Skip to content
April 10th, 2017
Health • Finance

The one-child policy in China

The Chinese central government officially introduced the "one-child policy" in 1979, although it had introduced several birth control initiatives during the previous decade. The policy was led by the national government and implemented by local family planning committees at the provincial level, and it aimed to control the increase in population, which was starting to threaten the country's prospects for economic growth

The initiative

The Chinese central government  officially established the "one-child policy"  in 1979 , although several initiatives for birth control had already been in place since the early 1970s and had already achieved significant reductions in the national birth rate. It aimed to control population growth, which the government began to see as a threat to the country's economic ambitions. Its basis was that a couple was allowed to have only one child. Initial efforts began in the 1960s as a critical response to the famine facing the population. "A push under the slogan 'Late, Long and Few' was successful: China's population growth dropped by half from 1970 to 1976. But it soon levelled off, prompting officials to seek more drastic measures. In 1979 they introduced a policy requiring couples from China's ethnic Han majority to have only one child (the law has largely exempted ethnic minorities)."[2]

To enforce this, the government granted certain benefits to those who complied (increased access to education for all, plus childcare and healthcare offered to families that followed this rule) and other measures which penalised those who did not comply, e.g., fines and no access to these benefits.[3] Similarly, the policy increased the legal age for marriage to 22 years for men and 20 years for women in a bid to prevent population growth.[4]

The birth control policies implemented varied at the national and local level. National policies, such as the one-child policy, were applicable throughout the whole country, but local policies, such as penalties for above-quota births, varied between regions, such as rural and urban, or between provinces.[5]

The challenge

China had been actively influencing its population growth for several years, beginning after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, when Mao Zedong encouraged the population to grow in order to increase manpower. Although there was no official policy at the time, government propaganda condemned contraceptives and introduced other measures that led to the population doubling over the next few years.

This led to unexpected challenges as food supply became scarce, and from 1959 to 1961, the Great Chinese Famine killed an estimated 15 to 30 million people. As a result, the government started to reverse its campaign. "In 1979, the government introduced the one-child policy, under which most couples are allowed to have only one child or else face the possibility of fines, sterilisations, and abortions."[1]

The public impact

The aggressive implementation of the one-child policy in China had significant impact on the growth of the birth rate and population in the country. The birth rate in China fell from 1979 onwards, and the rate of population growth dropped to 0.7%.

This caused unexpected imbalances in the demographic development of the country.  Due to a traditional preference for boys, large numbers of female babies ended up homeless or in orphanages, and in some cases were killed. "In 2000, it was reported that 90 percent of foetuses aborted in China were female. As a result, the gender balance of the Chinese population has become distorted. Today it is thought that men outnumber women by more than 60 million."[6]

Another unintended long-term effect of this policy was that low birth rates also led to a rapid change in the population age pyramid. A study conducted before the end of the policy predicted that "the number of Chinese citizens over the age of 65 will soar to 219 million in 2030 and grow to make up a quarter of China's entire population by 2050. This means a significant portion of residents will age out of the labour force."[7]

Stakeholder engagement

The main stakeholder behind this initiative was the central government, which was very concerned that uncontrolled growth in the population could threaten the country's ambitions for prosperity. There is no evidence of consultations with stakeholders at the local or institutional level before this policy was implemented. However, there were incentives put in place to ensure the compliance of local officials, in the form of fiscal and career rewards for achieving birth targets, and penalties for falling short.  Officials could even be demoted for allowing too many above-quota births in their community, which meant that they would lose all future income and other benefits associated with their roles.[8]

The radical nature of the policy and the risk of non-compliance opened up many opportunities for corruption. "A number of anti-corruption drives have taken place over the years, and recent reports indicate that in some areas Chinese officials themselves are among the greatest violators of family planning policies."[9]

Political commitment

Curbing population growth became a major priority for the Chinese government. "Family planning is accorded an extremely high priority by the Chinese government, which is worried that China's immense and growing population could offset the gains made by economic reforms."[10] Deng Xiaoping, who led the country from 1978 to 1989, made this clear in a statement on the perceived necessity of the one-child policy. "In order for China to achieve the four modernisations, it must overcome at least two important roadblocks. The first one is weak economic standing. The second one is a large population with limited arable land. Now the population is more than 900 million, 80 percent of which are farmers. The coin of a large population has two sides. Under the condition of insufficient development, all the problems related to food, education and employment are severe ones. We should deepen the implementation of the family planning policy, and even if the population does not increase in the following years, the problem of population will still exist over a long period of time."[11]

