China, one of the world’s most populous nations, is currently going through a shocking demographic crisis, facing a rapidly plummeting birth rate for the first time in decades. For most of our lives, we’ve associated China with its one-child policy, which was implemented in 1979 to help combat problems they were experiencing with overpopulation. Those who failed to comply with the policy faced harsh penalties, such as being fined up to $12,800, losing their jobs. Moreover, other penalties included having their land, livestock and homes confiscated, having their children denied rights and benefits provided by the state, or even being taken away from their parents altogether. The majority of the population, complied with the new policy in fear of the consequences to be faced. But nothing lasts forever. As the insightful Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “the only constant in life is change”. Although this quote was mentioned many years ago, back around 500 BCE to be precise, its meaning still stands today. Now, 44 years later, the Chinese government is planning on fully lifting all child limitations after suffering the effects of their policy choices.
China initially chose to implement its one-child policy hoping to fix all social, economic, and environmental problems that arose due to its rapidly increasing population. This problem started getting out of hand in the 1950s when China’s rapidly growing population began outpacing the food supply available for the country. A growing population and diminishing food supply led to promotions by the government encouraging the use of birth control. By 1958, following Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” plan to rapidly modernize the Chinese economy, a catastrophic famine succeeded, killing tens of millions of the Chinese population. The one-child policy was finally implemented as China’s population began approaching 1 billion near the late 1970s.
Although the regime successfully prevented up to 400 million births since implementation, it was nowhere near easy. “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 elderly relatives and make them stand in cold water in the winter.”, recalls Lu Bilun, a Chinese resident. “This was not your average level of policy enforcement. It was vicious”, he continued.
In her ted talk, Nanfu Wang, born just six years before the one-child policy, described what it felt like living through the regime and shared insights gained from interviews she had conducted whilst working on her documentary. Shortly after Nanfu’s birth, officials ordered her mother to be sterilized. Her family persisted in fighting for another child in hopes of conceiving a baby boy and paid substantial amounts to be allowed to do so. Although Nanfu was neither born during the one-child policy nor was she an only child, she lived most of her life through the regime. She described how she would often experience shame, guilt, and embarrassment for having a younger brother.
Nanfu interviewed a midwife for her documentary, responsible for delivering all babies in the village Nanfu, herself, was born and raised. She asked the midwife if she remembered how many children she had delivered throughout her lifetime. The midwife responded by saying, “I do not remember how many deliveries I have made; I remember having to assist 60,000 forced abortions and sterilizations”. The midwife later added that if the fetus were to survive the abortion, she would have to kill them after delivery.
Such a traumatic experience left the midwife loathing with guilt and remorse for many years after, thus deciding to steer her career in a completely different direction. She now helps infertile families get pregnant. As Nanfu says to conclude the ted talk, “the propaganda was hard to escape. It was printed everywhere, on matches, playing cards, textbooks and even posters”.
Alongside the terrible psychological effects the policy had on Chinese citizens, it also caused an aging, gender-imbalanced population, unable to fully accommodate such rapidly changing dynamics and demands of the economy. With China’s elderly making up a fifth of the population, it risks an economic stagnation similar to that experienced by Japan for three decades. As a result, this led to the end of the one-child policy in 2015. Chinese families were now allowed to have two children instead of one as of January 1st, 2016. Five years later, in July of 2021, a three-child policy was formally passed into law.
Despite the gradual loosening of restrictions over the years, China has yet to reverse its demographic decline. This demonstrates the result of nearly half a century of propaganda combined with rising inflation and other economic factors that have generally made it harder to have more kids. By the end of 2022, the population in China had fallen by 850,000 from the previous year. This has therefore led to the complete abolishment of the law. Authorities in Sichuan have decided to remove the limit on the number of children a family can have and lift the ban on single women registering a birth. This new law is planned to take effect on the 15th of February, 2023.
China’s economy continues to face troubles, expanding by only 3% in 2022, marking its worst performance in nearly half a century. Recovery from this economic growth decline will be even trickier if China continues facing a declining workforce.
China won’t be the only country suffering the consequences of its one-child policy. The rest of the world will feel its impact through reduced trade flow and investment disrupted supply chains. COVID and the historic downturn faced in the property market are also major contributing factors. A US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies mentioned in an article, that “China’s limited ability to react to this demographic shift will likely lead to slower growth outcomes in the next twenty to thirty years and impact its ability to compete on the world stage with the United States”.
The Chinese government is already taking action to help stimulate growth rates again by offering cash incentives, reducing the costs of pregnancy and childbirth, which include child rearing and education, and even offering real estate subsidies for couples with multiple children.It is shocking news to hear China’s plan to unscrew its cap to child limitations after having lived in a world that only knew about its limitations. This will have a great impact on the world in the upcoming years. Only time will tell how swiftly China is to progress and what internal and external effects will follow suit. Professor Melanie Sereny Brasher, a sociologist, social gerontologist and demographer, said, “China waited too long to change its one-child policy”. However, the fact of the matter is China did indeed change its policy and is striving toward stability. Change is the only constant in life, and without change, we wouldn’t have the necessary tools to develop, live in a modern world, and learn from our mistakes.