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China’s One Child Policy: Some Myths and Misconceptions; By Abhishek Pratap Singh

C3S Paper No. 0206/2015

Abstract: While the myths still surround China’s one child policy its end will perhaps contribute to rise in its soft state credentials. 

China’s one child policy has always been an interesting case of confusion and misunderstanding. Ever since its origin and all through the years comprising more than three decades the ‘lack of clarity’ surrounding it has caused several controversies. More recently, the announcement by the ruling regime that it will allow couples to have more than one baby has again drawn global attention from scholars, media, demographers and Chinese experts over its implications for future.

    However, a statement issued by National Health and Family Planning Commission said that “existing regulations must be maintained by authorities” until China’s legislature ie. National People’s Congress (NPC) finally ratifies the proposed change by March, 2016.

 The One child policy of China has its origin in the theoretical conclusions of Malthus on “relation between population and development” in his famous book, Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Drawing on the parallel of ‘scarcity of resource’ he suggested that human population grows exponentially while food production grows in arithmetic proportion. The argument was dominant theme of sustainable development debate during 1970s at the time when China was considering population control measures. It was launched in 1979 and was applied to only Han majority in China.

Those who received “one-child certificates” were entitled to better child care, better housing, longer maternity leave and other benefits.

   One of the popular myths regarding China’s one child policy is that Mao remained all through his life an ‘ardent believer of natalism’ supporting parenthood for national continuance. However, in reality his belief changed in after years of 1949 since he was confronted with the challenges of rising population and level of food production in China. Mao’s approach to population issues now was ‘more practical than ideological’.

In his concluding speech at the Enlarged Third Plenary Session of the Eighth Central

Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), on 9 October 1957, he emphasized, “Of course birth control is still necessary, and I am not for encouraging more births”. Moreover, a year before in 1956, Premier Zhou Enlai in Eighth Congress of the CCP has already pushed for birth Control. It is perhaps more clear that Chinese leadership was very clear in their assumptions of population control as necessary dimension for growth contrary to the popular myth that birth control measures became more stricter in post Mao years.

  The another myth regarding China’s one child policy is that it transformed from being ‘voluntary to mandatory’ in its practice and towards desired state goals. But in reality the fact remains largely misunderstood at large. The slogan that summarized the three key demographic components of China’s one child policy was “later, longer, and fewer”, referring to propose for late marriage, have large birth intervals and few children as per provisions. In reality no where the birth control measures were based on voluntary compliance.

  The birth planning enforcers kept detailed records of each women bearing child, past birth proofs, use of contraceptive etc. There were instances of enforcers becoming “menstrual monitors” which tried to detect out-of-quota pregnancies at an early stage. The sources reveal campaign being ‘coercive and forceful’ in nature against personal choices at large from early years of implementation. Moreover, the problem raised gender issues with rising levels of female sterilizations and increase in abortions which caused concerns among Chinese women’s over health and security issues.

    Similarly, contrary to the popular claims that one child policy led to severe decline of fertility rates in China. The trend shows that despite coercive enforcement of one child policy in 1980s China did not initially witness much success on fertility levels. To say one child policy was much success in its early years then why it became more coercive later. China’s total fertility rate fell from close to six around 1970 to only 2.7-2.8 at the end of the decade before the launch of one child policy.

 In addition, on the issue of one child policy claiming to have prevented “400 million births’ in China there are reports suggesting the decline in fertility rates based on benefits of economic development and needs of ‘aspiring middle class’ in China. Even the earlier relaxation introduced 2006 and in November, 2013 under “pilot projects” in some metropolitan areas in China has made no change with popular social trend for having one child considering rising cost of parenthood, educational level and rapid urbanisation.

   However, in the presence of difference of opinion over success and limitations of China’s one child policy the recent decision to get away with it in near future has been received well. It resulted in millions of forced sterilizations, abortions, infanticide, exploitation of women and marital misery. “This is a historic moment signaling the complete end of the one-child policy,” said Wang Feng, a demographer at Fudan University in Shanghai.

   This change could well be attributed to the observations in 2000 by demographers in China claiming fertility levels in China as close to falling below a replacement rate of 2.1 children for every woman. The communiqué of CCP central committee noted that the policy change is directed, “to improve the balanced development of population”, in reference to China’s skewed sex ratio. It caused revival of age old feudal practice of ‘bride price’ (cai li) in China.

    To conclude the recent policy change in China attributes towards its soft state credentials. While with the ongoing ‘anti-corruption campaign’ and its ‘new security law’ China reflects its character of being a hard state the end of one child policy provides new avenue for its citizen to ‘exercise personal choice and freedom’ in social realm.

(Abhishek Pratap Singh is a Doctoral Candidate, Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi).

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