Significant funds were allocated to the initiative through the budget for family planning, which was increased by approximately 18% per year throughout the 1980s, and after 1991 was doubled to USD1.1 billion.[12]

Public confidence

The Chinese government rewarded those who complied with the one-child policy in numerous ways, such as preferential housing, food subsidies, medical care, education, a monthly health allowance, job promotions, and special bonuses for volunteering for sterilisation.[13] However, the inflexibility and swiftness with which the government implemented the one-child policy also generated significant opposition from the public, exacerbated by reports of forced abortions and other human rights issues. "Although the one-child policy — and the accompanying mass campaign of sterilisation and induced abortion — led to a decline in fertility, it also caused a popular uproar and ignited strong resistance, especially in China's vast rural areas."[14]

The number of forced abortions and sterilisations caused widespread bitterness and resentment. "'I support the family planning policy, but not their methods,' said Ji Shuqiang, 42, working behind the cash register at the village store. 'If they find a woman who's pregnant, no matter how far along, they'll make you have an abortion.' An older man, who despite the urging of the others was afraid to give his name, said his wife had been sterilised 34 years ago after the birth of their only child, a daughter. He was still furious. 'We hate family planning more than anything else. We don't agree with the government's policy on this.'"[15]

Clarity of objectives

There were several growth targets established by the government through their initial campaigns before the one-child policy was put in place: the fourth five-year plan in 1970 was the first to include targets for the population growth rate, and the target set for 1980 was a growth rate of 1%. However, as the government realised that their targets were unrealistic, most population growth rate targets were abandoned in the early 1980s. When the one-child policy was implemented, the official policy was to aim for a population of around 1.2 billion in 2000.[16]

Regulations included restrictions on family size, late marriage and childbearing, and the spacing of children (in cases in which second children were permitted). There were also a number of exceptions, including: families in which the first child had a disability or both parents worked in high-risk occupations (such as mining) or were themselves from one-child families (in some areas).  In rural areas (where around 70% of the population lived), a second child was normally allowed after five years, but this sometimes only applied if the first child were a girl — a clear acknowledgment of the traditional preference for boys. A third child could also be allowed among some ethnic minorities and in underpopulated areas.[17]

Apart form the overall population target, there is no evidence of clearer objectives allowing to track the policy. This, coupled with the variability of guidelines explained above, made the policy extremely difficult to monitor.

Strength of evidence

There is no evidence of previous examples being used as a reference for China’s birth control initiatives, partly because it was almost unprecedented. However, the country’s numerous campaign and initiatives to the same end before the official policy was implemented served as evidence for some of the programme's main measures. In a speech to the Chinese Communist Party in October 1957, Mao stated: “Of course birth control is still necessary, and I am not for encouraging more births. There should be a ten-year programme for promoting birth control: three years for pilot programmes and publicity, three years for promotion and expansion, and four years for universal implementation.” Although the experience of the first few years was not monitored in detail, it allowed the government to establish whether it produced the desired results.[18]


There was a range of initiatives put in place and significant resources allocated to the implementation of the one-child policy. Family planning was coordinated at the federal level by the State Family Planning Commission (SFPC), which had approximately 520,000 full time cadres, and the Birth Planning Association, which assisted government in enforcement and implementation, had over 83 million part-time employees working at 1 million locations throughout China.[19] In addition, some 900,000 family planning associations had an estimated membership of between 36 and 50 million volunteers.[20] The government also increased the family planning budget by approximately 18% per year throughout the 1980s, and doubled it after 1991.[21]

The Communist Party published the new Marriage Law in 1980, mandating that couples were obliged to practise family planning, with a limit of one child for each family. This gave legal force to the policy.[22] However, clear communication was limited, and its interpretation and implementation were generally left to local officials to define in response to local conditions. "Sources indicate that implementation of family planning regulations differs from region to region and even within specific localities".[23]


The central government led the policy at the national level, with the State Family Planning Bureau setting targets and policy direction. Family planning committees at provincial and county levels were responsible of developing local strategies for implementation.[24] Similarly, Population and Family Planning Commissions at the national, provincial and local levels were expected to promote the policy, register births, and carry out family inspections. Provincial governments enforced the policy through a mix of rewards and penalties enforced at the discretion of local officials. “They include economic incentives for compliance and substantial fines, confiscation of belongings, and dismissal from work for non-compliance.”[25]

The evaluation of officials was tied to the ability to meet birth quotas within their jurisdictions. “The leaders of units who meet these birth quotas are more likely to get promotions and bonuses. If a particular area does not meet its birth quota, meaning that the number of children born is in excess of the number the government allows, the leaders of the local population control units would be held responsible for this failure and be disqualified from promotions or bonuses."[26] The establishment of unreasonable targets led to widespread corruption and meddling in the reporting of official figures, which is one of the most significant negative effects of the management method that was used.


