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China's One Child Policy

Why was the one child policy introduced.

Problems with the Policy

Benefits of the Policy

Exceptions to the Policy

Changes from the Policy

The one-child policy in China

Jump to a section.

The initiative

The challenge

The public impact


The Chinese central government  officially established the "one-child policy"  in 1979 , although several initiatives for birth control had already been in place since the early 1970s and had already achieved significant reductions in the national birth rate. It aimed to control population growth, which the government began to see as a threat to the country's economic ambitions. Its basis was that a couple was allowed to have only one child. Initial efforts began in the 1960s as a critical response to the famine facing the population. "A push under the slogan 'Late, Long and Few' was successful: China's population growth dropped by half from 1970 to 1976. But it soon levelled off, prompting officials to seek more drastic measures. In 1979 they introduced a policy requiring couples from China's ethnic Han majority to have only one child (the law has largely exempted ethnic minorities)." [2]

To enforce this, the government granted certain benefits to those who complied (increased access to education for all, plus childcare and healthcare offered to families that followed this rule) and other measures which penalised those who did not comply, e.g., fines and no access to these benefits. [3]  Similarly, the policy increased the legal age for marriage to 22 years for men and 20 years for women in a bid to prevent population growth. [4]

The birth control policies implemented varied at the national and local level. National policies, such as the one-child policy, were applicable throughout the whole country, but local policies, such as penalties for above-quota births, varied between regions, such as rural and urban, or between provinces. [5]

China had been actively influencing its population growth for several years, beginning after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, when Mao Zedong encouraged the population to grow in order to increase manpower. Although there was no official policy at the time, government propaganda condemned contraceptives and introduced other measures that led to the population doubling over the next few years.

This led to unexpected challenges as food supply became scarce, and from 1959 to 1961, the Great Chinese Famine killed an estimated 15 to 30 million people. As a result, the government started to reverse its campaign. "In 1979, the government introduced the one-child policy, under which most couples are allowed to have only one child or else face the possibility of fines, sterilisations, and abortions." [1]

The aggressive implementation of the one-child policy in China had significant impact on the growth of the birth rate and population in the country. The birth rate in China fell from 1979 onwards, and the rate of population growth dropped to 0.7%.

This caused unexpected imbalances in the demographic development of the country.  Due to a traditional preference for boys, large numbers of female babies ended up homeless or in orphanages, and in some cases were killed. "In 2000, it was reported that 90 percent of foetuses aborted in China were female. As a result, the gender balance of the Chinese population has become distorted. Today it is thought that men outnumber women by more than 60 million." [6]

Another unintended long-term effect of this policy was that low birth rates also led to a rapid change in the population age pyramid. A study conducted before the end of the policy predicted that "the number of Chinese citizens over the age of 65 will soar to 219 million in 2030 and grow to make up a quarter of China's entire population by 2050. This means a significant portion of residents will age out of the labour force." [7]

Stakeholder engagement

The main stakeholder behind this initiative was the central government, which was very concerned that uncontrolled growth in the population could threaten the country's ambitions for prosperity. There is no evidence of consultations with stakeholders at the local or institutional level before this policy was implemented. However, there were incentives put in place to ensure the compliance of local officials, in the form of fiscal and career rewards for achieving birth targets, and penalties for falling short.  Officials could even be demoted for allowing too many above-quota births in their community, which meant that they would lose all future income and other benefits associated with their roles. [8]

The radical nature of the policy and the risk of non-compliance opened up many opportunities for corruption. "A number of anti-corruption drives have taken place over the years, and recent reports indicate that in some areas Chinese officials themselves are among the greatest violators of family planning policies." [9]

Political commitment

Curbing population growth became a major priority for the Chinese government. "Family planning is accorded an extremely high priority by the Chinese government, which is worried that China's immense and growing population could offset the gains made by economic reforms." [10] Deng Xiaoping, who led the country from 1978 to 1989, made this clear in a statement on the perceived necessity of the one-child policy. "In order for China to achieve the four modernisations, it must overcome at least two important roadblocks. The first one is weak economic standing. The second one is a large population with limited arable land. Now the population is more than 900 million, 80 percent of which are farmers. The coin of a large population has two sides. Under the condition of insufficient development, all the problems related to food, education and employment are severe ones. We should deepen the implementation of the family planning policy, and even if the population does not increase in the following years, the problem of population will still exist over a long period of time." [11]

Significant funds were allocated to the initiative through the budget for family planning, which was increased by approximately 18% per year throughout the 1980s, and after 1991 was doubled to USD1.1 billion. [12]

Public confidence

The Chinese government rewarded those who complied with the one-child policy in numerous ways, such as preferential housing, food subsidies, medical care, education, a monthly health allowance, job promotions, and special bonuses for volunteering for sterilisation. [13]  However, the inflexibility and swiftness with which the government implemented the one-child policy also generated significant opposition from the public, exacerbated by reports of forced abortions and other human rights issues. "Although the one-child policy — and the accompanying mass campaign of sterilisation and induced abortion — led to a decline in fertility, it also caused a popular uproar and ignited strong resistance, especially in China's vast rural areas." [14]

The number of forced abortions and sterilisations caused widespread bitterness and resentment. "'I support the family planning policy, but not their methods,' said Ji Shuqiang, 42, working behind the cash register at the village store. 'If they find a woman who's pregnant, no matter how far along, they'll make you have an abortion.' An older man, who despite the urging of the others was afraid to give his name, said his wife had been sterilised 34 years ago after the birth of their only child, a daughter. He was still furious. 'We hate family planning more than anything else. We don't agree with the government's policy on this.'" [15]

Clarity of objectives

There were several growth targets established by the government through their initial campaigns before the one-child policy was put in place: the fourth five-year plan in 1970 was the first to include targets for the population growth rate, and the target set for 1980 was a growth rate of 1%. However, as the government realised that their targets were unrealistic, most population growth rate targets were abandoned in the early 1980s. When the one-child policy was implemented, the official policy was to aim for a population of around 1.2 billion in 2000. [16]

Regulations included restrictions on family size, late marriage and childbearing, and the spacing of children (in cases in which second children were permitted). There were also a number of exceptions, including: families in which the first child had a disability or both parents worked in high-risk occupations (such as mining) or were themselves from one-child families (in some areas).  In rural areas (where around 70% of the population lived), a second child was normally allowed after five years, but this sometimes only applied if the first child were a girl — a clear acknowledgment of the traditional preference for boys. A third child could also be allowed among some ethnic minorities and in underpopulated areas. [17]

Apart form the overall population target, there is no evidence of clearer objectives allowing to track the policy. This, coupled with the variability of guidelines explained above, made the policy extremely difficult to monitor.

Strength of evidence


There was a range of initiatives put in place and significant resources allocated to the implementation of the one-child policy. Family planning was coordinated at the federal level by the State Family Planning Commission (SFPC), which had approximately 520,000 full time cadres, and the Birth Planning Association, which assisted government in enforcement and implementation, had over 83 million part-time employees working at 1 million locations throughout China. [19] In addition, some 900,000 family planning associations had an estimated membership of between 36 and 50 million volunteers. [20]  The government also increased the family planning budget by approximately 18% per year throughout the 1980s, and doubled it after 1991. [21]

The Communist Party published the new Marriage Law in 1980, mandating that couples were obliged to practise family planning, with a limit of one child for each family. This gave legal force to the policy. [22] However, clear communication was limited, and its interpretation and implementation were generally left to local officials to define in response to local conditions. "Sources indicate that implementation of family planning regulations differs from region to region and even within specific localities". [23]

The central government led the policy at the national level, with the State Family Planning Bureau setting targets and policy direction. Family planning committees at provincial and county levels were responsible of developing local strategies for implementation. [24] Similarly, Population and Family Planning Commissions at the national, provincial and local levels were expected to promote the policy, register births, and carry out family inspections. Provincial governments enforced the policy through a mix of rewards and penalties enforced at the discretion of local officials. “They include economic incentives for compliance and substantial fines, confiscation of belongings, and dismissal from work for non-compliance.” [25]

The evaluation of officials was tied to the ability to meet birth quotas within their jurisdictions. “The leaders of units who meet these birth quotas are more likely to get promotions and bonuses. If a particular area does not meet its birth quota, meaning that the number of children born is in excess of the number the government allows, the leaders of the local population control units would be held responsible for this failure and be disqualified from promotions or bonuses." [26] The establishment of unreasonable targets led to widespread corruption and meddling in the reporting of official figures, which is one of the most significant negative effects of the management method that was used.


