China Relaxes One Child Policy

China's Communist Party has announced a significant change to the nation's infamous "One Child" policy.


For roughly forty years now, one of most well known and controversial policies put in place by the Chinese Communist Party has been the so-called “One Child” policy, which limited a large percentage of Chinese couples to one child. Initially adopted in the late 1970s as the nation was being led out of the Cultural Revolution and into the modern world by Deng Xiaping, the policy was allegedly intended to help alleviate the impact of what was then a burgeoning population that was on the verge of passing the one billion mark. In the 30-odd years that followed, there have been plenty of reports of heavy handed government officials cracking down quite severely when an “unauthorized” pregnancy was discovered, including reports of forced abortions, along with reports of sex-selection abortions and even infanticide of baby girls given that male children remain preferable to females in many parts of Chinese culture. In reality, it seems as though the actual enforcement of the policy has varied significantly depending on what part of the country you happen to be living in, and there were significant exemptions from the policy for couples in rural areas and ethnic minorities and others. Nonetheless, the policy has long been subject to international condemnation, and has arguably created huge demographic problems that China will be dealing with for a generation, if not longer.

So, it’s not entirely surprising that the Chinese government is moving to modify the policy:

HONG KONG — The Chinese government will ease its one-child family restriction and abolish its “re-education through labor” camps, significantly curtailing two policies that for decades have defined the state’s power to control citizens’ lives, the Communist Party said on Friday.

The changes were announced in a party decision that also laid out ambitious proposals to restructure the economy by encouraging greater private participation in finance and market competition in key economic sectors, as well as promising farmers better property protection and compensation for confiscated land.

Senior party officials, led by President Xi Jinping, endorsed the raft of 60 reform proposals at a four-day Central Committee conference that ended Tuesday, but the decision was announced days later.

The decision also pledged to gradually reduce the number of crimes that qualify for the death penalty, but gave no details about what crimes might be affected.

Mr. Xi described the proposals as a bold call for economic renewal, social improvement and patriotic nation-building — all under the firm control of one-party rule.

“We must certainly have the courage and conviction to renew ourselves,” he said in a statement accompanying the reform decision. Both were issued by the official news agency, Xinhua.


For decades, most urban couples have been restricted to one child. That has been changing slowly in some cities, which have rules on the books that couples can have two children if both parents are single children. That policy will be further relaxed nationwide. Many rural couples already have two, or sometimes more, children.

“Launch implementation of a policy that when the husband or wife is a single child, the couple may have two children,” said the decision. “Steadily adjust and improve family planning policies.”

If carried through, the relaxation would mark the first significant nationwide easing of family-size restrictions that were put in place from the 1970s, said Wang Guangzhou, a demographer at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

“This is the first time that a central document has clearly proposed allowing two children when a husband or wife is an only child,” Mr. Wang said in a telephone interview. “Now it’s just talking about launching this, but the specific policies have to be developed at the operational level.”

Those restrictions were introduced to deal with official fears that China’s population would devour too many resources and suffocate growth. But they have created public anger and international criticism over forced abortions, and have created a population of 1.34 billion, according to a 2010 census, that is aging relatively rapidly, even before China establishes a firm foothold in prosperity. Demographers and experts have for years urged some relaxation of the controls.

So, essentially, what the new policy appears to be saying is that the generation of children that has been born under the “one child” policy, the oldest of whom are now in their early 30s, will be permitted to have more than one child if either the husband or the wife is an only child. It’s not a complete repeal of the policy, but it is a significant change from present policy and one that seems likely to create even more ability for Chinese couples to have more than one child under “exceptions” than they have had in the past. In addition, relaxing the policy in this matter may cause officials responsible for enforcing it to look the other way even more often than they have apparently been doing in recent years. At the same time, some human rights activists are pointing out that this isn’t quite enough:

Human rights groups, who have consistently exposed forced abortions, infanticide and involuntary sterilizations being propagated under the policy, had wanted the policy abolished altogether.

“One-child policy reform really falls short,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “The whole system needs to be dismantled. What they’re doing is just tinkering with it, allowing one specific category of people to have two children. And it’s being done mostly for demographic reasons . . . and not because the system is abusive and generates so much pain for so many.”

There is some truth here, of course. The one-child policy is, as Matthew Yglesias put it this morning, “ a huge impairment of human freedom” that seems more and more of an anachronism as China continues to try to put itself forward as a member of the first world community. Indeed, as we’ve learned elsewhere in the world, the true solution to the massive birth rates that were such a point of concern is economic growth, which, along with increased access to birth control and protection of women’s rights, has contributed worldwide to dropping birth rates to much more sustainable level. It’s a phenomenon that exists without fail wherever these conditions exist, and if a nation, whether its China, India, or any of the many number of nation’s in Africa that are dealing with their own burgeoning populations that could be potential problems in years to come, wants to deal with it, they need to pursue those policies rather than trying to impose the kind of top-down approach that the Chinese have been following for the past 34 years.

