Why Did China Adopt The 'One Child' Policy?

What exactly was the reason that China adopted their ‘one child’ policy, which provides financial disincentives to families who have more than one offspring? Other than environmental damage, I don’t see what is so problematic about population growth that merits such a policy.

I understand that Europe is one of the most densely populated regions on Earth, but there doesn’t seem to be very much concern over the population size there.

Also, if such a policy is beneficial, why haven’t other countries with dense populations followed suit, such as India and Bangladesh?


The one-child policy only applies in the most populous regions. It is not enforced in rural areas.

The reason is simply that those parts of China are dangerously overpopulated.

Between 1949 and 1974, China’s annual population growth, it’s often estimated, exceeded 2% a year. If you look at China’s own figures here:


you can see the population growth and increased population density. The Chinese government decided that such a rapid population increase would strain food supplies and social services, and would generally damage the country.

So, they adopted a one child policy, ranging from forced abortions to forced sterilizations, to, more recently, heavy fines against people who have more than one child.

and yet the population continues to grow…:rolleyes:

Yes, but FAR more slowly, IIRC, the estimate for population in 1960 if the 1 child policy was not adopted would have been 1.2 Billion, Its only just reached that now. I would say a 35 year slowdown is pretty good.

The question I’ve wondered about is how the population keeps on growing? Is the policy so loosely enforced, or enforced in so few areas, or what? It gets portrayed in the media as some sort of draconian policy, but people seem to be having more children per capita in China than in places like Western Europe. Certainly more than 2 per capita, at least.

Environmental damage is not a good enough reason?

As for Europe, for whatever reason, the population growth rate is now very, very slow, so that governmental policies aren’t needed. I’d guess that when the population was rising rapidly, an outlet was available by shipping people off to the Americas and Australia. For some solid numbers*, the population-doubling time for Germany is 158 years, Italy is 771 years, Great Britain is 289 years, and Spain is 434 years. In contrast, the doubling time for the US is 67 years and China’s is 49 years.

Why don’t other countries adopt this policy? In the case of Bangladesh and India, these are both democracies, while China is not. I doubt that politicians who want to prevent people from having children get much of a chance to be voted into power.

Population growth depends on two factors: birth rate and death rate. Even if the birth rate is slowed, if people aren’t dying as fast (better health, ya know), the population still grows. Also, if the penalty for having extra children is only financial, the recent improvement in China’s wealth means that more people can afford the fines and just go ahead and have more kids anyway.

  • Source: Peter Menzel, Material World, © 1994, which in turn takes its data from the UN Population Division as published in World Resources

You need to understand growth rates to see the scare China was/is facing. You have a 3rd world country with inefficient manufacturing, agriculture, water, sewage and power infrastructure for its population. Image the following scenarios:

A 3% growth rate will double a population in 24 years
A 2% growth rate will double a population in 36 years
A 1% growth rate will double a population in 72 years

At the time China was effectively outside the 1st world trading scheme and economic growth rates were not even comparable to what was needed to simply maintain generational economical parity. Hence a 2 fold approach, grow the economy to support a growing population, while capping/slowing population growth. The original issue was wrestling the population growth rate down to a level were a slightly larger economic growth rate could improve the situation. Now that economic growth is 6-8% a year interesting things can happen.

Though I agree that only a dictatorship could impose such a rule on a population.

Also, while the total land area of China is vast a lot of it is taken up by mountains, desert, and by other geographic features that do not lend themselves to dense populations.

Uncle Mao, among the many crazy ideas which he had, believed the way to make China strong was to make many Chinese people and, consequently, the government had many programs which incentivated having children.

Posterior Governments realized that policy was not having the desired effects, but rather very much the opposite so the government reversed its policy and instituted the one child policy which, as has been mentioned, is not so simple and has plenty of exceptions.

The policy is only really strictly enforced in the cities. In the countryside, it’s a lot easier to hide births. And since there’s a lot more incentive for people in the countryside to have more kids than in the cities (more kids mean more people to work the farms), rural population growth is still pretty high.

Bear in mind that the majority of orphans in China are girls. Boys are preferred and tend to be kept.

This mindset is starting to bite China in the ass. I don’t have any cites for this, but I’ve read that there are now about 20 million young Chinese men with rather low prospects for attracting a Chinese wife. There have been stories in the media where women from South Korea, Vietnam, etc., have been lured to China as wives. A number of the women complain that their inlaws consider them as second class goods.

As sailor says, Mao gave a “hero of the people” medal to women who had 10 kids. Then…

Encyclopedia of China: The Essential Reference to China, Its History and Culture

CCP=Chinese Communist Party

I suspect (on no evidence whatsoever) that this is the event that convinced everyone (or most, anyway) inside and outside the government that the one-child policy was a good idea. China has 5 times the population of the US with only a fraction of the arable land. The “environmental damage” will be trivial compared to the starvation if they don’t control their population.

The population continues to grow because the one-child policy was only implemented 20 years ago. Let’s take a very simplified example: Some 25 years ago we see two couples Mr. and Mrs. Wu and Mr. and Mrs. Wang. Our sample population right now is 4. As luck would have it, each couple had 6 kids, 3 boys and 3 girls. Now the total population of our little survey is 16 people. Then the one-child policy is instituted. Now, 25 years later, all the Wu kids have married all the Wang kids–still 16 people. Then all the couples have their 1 child each (6 little bundles of joy). Now our population is 22 people. Only when the grandparents die, and a couple of the parents as well, will the population stabilize and begin to decrease. If there are great-grand kids before G’ma and G’pa Wu and Wang kick off, the population will be even larger.

In real terms, the numbers I’ve seen suggest that the population of China will stabilize sometime around 2050, at which time it will be just about 2 billion people.

India will be worse. IMHO, of course.

Well, just to throw some more statistics into the debate, the CIA World Factbook http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ch.html places China’s fertility rate at 1.7 children per woman, which is somewhat below replacement level, and comparable to most of Western Europe.(France is at 1.85, Germany 1.37, UK at 1.66)

The problem is twice as many Germans wont have the same impact as twice as many Chinese.