Sunday, 31 January 2016

Misconception about China’s One Child Policy and what India can learn?

Dr. Devendra Kothari
Population and Development Analyst
Forum for Population Action

“It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”
“Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead - but aim to do something big.”
Deng Xiaoping
Chinese statesman

China’s one child policy has always been an interesting case of confusion and misunderstanding. Ever since its origin and all through the years comprise more than three and half decades the ‘lack of clarity’ surrounding it has caused several controversies and led to misinformation.[1]

China’s One Child Policy was established by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979 to limit China's growing’ population. The policy limits couples to having only one child. The government gave various incentives and preferential treatment to couples who adhered to the policy including longer maternity leave, better health care facilities and various forms of government subsidies. Those who did not follow it were subjected to penalties that were dubbed as their social obligation or compensation to the society for having more children. The Policy was particularly very harsh for those who openly opposed the rule; and the western media generally highlighted such stories. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about China’s One Child Policy is that it restricts all Chinese couples to one child.  In reality, the one-child rule applies mainly to ethnic Han majority (like Hindus in India), living in urban areas. In fact, there are more than 20 exceptions to the rule, including for rural families, ethnic minorities, and couples in which both the wife and husband are only children themselves. In other words, the farmers and China’s ethnic minorities including Muslims are allowed more than one child. In farmlands or into remote regions of China, one would not be surprised to find families with more than one child. In fact, China’s total fertility rate (number of children per woman) is 1.5 children per woman in 2015, not 1.0, which is roughly what one might expect in a country that really only permits one child per couple.

It is alleged that China’s one-child policy is responsible for the country’s severe gender imbalance. Under normal circumstances, about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls that is sex ratio at birth (SRB).  But in China today, there are 120 boys born for every 100 girls. This is largely the result of female fetuses being aborted by parents who want sons, and the one-child policy has exacerbated this trend. However, available data indicate that the policy is not wholly responsible for it. It is because the trend is in evidence throughout Asia and other parts of the world. In South Asia, the most affected country is India. In India, the ratio is 112 to 100, and worse in the northern and western states of the country.  SRB levels around 120 are common in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat. Since 2001, skewed SRB levels have spread to new areas in north and central India such as Uttar Pradesh The problem is also rampant in the Caucasus countries: in Azerbaijan the ratio is 116, in Georgia it is 118, and in Armenia the magnitude is 120. [2]

In addition, it is argued that China’s one-child policy is unsustainable from an economic standpoint, since aging population, with fewer workers to support more retirees, is “not sustainable.” The median age, that is, the age that divides the population in two halves of equal size, is an indicator of population ageing. The median age of population in India was 25 years in 2010, as against 35 in China, 37 in USA, 44 in Germany and 45 in Japan. The corresponding figures would be 37, 49, 40, 49 and 52, respectively in 2050, as per the UN Population Division.

No doubt, China is now one of the most rapidly graying countries in the world. The implications of population ageing cannot be dismissed. In the more developed countries, however, the population aged 60 or over has increased at the fastest pace ever; but they were able to maintain their status with appropriate socio-economic policies. And China is also doing the same.

In spite of increasing proportion of aging population or workforce, China’s rising profile in world economic affairs is beyond dispute, as will be discussed shortly. On the other hand, India has one of the largest proportions of population in the younger age groups in the world. With around two-third of the population (around 795 million) under 35 years of age in 2011, India would have become the economic power in the world by now not China. However, “India is already showing some of the warning signs of feared growth stories, including early on set of over confidence”, as noted by Ruchir Sharma in his book:  Breakout Nations: In Search of The Next Economic Miracles (2012). He writes further: “Yes, a growing pool of young workers can be huge advantage, but only if a nation works hard to set them up for productive career”.  Therefore, critics say that India’s demographic potential is highly overemphasized. It appears that India’s demographic dividend is turning into a demographic disaster as large numbers of unemployed, under educated  youth provide foot soldiers for all kinds of agitations – whether Patelist, casteist, regionalist, communalist or communist. [3]

Now question arises: why did China adopt the One Child Policy? Officially, the policy was adopted to address the problem of galloping population and overcrowding especially in urban areas since it had become a major problem which needed to be addressed.  Ethical or not, the Chinese government decided that they simply had no choice but to regulate the overall population in their cities.