The policy required restrictions on family sizes and birth figures at the local and national levels, and Population and Family Planning Commissions were responsible for implementing this mandate. “This policy stated that citizens must obtain a birth certificate before the birth of their children. In 1980, the birth-quota system was established to monitor population growth. Under this system, the government set target goals for each region. Local officials were mainly held responsible for making sure that population growth totals did not exceed target goals. If target goals were not met, the local officials were punished by law or by loss of privileges.” [27]

However, it not clear whether a consistent methodology was used for this,  or appropriate measurements actually took place, as both the public and enforcement officials had strong incentives to conceal the real numbers. The rigour and penalties applied when enforcing the policy led people to avoid reporting for fear of repercussions, and this also affected the accurate monitoring of outcomes. "The 1995 population survey reported average male:female ratios of 108:100 in rural areas. But this is not just because of sex-selective abortion (which is now illegal, though undoubtedly still occurs), but also because of failure to report female births." [28]

The main driver for the central government in curtailing growth of the population was that it perceived its increase as detrimental to the growth of the economy. At the local level, however, these issues were not so relevant, so there was a need to provide a motivation for local officials to enforce the one-child policy. It used a quota reward system for Planning Officials who carried out the birth control policies. If they did not meet quotas, they were either punished or would lose the opportunity to earn promotions. [29]

For the population at large, the government applied  incentives and sanctions to encourage compliance with the policy's goals. "People were to be encouraged to have only one child through a package of financial and other incentives, such as preferential access to housing, schools, and health services. Discouragement of larger families included financial levies on each additional child and other sanctions which ranged from social pressure to curtailed career prospects for those in government jobs. Specific measures varied from province to province.” [30]

An Evaluation of 30 Years of the One-Child Policy in China , 10 November 2009, The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

Challenging Myths About China's One-Child Policy, Martin King Whyte et al, 2015, The China Journal

China: Family planning laws, enforcement and exceptions in the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian (2010-September 2012), Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

China one-child policy leads to forced abortions, mothers' deaths, Barbara Demick, 15 June 2012, Los Angeles Times

China One-Child Policy: Some unintended Consequences, David Howden and Yang Zhou, 2014, Institute of Economic Affairs

China's One-Child Policy, Laura Fitzpatrick, 27 July 2009, Time

China's one child family policy, Penny Kane and Ching Y Choi, 9 October 1999, US National Library of Medicine

Couples must wait for law to catch up with China's ‘second-child' policy, 31 October 2015, The Inquirer: China Daily/Asia News Network

History of the Chinese Family Planning Program: 1970-2010, Cuntong Wang, October 2011, Contraception

Managing population change - Case study: China, BBC

One-Child Policy Update, January 1995, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

Population Control and Consequences in China, Jamie Cook, 5 December 1999, University of Nebraska

Prepared Statement for Harry Wu, 5 November 2009, Director of Laogai Research Foundation, Human Rights Commission in Washington, DC

See How the One-Child Policy Changed China, Aileen Clarke, 13 November 2015, National Geographic

The Effect of China's One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years, Therese Hesketh, et al, 15 September 2005, The New England Journal of Medicine

The Effect of the One-Child Policy on Fertility in China: Identification Based on the Differences-in-Differences, Hongbin Li et al, 11 August 2005, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

The One Child Family Policy, W X Zhu, US National Library of Medicine

When a Son is Born: The Impact of Fertility Patterns on Family Finance in Rural China, Weili Ding and Yuan Zhang, March 2011, Queens University

case study on one child policy in china

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case study on one child policy in china

Case Study: China’s One Child Policy

Anti-natalist policy – A policy that tries to reduce birth rates through better education on family planning and better provision of contraception or a more rigid forced policy.

The one-child policy ran from 1979 to 2016.

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case study on one child policy in china

Jun 14, 2021

Case study: One-child Policy in China — VR experience | Heihaizi

About heihaizi.

For the speedy growth of population in China, instead of following the popular methods used in most countries at the time, the government in 1979 introduced and applied one-child policy, which restricted the number of births one only in a brutal and often inhumane way, including the force of abortion or female sterilization. As a result, millions of fetuses were killed; infants were abandoned to death; children were sent to orphanages or human trafficking. The policy becomes one of the most extreme and controversial examples of family planning in the world until this day since it is accused of human rights abuses as well as negative social consequences.

Together with my interest in humanity, research of the sufferings of children victims was established, which then led to the Heihaizi project. After bringing out results about the negative effects of the policy on Chinese children, results will be named and sorted by three stages of children’s lives.

In the Heihaizi VR experience, viewers will see visuals or metaphor images of how children’s wellbeing and rights are deeply violated by stages of their lives.


Heihaizi (Black Child) VR Experience is a trip to a “Neverland” where the lost souls of the child victims under the One Child Policy go to.

The souls are divided into three main groups: fetuses, new-born, and children. Not only does the land contains dead souls like aborted fetuses or babies abandoned to death, but it also has lost souls of “black” children who were living with no recorded identity and having no coverage of health- care, education, or love from family.

During this trip, the user will go through different spots on the land including sailing through the entrance river, diving under the river, going through a forest, and discovering a cave; and they will find out fetuses, babies, and children in these areas. Visual metaphors are applied throughout the experience, from the places users go to the visual images and installation of the victims: implication of death, secrets being buried, or human without identity. These metaphors are used to reduce the painful and extreme nature of the problem and evoke personal emotions and opinions towards the issue.

Users’ activities are minimal to focus on the visual observation part, mainly instructed actions to free the lost souls from the hidden places.

Related works

During the research upon the one-child policy topic, these are the recognized or award-winning works that related to my projects in terms of subject, platform, and execution. Based on these works, I had firm ground to build up Heihaizi.

One Child Nation

One Child Nation is a documentary film co-directed by Nafu Wang and Jialing Zhang, premiered in 2019. The film reveals China’s one-child policy’s complex consequences and exposes the creeping power of propaganda (Wang & Zhang, 2019). One Child Nation is the foundation for the creation of the Heihaizi VR experience, from interviews of people under the period of the policy to the visual elements of Chinese propaganda products. It also provides a great amount of real-life and self-experience toward the topic.

Bodyless is a VR experience about the creator’s memory in the 1970s, during the period of Taiwan’s martial law. The similarity between this and Heihaizi is that they are both VR experiences where limitations from the government applied to human qualities are illustrated in a surrealistic and fairly haunting way.

China’s Hiden Children: abandonment. adoption, and the human costs of the one-child policy

Johnson (2016) claims to have spent years talking with the Chinese parents who had to abandon their daughters during this brutal birth-planning campaign. The book (Fig. 6) exposes the naked truth, statistics, and personal stories about what actually happened to the children's victims: from being killed while fetuses, arranged adoptions to being sent to rural areas, from being relinquished in public places to being trafficked (Johnson, 2016).

