How China’s One-Child Policy Backfired Disastrously

The three-decade old rule was officially rescinded this week. But its toll will haunt China for years to come.

View Images

Li Yan, pregnant with her second child, lies on a bed as her daughter rests her head on her mother's abdomen. Li’s family was the first in Anhui province to  receive a permit to have a second child when the rules were relaxed in 2013.


China's one-child policy was aimed at slashing the nation's population to boost economic growth. It resulted in millions of forced sterilizations, abortions, infanticide, and marital misery.

After more than 30 years, the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party announced Thursday that it would end the rule, easily the country's most unpopular.

Mei Fong, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter, is author of the forthcoming book One Child: The Past And Future Of China’s Most Radical Experiment. Speaking from California, she describes how the policy caused an enormous demographic headache for China; why it will take decades to reverse; and how, as a result, China is full of lonely men.

Why has China made this decision now? What does it hope to achieve?

The reason China is doing this right now is because they have too many men, too many old people, and too few young people. They have this huge crushing demographic crisis as a result of the one-child policy. And if people don’t start having more children, they’re going to have a vastly diminished workforce to support a huge aging population. Right now the ratio is about five working adults supporting one retiree. That’s why they have ended a policy that should actually never have been started in the first place.

China has lifted 600 million people out of poverty. Surely, the one-child policy was the driver for that spectacular economic growth.

Journalists love that phrase. But China didn’t lift 600 million people out of poverty. They lifted themselves out of poverty. True, some policies helped. But the policies economists identify as having been the most useful were other things the Chinese government did, such as encouraging foreign investment or lifting barriers to private entrepreneurship.

View Images

Children attend class at a primary school in Qapqal, China.


What also drove the economy forward was more people, not less. China had this big population boom in the ’60s and ’70s. These people grew up to form the cheap labor force for the manufacturing boom of the ’80s and ’90s. Now, these people are forming a huge retiree community, which China needs to support—and which will dampen future growth.

Give us a picture of the human toll of the policy over the last three decades?

I was in Szechuan after the earthquake of 2008, the worst disaster in China for three decades with over 70,000 deaths, many of them children, because the school houses collapsed. Immediately after the earthquake, parents were racing to have surgery to reverse the sterilizations or vasectomies performed in China in their millions.

One was a miner who had lost his 16-year-old daughter. He and his wife were in their 50s, so they knew it was going to be hard to have more children. But they were desperate. They said, “In our village people avoid us because they know we have no children, and we’re going to be useless hangers-on.” They had lost all social and economic status because a child is economic security in rural China. It was so sad.

You also interviewed a woman who carried out mass abortions. Tell us about her.

She spent years working as a mid-level official in southern China and, by her own account, was responsible for over 1,500 forced abortions, many of them late term. She’s living in America now, and it was just after Halloween when I met her. She told me about handing out candy to the local neighborhood kids. I felt like I was interviewing an SS officer in Brazil after the Holocaust. She used just the same arguments: I had no choice; I was just doing my job, etc.

At the same time, she herself had secretly adopted a son after having a daughter. But because that was illegal under the one-child policy she herself was enforcing, she had to keep her son hidden. So there was this huge split between what she did in the daytime—and what she did at night.

One of the results of the policy is that there is a dramatic gender imbalance with millions of men predicted to never find wives. Tell us about your trip to one of China’s “bachelor villages.”

The lack of women in rural China resurrected the old, feudal practice of a bride price, or cai li. In the ’90s, cai li prices shot up to the point where it was the equivalent of a decade’s worth of farming income. If a man wanted to marry someone, his whole family had to beg and borrow from all the relatives. And that created a whole scam market.

One villager I met had been introduced to a girl from a different province. He married her and then other men in the village asked her to introduce some other brides to the community. So she introduced some of her friends. Everybody got married and thought it was all going to be good. But a month after the bride price had been paid, all these brides just disappeared.

Nearly every day there are riots or acts of civil disobedience in China’s rural areas. Is scrapping the one-child policy a way of letting off political steam in the countryside?

The one-child policy was a set of rules governing the whole business of childbearing in China. So, even though they are moving to a two-child policy, I suspect there will still be some measure of punishment for people who flout the rules. It’s not a free for all. So I’m not sure it will reduce social unrest, a lot of which is caused by long-running issues, like the gender imbalance. There are basically too many horny, lonely men in China with no brides. [Laughs]

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

Comment on This Story