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The Noiseless End to China’s One-Child Policy

By India Gupta 

After a four-day Central Committee meeting in Beijing, the Communist Party of China announced Thursday that it would abandon its iconic “One-Child Policy,” permitting all married couples the freedom to have two children.

The policy, dating back to 1978, was instated amidst major economic reform for the purpose of accelerating the modernization of China. This notion was both a distinct departure from traditional Chinese collectivist culture, which values strong family relationships, and the very embodiment of this idea (Chinese culture regards all of its people as members of a larger national family, exemplified by the word for nation, 国家 guó jiā, literally: national family). The policy functioned as a call upon the citizens of China to sacrifice for the collective good of the nation, with “good” equated with achieving modernization as quickly as possible. Contrary to popular belief, the one-child policy was not an overt response to China’s growing population. Instead, leaders of the Communist Party hoped to limit the population to a maximum of 1.2 billion by the end of the century with the rationale that that it is easier to modernize a smaller family or nation than a larger one. While the goal to keep the population within 1.2 billion by 2000 was not met, China has become the world’s second-largest economy by nominal total GDP and largest by purchasing power parity (PPP), though the impact of the policy on this growth remains unclear.

This idea, that limiting population growth was essential to promoting the rapid development of China, was disseminated through state propaganda and is now a welcomed truth among many Chinese residents—particularly urban residents, who hold front-row seats to the fruits of China’s rapid development over the past 30 years.

But reactions to the one-child policy are as varied and diverse as China itself. A nation of 1.36 billion, 56 distinct ethnic groups, and as many as 297 languages, is far too often reduced and/or misrepresented in outside perspectives, with the discourse surrounding the one-child policy being no exception. Some Chinese find this policy outrageous, that the government has no place invading the private lives of its citizens. Indeed, the United Nations cites the freedom to responsibly control the number and spacing of children as a fundamental human right. Moreover, Western discourse of the one-child policy largely emphasizes the policy’s human costs, ranging from an increasingly skewed gender ratio to violent, physically coercive abortions, that plague rural China. In general, rural Chinese residents rely more heavily on children to generate income, as well as lack the social and financial capital necessary to avert the consequences of violating the one-child policy. Thus, one can easily find narratives of horror, exposés of the egregious human rights violations committed on the one-child policy’s account in rural areas, such as this New York Times op-ed, which calls the policy “a flesh-and-blood tiger with claws and fangs.” So now that the one-child policy has been done away with, are the Chinese parading through the streets, celebrating the end of an era?

Hardly. News of the policy’s change has barely made a splash in China, and international human rights organizations are less than impressed. In a statement released by Amnesty International, China researcher William Nee asserts that increasing the number of permitted children does little to protect women: “The move to change China’s one-child policy is not enough. Couples that have two children could still be subjected to coercive and intrusive forms of contraception, and even forced abortions.” For the rural Chinese, a reformed policy of reproductive control is still a policy of reproductive control.

Meanwhile, for urban Chinese residents, many are saying “Thanks, but no” to the opportunity to have a second child. A 2013 survey found that nearly 50% of urban Chinese residents want no more than one child, likely due to the financial demand of raising children in urban areas and rising standards of living. For the past thirty years, the majority of urban Chinese residents have redefined their values to match this reality; one where having only one child has become both a necessity and a symbol of modernity. In a China that has adapted to life under the one-child policy, the end of the one-child policy came quietly.

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