Visual Metaphor and Embodiment in Graphic Illness Narratives

In this book, Refaie (2019) shows that there are two types of visual metaphors: spatial and stylistic. Spatial visual metaphors involve the location of the object, its scale, its being realistic or abstract, and the way it is arranged among other objects (Refaie, 2019). Stylistic visual metaphors are about how the object looks like, including color, how detailed it is, or other specific elements it has (Refaie, 2019). Refaie (2019) discusses 36 graphic illness narratives, alongside explaining the effects of using metaphor images for addressing illness symptoms such as pain. Based on her definition and explanation, I come up with metaphor visual elements, installation, color palette, and spatial design describing the pain of child victims under the One-child policy.

Design practice

First iteration.

From the initial ideation, I first come up with a VR experience: a River of pain . Users will see installations across the river about the pain and hardship of the victims. The river is a metaphor for life, and other images (Fig.10) illustrate the extreme effects of the policy on children. Child victims will be separated into four stages of their life. First is fetus: being aborted during pregnancy. Second is newborn babies: being abandoned to death or vulnerable to child trafficking. The third is children: being orphans or live without identity, healthcare, or education (Heihaizi). The Final is mature: having the burden of 4–2–1 effect, which is having to support four grandparents and two parents all by themselves. Visual elements are based on Asian culture, specifically China.

In Figure 10, besides using some direct elements such as the flags for aborted babies, impressively mentioned in One Child Nation documentary film by Nanfu Wang, you can see my initial intention in visual metaphor installations. A hand squeezing the baby's face so hard that it gets distorted; an eggshell that has the shape of a uterus is broken, revealing the fetus inside; or the gate where parts of it are made out of fetuses in many forms. These metaphors convey the idea of fetuses being aborted during pregnancy, and the gate slightly reveals the meaning of this trip.

Figure 11 is the sketch for the opening scene of the experience. Flags are hung in rows in the sky, gives the impression of something serious or deadly. The sky and the river color are warm, almost bright red, contribute to the implication of blood, birth, and death.

First Iteration Research Question:

How can people understand the suffering of- child victims under China’s One-child policy?

Second Iteration

In my second iteration, I focus on changing my answers to my first question, rather than the question itself. Having re-think the answers, I realize only sailing through the river and seeing installation does not answer close enough. Therefore, I turn my project into the concept of a virtual Neverland, where lost souls from victims under the policy go to . Users will discover the hidden virtual children of different ages. These children can never grow older and forever have the pain or scars, physically or mentally. To press on the ‘understand’ part of my question, I included some actions for users to do to release or free the lost souls away from the land.

Figure 12 is the first scene of the project, you can see an exotic forest, having elements that look like human organs. The tree looks like they are growing something inside — the implication of birth.

Climbing on top of the tree (Fig. 13), users will see the fetus in the birds nest with other baby birds. As I want to avoid bloody or painful details, I use the metaphor similarity between the fetus and the baby birds left on the tree, being left to die together. Users can see the baby passed away already by having scars and the body is turning blue, and the interaction will be putting the death flag onto the fetus to free this soul.

Final Iteration

At my third attempt, I revise my research question and the word ‘understand’ is not suitable for the whole project as it demonstrates more findings, real numbers, and a real description of the victims’ situation. Since what I have done all along is built mostly on visual metaphors, I decided to turn my question into:

Third Iteration Research Question:

How visual metaphor in VR experience can illustrate the suffering of child victims under China’s one-child policy?

I keep my concept similar to my previous direction but focus more on the metaphor visual part. The final direction is still a trip to the ‘Neverland’ where the lost souls of child victims go. Users' experience will be traveling around the land through different kinds of meanings: walking, swimming. sailing, climbing, going into the cave; and discover the lost souls. Most images, choices of color, textures, installation, and location are metaphors of hurt children whose identities and stories being hidden in society.

A baby fetus is put inside a transparent entrance gate. The gate is made with an organic form and mimicking the human organs’ warm tone and shapes. Users can associate the scene as fetuses are being grown, but may not realize whether they are inside a body or being outdoor in an environment.

This is the entrance gate at the beginning of the experience. Users sail through the river to enter the land while observing the exotic gate that has fetuses inside. They will also identify the flags on top of the gate.

Above is the comparison of mood in my VR experience. Scene 1 is foggy, nighttime with the moon shining on the purple sky; fetuses are shined on. This has a dreamy and calming mood. Meanwhile, scene 2 illustrates a more dramatic feeling: things are clear and sharp; color is warmer and the red flags are more prominent. Therefore, I combine them both to achieve the look in figure 18.

The flag element (Fig. 18) has a Chinese name in the middle, the date of death and parents’ names on the bottom left, a short message from their parents on the top right. The flag is researched in detail and recreates as close to the original as possible regarding cultural and spiritual appropriation.

Heihaizi | VR Experience | Official Trailer (2021)

Vr experience breakdown:, flesh & blood forest (space 1).

The first location user will reach is the Flesh & Blood Forest. The name Flesh & Blood is an idiom in English that indicates a family relationship. In this case, it also has a literal meaning: the actual flesh & blood of the child. The forest is the first stage of the age of child victims: fetus being aborted. Elements in this place such as ground, plants, animals, the sky,… are made based on human organs and elements. The place is a visual metaphor for a fetus is growing and being nurtured.

The name board of the forest is the welcoming scene for the user. In this area, users will be able to go around and look at the exotic environment, then have a mission to find the fetuses. Since Heihaizi is a non-registered child or hidden child, I put the children in hidden places throughout the VR experience. On top of the flesh and blood tree, the user will find a bird nest. Inside each bird nest will be a fetus with some baby birds, too.

I use the image of newborn birds to illustrate the similarity to the human fetuses. Both of them are vulnerable, innocent, and fragile. The texture of the birds is carefully painted in detail but not on the baby fetus, which is a visual metaphor for one side is alive, but the other side is not.

User when found the fetus will put the flag of death on top of the fetus. The lost soul is then released and becomes fairy lights. My intention for doing this action is to virtually heal the pain for the children and release their souls to a better place.

Abandoned River (Space 2)

The second location user will reach is the Abandoned River. Abandoned River when first heard sounds like a river where nobody visits, but it is also the metaphor for abandoned babies. Under this river hides the secrets of the second stage of ages of child victims: babies. These are babies in real life, after being born healthy and successfully, got abandoned to death, or being human-trafficked for being an unwanted second child. In the VR, babies hidden under the river are a visual metaphor for a deadly secret.

Babies are tied with a rock under the river to not float on top of the water surface, which also means that if the user doesn’t dive in there to explore, the babies will never be discovered, secrets will forever be sealed. The mission of the user is to use a sword to cut the ropes that tied the babies. Until then, the babies can float on top of the water for people to see, together will magical bubbles. This action is a metaphor for discovering the secret and bring it to light.

Cave of The Unknown

The third location is Cave of the Unknown. “The Unkown” indicates Heihaizi, children that are not registered, which means they have no names, no families, no healthcare, or education. These children in real life are sent to orphanages even though their real parents exist. As a result, I come up with these characters. They are the third stage of child victims: children. Since they have no identity, they all look the same and have no mouth. This is also a choice of metaphor: they can only witness and hear the situation, but cannot speak up due to the restriction of the government.

The setup inside the cave is intentionally not using a natural light color. These artificial lights demonstrate that the cave cannot be reached by the sun. The cave is like the orphanages where children are living, more or less a prison undercovered.

The user's mission now is to break a hole in the cave to let sunlight comes in.