The policy required restrictions on family sizes and birth figures at the local and national levels, and Population and Family Planning Commissions were responsible for implementing this mandate. “This policy stated that citizens must obtain a birth certificate before the birth of their children. In 1980, the birth-quota system was established to monitor population growth. Under this system, the government set target goals for each region. Local officials were mainly held responsible for making sure that population growth totals did not exceed target goals. If target goals were not met, the local officials were punished by law or by loss of privileges.”[27]

However, it not clear whether a consistent methodology was used for this,  or appropriate measurements actually took place, as both the public and enforcement officials had strong incentives to conceal the real numbers. The rigour and penalties applied when enforcing the policy led people to avoid reporting for fear of repercussions, and this also affected the accurate monitoring of outcomes. "The 1995 population survey reported average male:female ratios of 108:100 in rural areas. But this is not just because of sex-selective abortion (which is now illegal, though undoubtedly still occurs), but also because of failure to report female births."[28]


The main driver for the central government in curtailing growth of the population was that it perceived its increase as detrimental to the growth of the economy. At the local level, however, these issues were not so relevant, so there was a need to provide a motivation for local officials to enforce the one-child policy. It used a quota reward system for Planning Officials who carried out the birth control policies. If they did not meet quotas, they were either punished or would lose the opportunity to earn promotions.[29]

For the population at large, the government applied  incentives and sanctions to encourage compliance with the policy's goals. "People were to be encouraged to have only one child through a package of financial and other incentives, such as preferential access to housing, schools, and health services. Discouragement of larger families included financial levies on each additional child and other sanctions which ranged from social pressure to curtailed career prospects for those in government jobs. Specific measures varied from province to province.”[30]


An Evaluation of 30 Years of the One-Child Policy in China, 10 November 2009, The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

Challenging Myths About China's One-Child Policy, Martin King Whyte et al, 2015, The China Journal

China: Family planning laws, enforcement and exceptions in the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian (2010-September 2012), Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

China one-child policy leads to forced abortions, mothers' deaths, Barbara Demick, 15 June 2012, Los Angeles Times

China One-Child Policy: Some unintended Consequences, David Howden and Yang Zhou, 2014, Institute of Economic Affairs

China's One-Child Policy, Laura Fitzpatrick, 27 July 2009, Time

China's one child family policy, Penny Kane and Ching Y Choi, 9 October 1999, US National Library of Medicine

Couples must wait for law to catch up with China's ‘second-child' policy, 31 October 2015, The Inquirer: China Daily/Asia News Network

History of the Chinese Family Planning Program: 1970-2010, Cuntong Wang, October 2011, Contraception

Managing population change - Case study: China, BBC

One-Child Policy Update, January 1995, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

Population Control and Consequences in China, Jamie Cook, 5 December 1999, University of Nebraska

Prepared Statement for Harry Wu, 5 November 2009, Director of Laogai Research Foundation, Human Rights Commission in Washington, DC

See How the One-Child Policy Changed China, Aileen Clarke, 13 November 2015, National Geographic

The Effect of China's One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years, Therese Hesketh, et al, 15 September 2005, The New England Journal of Medicine

The Effect of the One-Child Policy on Fertility in China: Identification Based on the Differences-in-Differences, Hongbin Li et al, 11 August 2005, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The One Child Family Policy, W X Zhu, US National Library of Medicine

When a Son is Born: The Impact of Fertility Patterns on Family Finance in Rural China, Weili Ding and Yuan Zhang, March 2011, Queens University

The Public Impact Fundamentals - A framework for successful policy

This case study has been assessed using the Public Impact Fundamentals, a simple framework and practical tool to help you assess your public policies and ensure the three fundamentals - Legitimacy, Policy and Action are embedded in them.

Learn more about the Fundamentals and how you can use them to access your own policies and initiatives.

Explore the Fundamentals