Prof. Baochang Gu of Center for Population and Development Studies, Renmin University of China noted that China’s total fertility rate had fallen significantly in the pre One-Child Policy era from 5.81 children per woman on average in 1970 to 2.72 in 1980. So arresting growing population could not be a valid reason in initiating the Policy in 1979. Wang Feng, a professor at Fudan University and a leading demographic expert on China, told McKenzie earlier this year that one-child policy was unnecessary, since China’s fertility rates were already slowing by the 1980s and population growth was also slowing down.  It means the hidden agenda could be different.

In March 1998, a high level delegation from China consisting of senior members of the State Family Planning Commission and experts participated in the Jaipur Meet held at IIHMR, Jaipur to discuss as to how family planning program could be implemented looking to the needs of clients.[4]  The delegation also saw the implementation of “Vikalp framework” in the Dausa district of Rajasthan, which was conceptualized by the author to provide RCH services looking to the needs of clients.[5] As a coordinator of the Meet, I had ample opportunity, formally or informally, to interact with the delegates of the Meet. Also, I had a long discussion with one of the delegates - Dr.  Gu Baochang, then Professor of Demography at Renmin University in Beijing and a former adviser to the Family Planning Commission of China.

Shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong or Mao Tse-tung encouraged the population to multiply and create manpower to achieve rapid economic growth. But it did not work to make China world economic power, as wished by its leaders. After Mao’s death in 1976, as noted by Jean-Pierre Lehmann, Professor of International Political Economy, the Chinese leadership under Deng Xiaoping (1978 - 1992) decided to adapt far-reaching market-economy reforms. “The rest, as they say, has been the history of the last three decades and is pretty certain to mark the next few decades.” [6]  Retaining much of the rigidity of the existing system, Deng complemented that framework with ideas that emerged from Chinese intellectuals, economists, scientists and historians educated in the West to create a hybrid development strategy aiming to emerge as a global super power and a strong challenger to the West. And the population stabilization was considered as an important ingredient in his plan of action. Expected rises in population were considered as a constraint to the china’s limited resources. It is because fast growing population leads to a significant diversion of national investable resources to consumption, which could otherwise be used for increasing investment and productivity and for improving the quality of public social services.

As a result, population control was deemed a crucial part of the country's overall economic and social policies. That may be the reason why one-child policy was enacted at the beginning of China’s economic reforms, when a quarter of the world’s population resided in China. [7]  New birth control techniques were widely publicized and the slogan ‘later, longer, and fewer’ became a national value signifying late marriage and pregnancies, and fewer children in general. [8]

What was the impact of the policy? With a population of 1.3 billion, China already became the second largest economy and is increasingly playing an important and influential role in the global economy. In words of Professor Lehmann:The new world is increasingly Sinocentric.” [9]  China has become the global center of manufacturing, the hub of the global supply chain. It has surpassed the US and Germany as the world's leading trade power. It has overtaken Japan to become the world's second biggest economy and is almost certain to overtake the US in aggregate GDP probably before the end of this decade. In addition, China has seen 600 million persons lifted out of poverty in last twenty years.

It is said that the population control policy, along with economic reforms helped China becoming the world's economic power. By the early 1980s, China's population reached around 1 billion and by the early 2000s, surpassed 1.3 billion. In the 1980s, the average overall population growth was around 1.5%. In the 1990s, this fell to about 1%. Today it is about 0.6%. China's population growth rate is now among the lowest for a developing country, although, due to its large population, annual net population growth is still considerable, as shown in Table 1. One demographic consequence of the one-child policy is that China was able to reduce population growth during initial stage of economic growth. China’s fertility rate has fallen significantly since 1979, when the one-child policy was implemented — from 2.7 children per woman on average to 1.5.  According to the Chinese government's official statement, the policy prevented an estimated 400 million births since its inception in 1979.

Table 1: Trends in total population, net annual addition, annual populati0mn growth, India and China, 1951 to 2050

Total population in million
Net annual addition
in million
% Annual
population growth rate
Total population in million
Net annual addition
in million
%  Annual population growth rate
Source: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision,  UN Population Division

Yet China remains a developing country (its per capita income is still a fraction of that in advanced countries) and its market reforms are incomplete. With the second largest number of poor in the world after India, poverty reduction remains a fundamental challenge. For this further economic development is needed.  So China decided to partially reduce the restrictions in the population control policy.  

After more than 35 years, China is shedding its one-child policy. From January 1, 2016 China allowed two children for every couple. The changes in existing laws allow families to have two children without penalty, although many Chinese couples say they cannot afford to grow their families.  With initial resistance, today, more and more Chinese seem to agree with one-child policy. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American think tank, conducted a survey in 2008 and reported that 76 per cent of the Chinese population supported the policy.  When news of the planned change to the law broke in October, 2015, the ruling Communist Party issued the following statement: “To promote a balanced growth of population, China will continue to uphold the basic national policy of population control and improve its strategy on population development. “China will fully implement the policy of ‘one couple, two children’ in a proactive response to the issue of an aging population.”

