it was too late. That's when they came with a policy of one child. This policy has affected this country negatively. Firstly, according to AJ 2015, this one child ...

  7. The Evolution of China's One-Child Policy and Its Effects on Family

    A tightening of the one-child policy in terms of one interquartile range decrease of the excess fertility rate residual can increase the rural migration rate by 0.823 percentage points in 2000 (that is, 0.0295 × 0.279). There has been little study of the effect of the one-child policy on these outcomes in China.

  8. Population, Policy, and Politics: How Will History Judge China's One

    In this essay, we cast China's one-child policy in the changing global context of population policymaking, we revisit the supposed necessity of such a policy by examining the claim that the ...

  9. Was the One-Child Policy Ever a Good Idea?

    China's "one-child" policy has been relaxed, and now married couples may have two children. But according to scholars, the damage is already done. The icon indicates free access to the linked research on JSTOR. China's infamous "one-child policy" came to an end in 2016, when family limits in the nation were raised to two children.

  10. One-Child Policy and Its Influence on China Essay

    Hesketh, Therese, and Xing, Zhu. "The Effect of China's One-Child Family Policy After 25 Years." The New England Journal of Medicine 353.11 (2005): 1171-1176. Hu, Huiting 2002, Family Planning Law and China's Birth Control Situation. Web. Kaiman, Jonathan 2013, China's One-Child Policy to be Relaxed as Part of Reforms Package The ...

  11. China's One Child Policy

    The backdrop for China's unprecedented effort to enforce a one-child policy after 1980 is a strong set of family and child-rearing traditions stretching back millennia as well as debates about that country's population dynamics and trends over the centuries. Baker 1979 presents a good summary of the literature on patterns of Chinese family ...

  12. One-child policy

    The text reads "Planned child birth is everyone's responsibility." Birth rate in China, 1950-2015. The one-child policy ( Simplified Chinese: 一孩政策) was a population planning initiative in China implemented between 1979 and 2015 to curb the country's population growth by restricting many families to a single child.

  13. PDF Challenging Myths About China's One-Child Policy

    In the decade after this study, not only was the starting date conveniently shifted forward from 1970 to 1980 (thus redirecting attention to the one-child policy), but also the number of births prevented was inflated to 400 million. The claim that China's one-child policy prevented 400 million births contains at least three fatal flaws.

  14. Challenging Myths About China's One-Child Policy

    China's controversial one-child policy continues to generate controversy and misinformation. This essay challenges several common myths: that Mao Zedong consistently opposed efforts to limit China's population growth; that consequently China's population continued to grow rapidly until after his death; that the launching of the one-child policy in 1980 led to a dramatic decline in China ...

  15. What Was China's One-Child Policy? Its Implications and Importance

    One-Child Policy: The one-child policy was a policy implemented by the Chinese government as a method of controlling the population, mandating that the vast majority of couples in the country ...

  16. China's one-child policy: what was it and what impact did it have

    China's one-child policy was rolled out in 1980 and was strictly enforced with various punishments before being replaced by a two-child policy in January 2016 and a three-child policy in May 2021.

  17. PDF China's One Child Policy

    Croll, et al. 1985 is a collection of essays by leading China scholars examining the transition from the "later, longer, fewer" campaign to the one-child policy and how the latter campaign was being implemented in its very early stages. Bongaarts, John, and Susan Greenhalgh.

  18. Essay on China's One Child Policy

    Decent Essays. 794 Words. 4 Pages. Open Document. The one child policy was adopted to help improve economic, environment, and population problems in China. The policy was used to limits the number of children that couples can have. When , the law was introduced it was only supposed to help with the overpopulation but , it has caused many ...

  19. China's One Child Policy

    Download. pdf. 612 KB. Last updated on 04/23/2024. Whyte MK. China's One Child Policy. (an updated version of the essay posted in 2019). Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies. 2022.

  20. One Child Policy Essay

    In this Essay, I analyze the ethics of the One Child Policy and how this regime-mandated population rule influences the people living in China. This essay commences with a summary of the rule with the historic background of the rule and how it used to be applied. Then I attempt into presenting one unintended consequence that has been caused by ...

  21. China's One-Child Policy, Essay Example

    China is one of the most populous countries in the world. For example, in the early 20 th century, Chinese government was baffled about the fast rate at which the population was growing. The one child policy was enacted in 1979 and is currently in effect. The policy is enforced through incentives such as health care, educational opportunities ...