Until then, the children can really see the truth and the lost souls will be healed. The last image illustrates a child’s soul flying up towards the sunlight, a visual metaphor for children being released from their captive lives

To answer the question: How visual metaphor in VR experience can illustrate the suffering of child victims under China’s one-child policy? I have produced a wide range of metaphor installations, 3D models, spatial design in VR to demonstrate the pain and hardship of child victims, but in a way that metaphorically reduces the intensity of death and killing. China’s one-child policy will be explained from the beginning of the experience so the users are acknowledged of the topic. Child victims are categories in different stages of age so that the project can illustrate the right suffering towards each group. China’s culture is also a part of my visual elements and metaphors; therefore the project expresses the right look and feel about the country. However, though I put out the ideas and visuals that contribute much to the project, I was not able to put all scenes in Unity to have more interactions due to the project’s complexion.

One Child Policy is a controversial topic and I don’t declare to stand on any side, or any right wrong point-out in this policy or the country itself. However, the truth is still there and sufferings towards child victims do exist. Through the visual metaphor of the pain that Chinese children have been given, I would like to give viewers a new artistic approach to the topic. By metaphorically describing the situation, users can have their personal impressions on the topic and different feelings for the children.

In the future, beyond the limit of this project, I would like to push the experience further and complete the work by paying attention to details of the characters, audio selections and more work not just on the child side but also the parents and the social sides. Making things work is a must so in the future, the work should be finalized in Unity and published in order to raise more awareness and attention to the One-Child policy.

Refaie, E. (2019). Visual metaphor and embodiment in graphic illness narratives. Oxford University Press, USA.

Johnson, K. A. (2016). China’s hidden children: abandonment, adoption, and the human costs of the one-child policy . The University of Chicago Press.

Huang, H. C. (2019). Bodyless [VR Experience]. Taiwan: Saiau Yue Tsau.

Manninen, M. (2019). Secrets and Siblings: The Vanished Lives of Chinas One Child Policy . Zed Books Ltd.

Steen, G. J. (2018). Visual Metaphor: Structure and Process. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Wang, N. & Zhang, J. (Directors). (2019). One Child Nation [Documentary Film]. Next Generation.

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Using data from the 1988 Two-per-Thousand National Fertility Survey in Hebei Province, this study addresses the question of how, and how well, the one-child policy in China worked during its first decade, 1979-88. Even though the Chinese government developed such strong policy measures as the birth-quota system, one-child certificate incentives, and penalties to promote the policy, they were implemented unevenly over time and among the two groups of people with differential types of household registration--peasants and workers. China's one-child policy was highly effective only among women with a worker registration, who were under greater government control. The policy measures overwhelmingly overrode the effects of socioeconomic and cultural factors on the likelihood of their having a child beyond the first. However, the one-child policy was not as effective as expected for the majority of Chinese women, who were members of households registered as peasants and lived under less government control. These women continued to have more than one child. Multivariate analysis of the fertility behavior of these women reveals that son preference strongly affected the probability of having a second and third child, even more so than the level of education, the degree of urbanization, and population policy measures.

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Open Access


Research Article

Assessing the impact of the “one-child policy” in China: A synthetic control approach

Contributed equally to this work with: Stuart Gietel-Basten, Xuehui Han, Yuan Cheng

Roles Conceptualization, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation Division of Social Sciences, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong, PRC

Roles Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, Software, Writing – original draft

Affiliation Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing, PRC

Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Methodology, Software, Supervision, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

* E-mail: [email protected]

Affiliation Population Research Institute, LSE-Fudan Research Centre for Global Public Policy, Fudan University, Shanghai, PRC

ORCID logo


Table 1

There is great debate surrounding the demographic impact of China’s population control policies, especially the one-birth restrictions, which ended only recently. We apply an objective, data-driven method to construct the total fertility rates and population size of a ‘synthetic China’, which is assumed to be not subjected to the two major population control policies implemented in the 1970s. We find that while the earlier, less restrictive ‘later-longer-fewer’ policy introduced in 1973 played a critical role in driving down the fertility rate, the role of the ‘one-child policy’ introduced in 1979 and its descendants was much less significant. According to our model, had China continued with the less restrictive policies that were implemented in 1973 and followed a standard development trajectory, the path of fertility transition and total population growth would have been statistically very similar to the pattern observed over the past three decades.

Citation: Gietel-Basten S, Han X, Cheng Y (2019) Assessing the impact of the “one-child policy” in China: A synthetic control approach. PLoS ONE 14(11): e0220170. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220170

Editor: Bruno Masquelier, University of Louvain, BELGIUM

Received: October 24, 2018; Accepted: July 2, 2019; Published: November 6, 2019

Copyright: © 2019 Gietel-Basten et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: All relevant data are within the manuscript and its Supporting Information files.

Funding: The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology provided support for this study in the form of salaries for SGB, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank provided support for this study in the form of salaries for XH, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. Fudan University provided support for this study in the form of salaries for YC, but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The specific roles of these authors are articulated in the ‘author contributions’ section.

Competing interests: The authors have read the journal's policy and the authors of this manuscript have the following competing interests: SGB is paid employee of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, XH is paid employees of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, YC is paid employees of Fudan University. There are no patents, products in development or marketed products associated with this research to declare. This does not alter the authors' adherence to PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.


In 2015, China finally ended all one-birth restrictions [ 1 ]. The move to a national two-child policy is intended to facilitate a more balanced population development and to counter aging. There is currently a large focus placed on the appraisal of the population control policies (often erroneously thought of as the ‘one-child policy’) imposed in the late 1970s [ 2 ]. The world's most comprehensive national-level population control policy has been subject to many criticisms, both domestically and internationally [ 3 , 4 ]. Sanctioned and unsanctioned instances of forced abortion [ 5 ], sterilization [ 6 ], and institutional financial irregularities [ 7 ] have been identified as bases for criticism. The policies have also been cited as the root cause of other challenges [ 8 ], including skewed sex ratios at birth [ 9 ], the questionable demographic data because of hidden children [ 10 ], and social problems associated with the enforced creation of millions of one-child families (like the social, economic, and psychological plight of couples who lost their only child and are now unable to have more children) [ 11 ].

On the other hand, China's population control policies have also been recognized as being effective. This ‘effectiveness’ is based on the estimations that hundreds of millions of births had been ‘averted’ [ 12 ] and the penalty of “above-quota-births” was found reducing births in rural China [ 13 ]. According to an environmentalist narrative, these births (and the resultant population growth) would have contributed to further climate change [ 14 ]. In 2014, for example, The Economist labeled the ‘China one-child policy’ as the fourth largest ‘action’ to slow global warming, estimated at 1.3bn tonnes of CO2 [ 15 ]. Elsewhere, the popular media, as well as other commentators, regularly espouse a ‘one-child policy' as a panacea to respond to perceived ‘overpopulation' and associated concerns of both an environmental and Malthusian nature. Indeed, UN Resident Coordinator in Kenya, Siddharth Chatterjee, said in 2017 the first annual Africa-China Conference on Population and Development, "China is an example to the rest of the developing countries when it comes to family planning."

These calculations of ‘births averted’ are based on various models, which employ counterfactual history. The estimate of ‘400 million births averted’ is attributed to the one-child population policy [ 16 ], which is usually calculated by holding earlier, higher fertility rates constant. Other estimates compared the Chinese experience with either a country or group of countries considered to be similar to China in terms of certain socioeconomic and political indicators. The problem with such counterfactual histories is that they are inevitably subjective and indicators considered did not enter into the model in a systematic way. Contrast to the estimation of 400 million births averted, the effect of the one-child policy is found to be small, especially for the long-run [ 17 ], which was attributed to the aggressive family planning program in the early 1970s [ 18 ] based on the findings that the birth rate of 16 countries with similar birth rates to that of China in 1970 declined significantly after 1979 and even sharper than what was observed in China [ 19 ].