What India can learn from China? India’s  population has grown from 956 million in 1995 to 1282 million in 2015 - that is by 326 million  in the last  twenty years;  and is still growing by around 16 to 17 million every year, or about 45,000 people per day. If current trends persist, there will 200 million more people in the country in the next 15 years or by 2030, bringing the total to about 1476 million, as per the UN Population Division.   That projected population growth raises a host of questions about the Modi government’s plan for a prosperous, vibrant and inclusive India.

Nearly 27 million children are born every year in India and only 15 million in China. This has impact on the quality of life of people. For example, life expectancy at birth in China is now 74 years vs. 64 years in India. The corresponding figures for infant deaths/1000 births are 21 and 53, respectively. Because of China's successful management of population issue, it has been able to improve the quality of human resources - an important factor of economic development. India ranks among the countries having one of the lowest productivity.  Productivity, a measure of the efficiency of the human capital, can be measured by per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP). India has become the tenth largest economy in the world in terms of GDP but still has a very low per capita GDP. The country placed at the 148th position among the 187 countries in 2013, as per the World Bank. This is perhaps the most visible challenge. It is interesting to note that China’s GDP per capita value in 2013 was more than four and half times that of India and its rank was 87th in the world.

In my earlier post,[10] I raised the question: why China was able to achieve an outstanding overall progress in a shortest possible time. In the eyes of most of us including majority of Chinese it is mainly due to authoritarianism that enables China to make decisions efficiently, organize effectively and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings. If that was the only reason then why erstwhile Communist USSR with vast natural resources could not achieve the same. No doubt, the authoritarianism might have played an important role but China’s effective and timely socio-economic policies especially demographic management has played a decisive role for its present status. 

In sum, the good news is that women around the world including India consistently choose to have smaller families when they have education, autonomy, opportunities, and access to good reproductive health care, including contraception. As such, India has to recognize like China that economic development could be achieved only if economic change is supported by the many of the broader aspects of development, especially related with the development of human resources including literacy, primary health, demographic and the environment. [11]  Hope Indian policy makers are listening!

[1] Refer articles: China’s One Child Policy: Some Myths and Misconceptions by Abhishek Pratap Singh at;Chinese people don’t have siblings’ at among others.

[2] For details see: UNFPA report entitled “Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current trends, consequences and policy implications” at Birth masculinity in India is examined by Bhat (2002), Bhat and Zavier (2007) and Jha et al. (2011).
[3]Refer author’s article: India: How to harness Demographic Dividend? at:

[4] For details, see: “Indo-China Dialogue on Managing the Transition to Quality of Care: A report of the meeting hosted by the IIHMR, Jaipur in collaboration with the Ford Foundation China, the Ford Foundation, New Delhi, the Population Council, New York and the University of Michigan,  1999 (The copy could be obtained from the Population Council, New York). The author, as a coordinator of the meet, played an important role in organizing the Jaipur Meet.

[5] For details, see: Kothari Devendra et al. 1997. Vikalp: Managing the Family Planning Programme in the Post- ICPD Era: An Experiment in Rajasthan, India, IIHMR Occasional Paper No. 2, IIHMR, Jaipur. (The Vikalp framework attracted international attention and was recognized as a successful model to provide the family planning services looking to the needs of clients by the UNFPA, New York in its publication: State of World Population, 1997 (See Box 21).)

[6] Refer article: THE POWER OF CHINA IN THE NEW WORLD, by Jean-Pierre Lehmann at

[7] Hesketh, T., Lu, L., & Xing, Z. (2005). The effect of china's one-child family policy after 25 years. New England Journal of Medicine, 353(11), 1171-1176.

[8] Hasan, M. (2010). The long-run relationship between population and per capita income growth in china. Journal of Policy Modeling, 32(3), 355-372.

[9] Refer article: THE POWER OF CHINA IN THE NEW WORLD, by Jean-Pierre Lehmann at

[10] Refer my post: China and India: How they are managing population issue?  at:

[11] Some other researchers also argued the similar point including Prof. Chris Bramall in his book - Chinese Economic Development, published in 2009.

1 comment:

  1. Great content. I really enjoyed while reading this content with useful information, keep sharing.

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