What is China's One Child Policy?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

China's one child policy is a government-dictated limitation on the number of children certain groups of people in China can have without paying a fine. More correctly termed the "family planning policy," it is often misunderstood as forcing all families to only have one child or face serious consequences. In reality, it has many exceptions, and enforcement is lax in some areas. Regardless, it remains controversial, as it is seen as a restriction of reproductive rights, and does sometimes lead to abuses of illegally-born children.

An illustration of China with the Chinese flag superimposed on it.
An illustration of China with the Chinese flag superimposed on it.

Exceptions and Loopholes

Though many outside of China are under the impression that the one child policy applies to all Chinese citizens, this is not true. In fact, there are a number of exceptions, and the legislation applies to only about 35 percent of citizens, as it only applies to married, urban, ethnically Han couples. Ethnic minorities, those in rural areas, and parents without siblings themselves can all have more than one child without paying a fine, as can those who have a severely disabled child or one that dies. In some circumstances, exceptions are also made for those who lose their children to natural disasters.

A map of China.
A map of China.

Those in the 35% that is covered by the legislation often try to find ways of working around it. For instance, a couple may have two children back to back and register them as twins after the second one is born. Those who can afford it often go to Hong Kong or overseas to have a second child so that it will have a foreign passport. Others bribe officials for paperwork or to turn a blind eye. Those who are very wealthy sometimes have as many children as they like and just pay the fine. Some provincial governments discourage this, however, by making the fine a percentage of the parents' earnings rather than a flat fee.


China's one child policy was introduced in 1979 by leaders worried about the country's ability to support a rapidly increasing population. Though it has been very effective in keeping the country's population in check, it has had a number of negative social consequences. One of the most notable of these is a severe gender imbalance in China, where there is about 120 boys to every 100 girls. The changes in demographics caused by the policy may also make it difficult for older generations, since the imbalance of young people to old people makes it harder for children to care for their parents and grandparents.

Another problem is the existence of "black" children, or illegally born, unregistered children who are unable to receive healthcare or education. Forced sterilizations, female infanticide, and unwanted abortions do occur, but the frequency varies from area to area. An additional issue is the phenomenon of "little princes and princesses," which are sons and daughters who become extremely spoiled because their parents lavish all their attention on their one child.

Cited Benefits

China's population growth has slowed since the one child policy, leading some people to call it a success. How much the legislation actually contributed to the slowing of the population growth is debated, however. Since many urban areas in China are already overcrowded, a reduction in population growth may have helped keep some social problems becoming worse than they are. The lower population may have also kept the country from having a high unemployment rate, since there is not a surplus of workers. Additionally, the policy is seen by some as having helped China grow economically, and contributed to higher concentrations of resources per person.


Despite the exceptions and possible benefits, there is a lot of controversy surrounding this legislation both inside and outside of China. Many see it as an infringement on reproductive and personal rights. It is also sometimes seen as favoring the rich, since they are often more able to pay the fines. Additionally, many people decry the social effects of China's one child policy, especially the related child and mother abuse.

The heavy overcrowding and pollution found in its urban areas is often used to justify China's "One Child" policy, however critics note that the government used authoritarian methods to uphold the policy.
The heavy overcrowding and pollution found in its urban areas is often used to justify China's "One Child" policy, however critics note that the government used authoritarian methods to uphold the policy.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


The biggest problem of mankind, causing a lot of problems, is the worldwide overpopulation.


Yes, China may have a different culture but its modern cities are westernized.

China has the second biggest economy, and that means most of the Chinese population lives in urban areas where it is clearly more westernized.

Hell, they even want the policy removed. Recently, there have been riots about the policy.

The reason why they adopted this policy is because population problems like famine and poverty as anon83601 was saying because they could not produce more food quickly so the Chinese government feared that the country might starve.

You're naive for thinking that I am not familiar with the "one child" policy.


To everyone who is criticizing the policies: You have no say in what China does, nor are you familiar enough with the policy and the problems associated with China's population to make a sound decision. You do not live in China, and you are only bringing your irrelevant opinions into this issue.

Although Westerners may see these policies and 'solutions' as bad or immoral, again, you have no say, and China has a completely different culture. They grow up differently, live differently, learn differently and interact differently. This all leads to differing standpoints than you. So, it is foolish and naive of you to say that "they should not be doing that," or that "they have no right".


Watch 'Dispatches; china's stolen children'. It is a shocking insight into a system that is spinning out of control. it gives a voice to those who would not be heard otherwise and sheds light on issues that the Chinese government does not want the world to see.


It is the only option to their horrible population. no avoiding that at all.


The abortions tend to happen when a couple find out the baby is a girl.


What about the morning after pill? Maybe they should try it over there in China.

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