To evaluate the impact of China’s population control policies, we employ the Synthetic Control Method where we compare China to a constructed ‘synthetic’ control population, which shares similar features with China during the pre-intervention periods. This innovative data- and math-driven methodology is used extensively in many disciplines, including public health [ 20 ], politics [ 21 ], and economics [ 22 ]. One of the caveats of our paper is that we cannot single out the ‘cohort’ effects. In addition to the socio-economic factors, the decline of TFRs might partially be the result that females entering childbearing age in 1970s did not think giving more births is “fashionable” compared to those who entered childbearing age in 1950s. Such mindset changes have been observed in Brazil [ 23 ]. Unfortunately, our approach cannot differentiate the cohort effect from the impact of social-economic factors. We have to bear in mind this caveat in the following analysis.

In the case of China, the first intervention (or ‘shock’) we seek to evaluate is the ‘Later-Longer-Fewer Policy’ introduced in 1973 [ 7 ]. Under this policy, a minimum age of marriage was imposed, as well as mandatory birth spacing for couples and a cap on the total number of children [ 24 ]. The rules were differentiated for men and women in rural and urban areas. Also, like the case in other countries, widespread contraception (and free choice) was introduced, coupled with large-scale education on family planning [ 25 ]. The second ‘shock’ is the ‘One-Child Policy' introduced in 1979, where a one-child quota was strictly enforced. Following initial ‘shock drives' of intensive mass education, insertion of IUDs after the first birth, sterilization after the second birth, and large-scale abortion campaigns, the policy quickly became unpopular and was reformed in 1984 and onwards, creating a very heterogeneous system [ 26 ]. Despite the series of reforms, the majority of couples in China were still subject to one-child quotas in the 1980s and 1990s.

Institutional Background

With high birth rates in the 1970s, the Chinese government had grown increasingly concerned about the capacity of existing resources to support the ballooning population. In response, from 1973, the Chinese government widely promoted the practice of ‘later-longer-fewer’ to couples, referring respectively to later marriage and childbearing, longer intervals between births, and fewer children. Rules were more severe in urban areas where women were encouraged to delay marriage until the age of 25 and men at 28 and for couples to have no more than two children. In the rural areas, the age of marriage was set at a minimum of 23 for women, and 25 for men and the maximum family size was set at three children. Birth control methods and family planning services were also offered to couples. The policy at the time can be considered “mild” in a sense that couples were free to choose what contraceptive methods they would use and the policy on family planning was more focused on the education of the use of contraceptives [ 27 ].

However, such mild family planning program was deemed insufficient in controlling the population, since it would not be able to meet the official target of 1.2 billion people by 2000 despite the large decrease in the total fertility rate (TFR) in the late 1970s. In 1979, the government introduced the One-Child Policy in the Fifth National People’s Congress, a one-size-fits-all model and widely considered the world’s strictest family planning policy. Some exemptions were allowed, and a family could have more than one child if the first child has a disability, both parents work in high-risk occupations, and/or both parents are from one-child families themselves. The State Family Planning Bureau aimed to achieve an average of 1.2 children born per woman nationally in the early and mid-1980s [ 27 ].

From 1980 to 1983, the one-child policy was implemented through "shock drives" in the form of intensive mass education programs, IUD insertion for women after the first birth, sterilization for couples after the second birth, and abortion campaigns for the third pregnancy [ 27 , 28 ]. Policies were further enforced by giving incentives for compliance and disincentives for non-compliance, though these varied across local governments [ 27 ]. Liao [ 29 ] identified the following as the usual benefits and penalties at the local level. Families with only one child can obtain benefits like child allowance until age 14; easier access to schools, college admission, employment, health care, and housing; and reduction in tax payments and the opportunity to buy a larger land for families in rural areas. Penalties for having above-quota births, on the other hand, include reduction in the parents’ wages by 10 to 20 percent for 3 to 14 years, demotion or ineligibility for promotion for parents who work in the government sector, exclusion of above-quota children to attend public schools, and, in rural areas, a one-time fine which may account for a significant fraction of the parents’ annual income.

The tight one-child policy was met by resistance, and the government allowed more exemptions [ 27 ]. Exemptions were drafted at the local level as the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee took into account the diverse demographic and socioeconomic conditions across China [ 30 ]. In 1984, the program allowed two births per couple in rural areas if the first child is a girl or if the family is from a minority ethnic group, but this was done only in six provinces. One significant change in the family planning policy is that couples with one daughter in rural areas could have a second child after a certain interval, which ranges from four to six years, and this was fully implemented in 18 provinces by the end of 1989. The performance of local cadres was also evaluated with family planning activity as the top criterion [ 27 ]. The stringency of the one-child policy was further moderated amid China’s commitment to the International Conference on Population Development held in Cairo in 1994. In 1995, the family planning program changed its stance from being target-driven to client-centered in adherence to international reproductive health standards. More attention was given to individual contraceptive rights, and the government allowed couples to choose their contraceptive method with the guidance of the professional and technical staff [ 22 ].

Throughout the 1990s, provinces amended their own regulations about the exemptions under the guidelines of the State Family Planning Commission, now the National Population and Planning Commission [ 30 ]. According to Gu et al. [ 30 ], the provincial-level exemptions on allowing more than one child in a family can be classified into four broad groups: (1) gender-based and demographic (if the couple living in a rural area had the only daughter, or they belong to one-child family themselves); (2) economic (if the couple work in risky occupations or have economic difficulties); (3) political, ethical, and social (if the couple belong to a minority ethnic group, the man is marrying into a woman’s family, the family is a returning overseas Chinese, or the person has the status of being a single child of a revolutionary martyr); and (4) entitlement and replacement (if the couple’s first child died or is physically handicapped, the person who is divorced or widowed remarries, or the person is the only productive son in a family of multiple children in the rural area).

While the central government had asserted that population control remains a basic state policy, it hardly implemented a uniform set of rules across the country, hence the varying exemptions across localities [ 30 ]. This was until the Population and Family Planning Law of 2001 was put into effectivity. The law summarized the rights and obligations of Chinese citizens in family planning and served as the legal basis for addressing population issues at the national level. This law still promoted the one-child policy, but couples were given more reproductive rights, including the right to decide when to have children and the spacing between children if having a second child is allowed, as well as the right to choose contraceptive methods. It also discussed the imposition of social compensation fees for those who violated the law, which will be collected by local governments and family planning officials [ 27 ].

The one-child policy was further loosened in 2013 when it was announced that two children would be allowed if one parent is an only child [ 31 ]. Basten and Jiang [ 32 ] summarized the popular views on the issues that can be addressed by this policy shift: skewed sex ratio at birth, projected decline of the working-age population, large number of couples who were left childless because of the death of their only child, and evasion and selective enforcement of fines for out-of-quota and unauthorized births. They, however, argued that this change in the one-child policy could only have minimal impact on the aging population and shrinking workforce because of fertility preferences to have only one child and a smaller likelihood of these births to occur.

It was announced in October 2015 that the one-child policy would be replaced by a universal two-child policy. Driven by some evidence that this relaxation of the policy has not achieved a significant birth boosting effect, the Chinese government has started in 2018 to draft a proposed law that will remove all the limits on the number of children families can have [ 33 ].