Nonetheless, while complete repeal of the one-child policy would be the ideal move on China’s part, it’s worth remembering that things tend to move slowly in Beijing. This change, along with another policy change announced today that purports to abolish the nation’s “re-education through Labor” camps that have been in place since the days of Mao Zedong seems to constitute what passes for major reform out of Beijing. Hopefully, they’ll follow it up with something more in the near future.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Significantly for China, the One Child Policy is having an adverse effect on workforce demographics. For much of the tedious, detail-oriented handwork that so much of Chinese manufacturing consists of, the ideal workers are young women. But if the Chinese are to survive as a people young women are also needed to bear children. An obvious conflict.

    This problem is aggravated by the practice of culling children conceived so that the one child actually born is a son.

    It will take decades for a policy change to have a meaningful impact on workforce demographics.

    This is a subject I wrote about at some length over at my place in a much-read post titled “Grey China”.

  2. CSK says:

    Didn’t they end up with a current ratio of 100 young women to 130 young men? Did it never occur to anyone that this might constitute a problem?

    Not to speak of the gross human rights violations the policy entailed.

  3. @Dave Schuler:

    It will take decades for a policy change to have a meaningful impact on workforce demographics.

    Indeed, and in the meantime China will have to deal with both the workforce issues you discuss, but also a population that is far more biased toward males than it would have been if nature had been permitted to take its course. As we’ve seen elsewhere in the world, that often has interesting social consequences.

  4. James Pearce says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Significantly for China, the One Child Policy is having an adverse effect on workforce demographics.

    Too bad they’re not big on immigration. This problem would seem much less insurmountable if they weren’t so down on those icky f’rners.

  5. @James Pearce:

    Resistance to immigration is an issue in many Asian cultures. Indeed, the Japanese are currently suffering from a birth dearth that could be significantly offset up immigration but they still have trouble accepting the children of Koreans who have lived in Japan all their lives as authentically Japanese.

  6. Dave D says:

    Women in China are being valued more recently since there is such a gender gap. This has given women all of the bargaining power in relationships and has almost priced out the poor from being able to marry. Compound that with the fact that Thailand and Vietnam have laws banning what was basically a huge mail order bride system that shuffled thousands of women into China. I’m not sure, regardless of Xi’s other reforms, that Beijing actually cares about it’s people. This is merely economics as every projection shows China falling to India in production and population within the next few decades. The BBC had a good series about this called the Tiger and the Dragon.

  7. Dave D says:

    There is also this tumblr that is pretty great.

  8. James Pearce says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Resistance to immigration is an issue in many Asian cultures.

    Which is too bad, because there’s a lot of places in the world (the Americas, Europe) that have proven immigration works.

    I mean, you know, for the most part.

  9. Nightrider says:

    I’d think it would be an awful policy to live under, but it could be callously mentioned that this policy has probably been good for the rest of the world in terms of reducing the environmental damage, and the demand for limited natural resources, that would have caused by all the people who weren’t born as a result of this policy. For example, gas is probably cheaper as a result of this policy.

    I acknowledge that there are, at least in theory, better ways to control population.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    I’m reminded of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar series, where extremely up to date family planning technology (sex-selection at the zygote stage, uterine replicators, DNA fixing) is introduced to a traditional militaristic culture. With the inevitable results:

    “Couldn’t anyone count? Didn’t they want grandchildren?!” (Miles Vorkosigan commenting to himself on the incredible sex-lopsidedness of his generation.)

  11. KM says:

    Nonetheless, the policy has long been subject to international condemnation, and has arguably created huge demographic problems that China will be dealing with for a generation, if not longer.

    To be technically fair, that policy is not really the source of the gender imbalance. Cultural preference is, something that well predates this. Had there been no extreme preference for the first (only) born, the gender ratios would be more or less in sync with normal birth rates. It would be an extreme population cut but not the skewed version we see. Instead, sexism ruled the day and now they are paying for it. The policy would have been an ill-advised unethical move regardless but the barbaric attitudes towards women are what’s made it the mess it currently is.

    It just bugs me when people say One Child screwed up the gender ratios. It didn’t; it was just the vehicle for existent views to take their logical conclusions. Blame where blame is due.

  12. Rob in CT says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Hah, I just got through reading that series. Beta Colony, ftw!

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    @James Pearce:

    In Japan it goes so far as to thinking that people born in Japan of Japanese stock who spend considerable time outside of Japan aren’t really Japanese. That poses a problem for the Japanese foreign service and even businesses with foreign operations. They can’t take their kids with them because the kids won’t be considered Japanese when they come home.

  14. Ha Nguyen says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I went to your website to try and read your Grey China article. However, based on some of the
    “analysis” I found there – particularly in regards to the recent CBS report on Benghazi – I find I can no longer trust your analytical skills.

    You seem to have a problem with letting your biases getting in the way of your intellect.