The One Child Policy: Still crazy after all these years…

Since its introduction in 1971, China’s One Child Policy has always been the subject of misinformed reporting in Western media. Certainly there were abuses, but to read local papers one would think that on the stroke of midnight on ‘D Day’ any woman carrying a second child would be hauled off to a clinic, strapped to a gurney, aborted and for good measure declared an enemy of the people.

There is a history in China for Beijing’s policies to be adapted to local Cadre inclinations and put in place with varying degrees of ferocity or neglect. There is a popular saying in China which goes something along the lines: ‘The Emperor is in Beijing, but I’m far away’. I’ve tried to find online reference to it but to no avail, even though I heard it in various places in the PRC and it clearly pre-dates the Communist era.

For my first tour of duty in China, I was located in the port city of Dalian. Dalian (formerly Port Arthur), is ranked as the second city of Liaoning Province, after Shenyang and being China’s northernmost ice-free port, clearly punches above its weight economically. Liaoning is also noteworthy as one of the three provinces of the old Kingdom of Manchuria – home of the Manchus who provided China with its last ruling Qing dynasty. The other provinces are Jilin and Heilongjiang which stretch far to the Northeast and share borders with North Korea and then Russia. As a region, the three provinces are now referred to as the ‘Dongbei’ (Northeast) rather than ‘Manchuria’.

‘I’m a Manchu’

My first exposure to the inner complexities of the One Child Policy, and something that I’ve never seen reported in the English-language media, was to learn that the Policy applied only to the majority Han ethnic group. The Han number about 800 million, with the balance of about 500 million spread over about 20 minority ethnic groups – including the Manchu.

My ignorance was put on display, when I quizzed a student who had been talking excitedly after class about a weekend excursion with her two sisters. In a quiet moment I asked her, how, given the one child policy, she was able to enjoy the company of two siblings? Fixing me with the radiant smile that was her wonderful trademark, she replied: ‘Rob, don’t you know I’m a Manchu?’

Later I was able to sit down with another Han student and an only child, about how the policy was introduced and enforced. This student was fully aware (probably too much for her own good), of how policies were introduced in the one-party state environment and was able to put me right on the subject.

She told me that although the policy was introduced by diktat and that dissent was inadvisable, there was considerable lead-up PR on the advantages. The first advantage was cost – not only directly, but in the advantage of cheaper 2-bedroom apartments over multi-bedroom places and the earlier freedom it gave the mother to return to work. Coincidentally, the policy meshed with China’s push towards urbanisation, so the cheaper cost of entry had considerable appeal.


Although most Han bought-in to the one-child policy, it was not all sweetness and light. A university-level student once confided in me about her situation. She was in some distress as she told me that the woman she was brought up by was not her mother, but her aunt. Apparently, when her real mother fell pregnant for a second time, the birth was registered to her mother’s childless sister. When she raised the matter with her real mother she was warned never to speak of it. Despite being very attractive, my student seemed to have difficulty forming stable relationships which may have in part been due to her feeling of rejection.

The pitfalls of social engineering

Under Communism, various attempts at social engineering, have had disastrous results and the one-child policy is no exception. The first distortion that became evident was that the normal 49:51 ratio of male to female births began to tilt alarmingly to a majority of males being born. The traditional preference for sons, coupled with the ‘one-shot and you’re done’ one-child regime led to an upsurge in gender-selective abortions. When scans showed a female foetus, it was aborted, possibly more than once, until there was a male child to bring to term.

The problem became searingly apparent, when those excess boys reached marriageable age and there were insufficient female partners available. This led to considerable trafficking of women from nearby countries such as North Korea, Cambodia and Lao. Following its 1971 introduction, the policy followed a predictable path and in 2016, the Chinese Communist Party generously changed the rules for Han and allowed 2 children per couple. Last year (2021) this was extended to 3.

The difficulty is, that for Han couples, the bird has largely flown the nest on family size. The main reason being that the benefits touted for the policy have largely come to pass. Couples had bought the standard 2-bedroom apartment. They were raising an only child which was the recipient of a Rolls Royce education with copious extra tuition - if required. The wife had returned to the workforce to continue with a truncated career assisted by the availability of cheap double-effect childcare in the form of the ubiquitous English language school – operating at full blast on weekends.

I taught at a few of these schools over my time in China and they fell into two groups. There were the international chain schools, operating mainly as a locally-owned franchise and the locally-owned start-up, run by an entrepreneurially-minded former teacher. English First and Kid Castle are prominent in the international franchise group. Accordingly, for all sorts of reasons, the one-child couple, living comfortably in a 2-beroom apartment were unlikely to make the momentous decision to have further children, just because of CCP decree.

Birth statistics

The 2016 loosening of the single child restriction should have had an effect on the birthrate for Han, but it has remained largely as it was. Reflecting the general increase in prosperity for all ethnicities, their birthrates have also continued to decrease, or at least remained on the same track. That is, except for the Uighur minority in the far West of the country. To read Western media, one is encouraged to regard Uighur as on the brink of extermination, but their birthrate remains at least double that of the next most fertile minority.

But wait, there’s more…

A very recent policy initiative, which I’ve yet to see mentioned in our media is an initiative to put an end to excessive private educational spending on the only child. To this end, the private English language schools have been forced out of business, except where they cater for the adult business community. One couple I know who built a thriving school in a provincial town, which in ordinary times could have expected to sell and retire, have just had to close it down. Imagine the outcry in New Zealand if for example, the government decreed that gyms were no longer socially acceptable!

I have remained in contact with teachers and administration staff at the colleges I taught at and it seems that the official line is now that the tuition that students were previously accessing in the private sector, must now be provided on-campus. Privately-provided services like dance and music tuition, continue, as before.

One highly-placed Party official I have contact with had been given the task of overseeing the provision of additional English classes, and I get the feeling that he was finding it a bit overwhelming.

Me cynical?

My cynical view of this and other moves in the private sector, is that the Party has decided to re-establish control. Having prospered greatly by the enabling of a market-driven economy, the purity of a Communist approach is once again to the fore.

As former President Deng said of the market reforms of decades ago: ‘What does the colour of the cat matter, as long as it catches mice’. In the current mindset of the CCP, we could add to Deng’s comment: ‘and is red at heart’.