The Synthetic control method

case study on one child policy in china

As reflected in the above procedure, the core of this method focuses on finding the combination of countries that collectively resemble China before the intervention. The model automatically assigns different weights to different countries in such a way that the distance between the actual and synthetic China before the policy intervention will be minimized in terms of fertility rate and other related characteristics. The optimal weights then are applied to the other countries for the post-intervention period to obtain Synthetic China without either the 1973 intervention or the 1979 intervention.

The next step is to decide what variables should be included in vector Z. We chose to include the childbearing age, life expectancy at birth, and sex ratio of male to female between 0 and 4 years old as the non-economic variables. The childbearing age affects the mothers’ age-specific fertility intensity and the total fertility rate [ 34 , 35 ]. With the maximum fertility age being certain, higher childbearing age might imply lower TFR. The life expectancy at birth is related to age-specific mortality. With a lower mortality rate, fewer births are required to obtain a desired number of children. For example, as observed by Galor [ 36 ], the TFR declined while the life expectancy improved in Western Europe in the past half-century. The sex ratio of male to female represents the inner-gender competition. A higher sex ratio of male to female implies higher competition among males, so it is more rewarding for females to delay marriage and to give birth in exchange for opportunities to obtain a better match with males. Using data from England and a generalized linear model, Chipman and Morrison [ 37 ] confirmed the significant negative relationship between the sex ratio of male to female and birth rate, especially for the three age groups of females at 20–24, 25–29, and 30–34 years old.

The other group of variables included in vector Z is economic variables, such as GDP per capita and years of schooling. The New Home Economics approach [ 38 ] emphasizes the negative relationship between income and fertility rate through the role of the opportunity cost of parenting time. The model suggests that more children will consume more parenting time, which could otherwise be used to generate more income. Galor and Weil [ 39 ] strengthened the reasoning by arguing that the increase in capital per capita raises women’s relative wages because the complementary effect of capital to female labor is higher than to male labor. The increase in women’s relative wage raises the cost of children. Because of the resulting smaller population effect, the lower fertility further raises the GDP per capita. In addition to the parenting opportunity cost, the economic development might result in fertility declines through two other channels:(1)With economic development, the living standards improved and the mortality rate decreased so that parents can have the same desirable living kids with fewer births; and (2) With the economic development, people have more tools to save, for example, the pension system, which reduces the needs of having more offspring to finance the retirement. The relationships between the macro-economy and the fertility patterns are documented for China [ 40 , 41 , 42 ]. The years of schooling also affects fertility through the opportunity costs channel. Higher education is associated with higher productivity, which would induce the higher opportunity cost of raising children.

Our analysis uses the TFR data in the period of 1955–1959 from the United Nations’ World Population Prospects (WPP) and the annual TFR data in 1960 to 2015 from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (WDI) except for the following five economies. For Curaçao, Luxembourg, Serbia, Seychelles, and Taiwan, we use the UN’s WPP data in the entire period of 1955 to 2015. Like in the TFR data, we use the life expectancy at birth data in the period 1955–1959 from the UN’s WPP data, while annual life expectancy data in 1960 to 2015 is obtained from the WDI, except for the following four economies. For Curaçao, Serbia, Seychelles, and Taiwan, we use the UN’s WPP in the entire period of 1955 to 2015. The whole data series of the male-to-female ratio of the population aged 0–4 years old are obtained from the UN. We use the expenditure-side real GDP at chained PPPs and the size of population data from the Penn World Tables 9.0 (PWT 9.0) to calculate the GDP per capita and get its natural logarithm. The average years of schooling data obtained from the Barro-Lee Database is used to measure the average level of education in a given country. Historical schooling data are only available at five-year intervals, so we apply a linear interpolation method to infer the annual data from 1950 to 2010. The average childbearing age data are from the UN’s WPP in the entire period of 1955 to 2015. Additionally, all WPP data, except the male-to-female ratio, are only available at a five-year interval, so we also employ the linear interpolation method to get the annual estimates.

The original dataset consisted of 184 countries, but after removing the countries with missing data for the needed variables from 1955 to 2010, only 64 countries remained in the final dataset for the analysis, including China. The final list of countries included in the analysis is provided in Table A in S1 File .

Empirical result

For simplicity, we label synthetic China as Synth China, whose characteristics are constructed using the values of the other countries and the countries’ corresponding weights. We present the average values of our target variable TFR and fertility-related variables for Synth China and our comparator in Table 1 . The column on China shows the actual numbers for China, while the column on Synth China displays the values for the counterfactual Synth China for the pre-1973 period and pre-1979 and post-1973 period. For comparison purposes, we also include the average values of all countries in the sample as our comparator to show how different it would be between actual China and the whole sample in the absence of synthesizing. Looking at the pre-1973 period, Synth China has the same average TFR of 5.85 as actual China, while our comparator has an average of 4.71. For the remaining variables, the values of Synth China are all closer to that of actual China than those of our comparator, which indicates that Synth China resembles actual China not only in terms of TFR but also in terms of other fertility-related characteristics. Looking at the pre-1979 and post-1973 period, the TFR of Synth China is again almost the same as that of actual China.



All the other variables of Synth China are more comparable to actual China than to our comparator, except for average years of schooling. The significant difference (1.65 years) in years of schooling for the period of 1973–1979 between China (4.66 years) and the Synthetic cohort (6.31 years) is mainly due to the school-year-reduction-reform to taken by the Chinese government during the cultural revolution period (1966–1976). The original 6 years of primary schooling, 3 years of middle school, and 3 years of high school (6-3-3) for the pre-1966 periods were reduced to 5-2-2, respectively [ 43 ]. That means the same length of years of schooling represented higher accomplishment in terms of a diploma during 1966–1976. Five years of schooling in this period indicated completion of preliminary school while it used to represent the unaccomplished preliminary school. Most countries included in the studies adopted the 12-year schooling system. If we measure the accomplishment of education by using the relative years of schooling, which is to scale down by the years required for completion of high school—52% (4.66/9) for actual China and 53% (6.31/12) for Synthetic cohort—we would have quite close level of relative years of schooling between China and the Synthetic cohort. Additionally, the difference in years of schooling between actual China and the Synthetic cohort was not as significant for the pre-1973 intervention period (1965–1973) as for the pre-1979 and post-1973 period is because even the implementation of the school-year-reduction-reform was started from 1966 it requires five years for the effects to be fully materialized. The education system was changed back to 6-3-3 system after 1976.

In the following simulation, we use the periods 1973–1979 and 1980–2015 as the post-intervention periods to quantify the impact of the first and second shocks, respectively.

The TFR simulated for Synth China assuming without the 1973 shock, with the 1973 shock but without the 1979 shock, and the actual TFR are plotted in Fig 1 . The dashed blue line represents synthetic China's simulated TFR in the period 1955–1979 assuming without 1973 shock. The gap between the Synth China and actual China (represented by the solid black line) between 1973 and 1979 is the reduction in the TFR caused by the 1973 intervention. The dotted green line is the TFR of Synth China estimated for the period 1973–2015 with the period 1973–1979 as the pre-intervention period set to search for the optimal weights, which is to find the best comparable countries with fertility behaviors like China with 1973 shock but without 1979 shock. The simulated TFR for periods after 1979 is supposed to represent the TFR of China with the 1973 policy but without the 1979 policy. Contrary to the commonly claimed radical effect, the “One-Child” policy in 1979 only induced a small dip in the TFR.



As shown in Fig 1 , the TFR in synthetic China is already well above the real TFR, even before the 1973 shock. The reason is that the best fit found by the algorithm cannot match the whole pattern of actual TFR (a complete overlap of actual and simulated China) for the pre-intervention periods, especially for the pre-1973 period (blue line). As shown in section 3, the target function for optimization is ‖ X 1 − WX 0 ‖, which measures the distance between the mean of actual China and Syn China without the policy of 73&79 for years before 1973. When the pattern of actual TFR is not well regulated, the simulated TFRs for the pre-1973 periods cannot match actual China for each year of the time series but to match on the average over the periods. It is why for pre-1960 periods, the blue line is above the black line while for the periods of1960-1970, the blue line is below the black line. Our conjecture on the reason for the irregular pattern of actual China in pre-1973 periods is that the government had been in a population policy struggling during this period [ 44 ] and the after-effect of the great fluctuations caused by China's Great Leap Forward famine (1958–1962). For example, right after the promotion of birth control policy in 1957, the birth control was catalyzed as anti-government in 1958. Not until 1962, birth control was encouraged again. Such changes of direction of the policy were very hard to simulate by finding the best comparable. Additionally, we identify the official announcement of "Later-Longer-Fewer Policy" in 1973 as the "shock." The informal introduction of such an idea started from 1971 when the encouragement of birth control was included as a "national" strategic policy. But only until 1973, the policy was announced officially with details. This explains why the SynthChina with FP 73&79 is already above actual China in 1973.

One interesting observation is that the TFR of Synth China with 1973 shock but without 1979 shock is lower than the observed TFR since 2003. Combining with the fact that the TFR reported in the Sixth Census in 2010 is lower than the TFR of Synth China, this appears to be providing indirect evidence on the common suspicion that the statistics on fertility rate might be “too low” and therefore the fertility effect of the 1979 policy could have been overstated.

Next, we apply the permutation test to evaluate the significance and robustness of the estimations. To do this, we produce a simulated sample of 500 countries by randomly drawing with replacement from the actual sample of 63 countries with China being excluded. Each country is treated as if it were China and is subjected to the 1973 and 1979 shocks. We construct the synthetic TFRs by following the same procedure carried out for Synth China. For each year, we calculate 500 simulated gaps between actual and synthetic TFRs, as shown in Fig 2 . The gaps for the simulated countries are represented by the grey lines, while the 95% confidence intervals by the red lines. The solid line denotes the gap between actual and Synth China, which is well below the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval from 1973 to 1979, indicating a significant reduction impact from the 1973 shock ( Fig 2 ). Meanwhile, the TFR gap between actual and Synth China stays within the confidence interval from 1980 onwards, implying that the 1979 shock had no significant impact ( Fig 2 ).


(A)Permutation test with 1973 policy–gap between true TFR and synthetic TFR. (B) Permutation test with 1979 policy–gap between true TFR and synthetic TFR.


Population projection is carried out by using Spectrum 10 , wherein the actual TFR was replaced by the synthetic TFR from 1979 to 2015.

As Fig 1 and Fig 2 show, had China not implemented its later-longer-fewer set of population control measures in 1973, the fall in TFR would have been much shallower. Translating this into total population, this would amount to a difference of around 85 million by the end of the 1970s ( Fig 3 ). The impact of the second ‘shock,' namely the introduction of the stricter control measures in 1979, appears to be much more muted. While there are differences in the 1980s as a result of the reform involving the regulation on marriage age, the TFR for Synth China and actual China are broadly in sync from the early 1990s. In terms of total population difference, Synth China is some 70 million lower than actual China by 2015, as shown in Fig 3 . As discussed above, this puzzling outcome of the second shock might be due to the overstating tendency of the fertility statistics. Based on the permutation tests shown in Fig 2 , we can conclude that the 1973 policy significantly reduced the population by 85 million, while the 1979 policy does not have a statistically significant impact.



Furthermore, we use a bootstrap strategy to get the confidence interval for the population estimates assuming without the shock of 1973 policy. We randomly drew 500 sub-samples with the size of 90% of the original sample without replacement. For each sub-sample, we repeated the synthetic control approach to search for the best synthetic China in terms of TFR. Among the 500 subsamples, two samples cannot converge. Therefore, in the end, we have 498 Synthetic China. We further get the 5% lower and upper bounds of TFRs among simulated Synthetic China. Building on the 5% lower and upper bounds of TFRs, we further calculate the resulted population, with which to compare the actual population and get the corresponding reduced population. The lower and upper bounds of the reduced population serve as the 90% confidence interval of Synthetic China in terms of the population without 1973 policy shock. The corresponding reduction of the population associated with the 1973 policy is between 60 and 94 million.

As shown in Table 2 , the countries used to construct Synth China differed significantly between the 1973 and 1979 shocks. Before the 1973 shock, the greatest contribution was made by India (with a weight of 36.9%), a country that implemented a weaker family planning system and was characterized by high fertility throughout the 1970s [ 45 ]. Jordan, Thailand, Ireland, Egypt, and Korea came as the second to the sixth most comparable countries to China. All of them, except Ireland, had family planning policies. Jordan started family planning measures in the 1980s [ 46 ]; Thailand had done three rounds of family planning measures starting from 1963 to 1980 [ 47 ]; Egypt implemented three rounds of family planning measures in 1966, 1970, and 1979 [ 48 ]; and the family planning policy started in Korea in 1961 and lasted until the 1980s [ 49 ]. Even without any institutional background information, the synthetic control model has been able to select countries with family planning programs automatically.



In the period 1973 to 1979, Korea overtook India as the country that most resembled China (75.2%). While the GDP per capita was considerably different between these two countries in this period (even in the current period), in the 1980s, they shared similarities in terms of the other variables not included in the model, including the GDP growth rate and the presence of an authoritarian political regime [ 50 , 51 ]. Furthermore, the Korean family planning system was extraordinarily comprehensive and was founded on new social norms around family size, as well as the development of rural areas in general [ 52 ]. Thailand still played an important role with a contribution of 16% to Synth China.

Robustness check

We further carried out several robustness checks by including the add-on policy intervention or altering the data coverage.

We examined first the impact of the commonly acknowledged temporary relaxation of the one-child policy during the late 1980s until the beginning of 1990s by using 1991 as another intervention year (Table B and Fig A in S1 File ). No significant impact was found.

A second robustness check done was performed by extending the coverage of the dataset. The baseline dataset of 64 countries used in the analysis was constructed by excluding countries with any missing value for the input and output variables from 1955 to 2010. Therefore, there is a possibility that countries sharing great similarities with China were excluded because of unavailable GDP per capita data in 1955 and onwards. The GDP per capita data were obtained from PWT 9.0, which is mostly accepted as one of the most reliable and complete sources of GDP data, especially when comparison across countries is required. To examine whether such exclusions would alter our conclusion, we revised our data construction by relaxing the time coverage requirement and allowing an unbalanced dataset for each shock. That is, if the input variables of a country for the required years by the Synthetic Control Method were available, we included it in the dataset. For example, countries previously excluded from our baseline model because of missing data on GDP per capita from 1955 to 1964 were included for assessing the impact of 1973 shock, and the availability of the GDP per capita data was only required from 1965 to 1973. It resulted in a dataset containing 103 countries for the 1973 shock and 123 countries for the 1979 shock (Tables C and D in S1 File ). Consistent with our baseline results, there was a significant decline in the TFR associated with the 1973 shock but insignificant impact with the 1979 shock (Table E and Fig B in S1 File ).

The final main robustness check done is restricting the coverage of countries in the dataset. We selected 25 countries as a focus group that had been subjectively recognized by previous literature as having similar fertility behavior as China (Table F in S1 File ). The focus group dataset with available data consisted of 17 countries for the 1973 shock and 20 countries for the 1979 shock. India, Indonesia, and Thailand were selected for Synth China in evaluating the 1973 shock and Korea, and Thailand was selected for Synth China in evaluating the 1979 shock, which was fewer than in our baseline analysis (Table G in S1 File ). Interestingly, the permutation test showed that even for the 1973 shock, the gap between the TFR of Synth China and actual TFR is located within the 95% interval. This indicates the insignificant impact of the 1973 shock. However, since there were only 16 countries used to do the random draw for the 500 paths, the variation contained in the permutation test is very limited, which weakened the reliability of the test (Fig C in S1 File ). The lower bound of the 95% confidence interval was dominated by Korea. Korea experienced a much sharper decline in TFR in the 1970s. Excluding Korea, China had the largest gap in the TFR.

As a robustness check, we also replace the TFRs used in our analysis with the UN-provided interpolated annual TFRs. The result is consistent with our baseline findings (see Table H and Fig D in S1 File ).

Limitations and conclusions

Of course, our study has various limitations. Firstly, from a data perspective, it is arguable that the veracity evidence derived for China–and, indeed, reconstructed for other countries–over the past seven decades is to be open to interpretation. This potential challenge is acknowledged and would, indeed, affect any and all studies of Chinese population history. However, the main argument of the likely impact of these two shocks still holds. Secondly, by considering China as a national unit, we do not disaggregate and consider the impact of the interventions (and policy differentials) at the sub-national unit. For example, it may be that the 1979 intervention had a more significant impact in one province than in others, dependent on the social and economic conditions of that region, coupled with the particular ‘history’ of birth control policies there. By considering only the aggregate level, we lose this granularity. Such an exercise would be a fruitful future avenue of research. The final criticism is a more holistic one. Is the size, complexity, the political, and economic system of China so unique that it is possible to create a ‘synthetic China’ at all? For sure, China is ‘different’ to most, if not all, countries of the world. However, the principle of the synthetic control approach is simply to draw similarities from other places if and where they exist. In this way, such an approach is more systematic, transparent, and viable than simply drawing on a single country comparator or a basket of other regions. Indeed, it could be argued that all possible units of analysis (countries, regions, towns) are ‘unique’ in their own way.

In this paper, we used the synthetic control method to assess the impact of the "One-Child" policy in China. Our findings strongly suggest that had China followed a standard development trajectory combined with the continuation of its comprehensive population control policies introduced in 1973 (‘later-longer-fewer'), the decline in the TFR and hence total population size would have been similar under the conditions of the stricter one-child policy and its various reforms thereafter. While the policies implemented in 1973 were restrictive in terms of spacing, timing and the quantum total number of children, and were also stricter than almost any other contemporary family planning program, they were, undoubtedly, less restrictive than what followed.

The implications of this study are two-fold. Firstly, by suggesting that the impact of the birth control policies may have been exaggerated in the past, we can better understand why the response to their relaxation has been relatively muted–or, at least, well below popular expectation. Secondly: it is impossible to ignore the fact that the strict birth control policies introduced in 1979 brought with them numerous negative and possibly unforeseen consequences. As well as the sanctioned activities and corrupt abuses which occurred within the birth control policy framework, the policies have been linked to the highly skewed sex ratio [ 53 ], the presence of millions of shidu fumu families who have lost their only child [ 54 ] as well as other challenges in both the development of family systems and individual behavior. The long-term psychological consequences of prioritizing one-child families have yet to be fully explored, not least in the context of possible efforts to spur childbearing in the future.

In this context, our analysis suggests that the population control policies implemented from 1979 have no significant demographic effect compared to a looser operationalization of population control and economic development. An important lesson for other countries that are planning to introduce population controls: the stricter controls might not be the effective one.

Supporting information

S1 file. appendix..


S2 File. Program and data.



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The authors are responsible for any remaining errors in the paper.

The authors would like to thank Ma. Christina F. Epetia for her excellent research assistance.

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China’s one child family policy

a Office for Gender and Health, Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne, Carlton, Vic 2053, Australia, b Welfare Division, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 6A Traeger Court, Bruce, ACT 2617, Australia

Ching Y Choi

  Competing interests: None declared.

China’s one child family policy, which was first announced in 1979, has remained in place despite the extraordinary political and social changes that have occurred over the past two decades. It emerged from the belief that development would be compromised by rapid population growth and that the sheer size of China’s population together with its young age structure presented a unique challenge.

Summary points

This article is based on experience from frequent field visits to China over the past 25 years and the authors’ collections of relevant Chinese and Western documents from the 1950s onwards. We also used references from the major demographic journals.

Population growth since 1953

Government family planning services became available as a contribution to maternal and child health in China from 1953. As the result of falling death rates, the population growth rate rose to 2.8%, leading to some 250 million additional people by 1970. After a century of rebellions, wars, epidemics, and the collapse of imperial authority, during which the annual population growth was probably no more than 0.3%, such an expansion was initially seen as part of China’s new strength. Mao Zedong quoted a traditional saying: “Of all things in the world, people are the most precious.” 1

Rapid growth, however, put considerable strain on the government’s efforts to meet the needs of its people. The fourth five year plan in 1970 included, for the first time, targets for population growth rate. Contraceptive and abortion services were extended into the rural areas, and there was extensive promotion of later marriage, longer intervals between births, and smaller families.

Within five years the population growth rate fell to around 1.8%, and the target set for 1980 was a growth rate of 1%. To achieve this, each administrative unit introduced its own target and discussed and, when necessary, attempted to modify its population’s fertility behaviour. At local level, collective incomes and allocation of funds—for health care, welfare, and schools, for example—made it possible for couples to understand the effect of their personal family choices on the community. They also made it possible for the community to exercise pressure on those who wished to have children outside the agreed plans.

Origins of one child policy

But even the 1980 target, let alone the more ambitious aim of reaching zero growth by the year 2000, was unattainable through a “later, longer, fewer” campaign. Population studies had been discontinued in China in the late 1950s in line with Marxist doctrine. Only in 1975 did new university departments begin to be established, staffed largely by statisticians. They quickly realised that with half of the population under the age of 21, further growth was inevitable even if each family was quite small. 2 By the time of the 1982 census there were already more than 1 billion people in China, and if current trends persisted, there could be 1.4 billion by the end of the century. Most population growth rate targets were abandoned in the early 1980s, and from 1985 the official goal was to keep the population at around 1.2 billion by 2000. 3

Elements of the policy

Details of what the one child policy involved and how it was to be implemented have varied at different times. 4 The essential elements are clear. The aim was to curtail population growth, perhaps to 1.1 billion and certainly to 1.2 billion, by the year 2000. It was hoped that third and higher order births could be eliminated and that about 30% of couples might agree to forgo a second child. The ideal of a one child family implied that the majority would probably never meet it. It was argued that the sacrifice of second or third children was necessary for the sake of future generations. People were to be encouraged to have only one child through a package of financial and other incentives, such as preferential access to housing, schools, and health services. Discouragement of larger families included financial levies on each additional child and sanctions which ranged from social pressure to curtailed career prospects for those in government jobs. Specific measures varied from province to province. 5 Minorities were excluded from the policy.

Early implementation

In some of the largest and most advanced cities like Shanghai, sizeable proportions of couples already chose to have only one child. Both adults worked full time with long hours; the housing allocation was only 3.6 m 2 per person in 1977; without conveniences such as refrigerators tasks like shopping and cooking were time consuming daily efforts. In most families, at least one member would be employed in the state sector and susceptible to government direction. As a result, it was not long before 90% of couples in urban areas were persuaded to restrict their families to a single child.

Rural families, however, were more difficult to convince. Peasants with limited savings and without pensions needed children to support them in old age. As married daughters moved into their husbands’ families, a son was essential—and preferably more than one. Infant mortality had fallen greatly, but in 1980 it was still around 53 per 1000 live births nationally and higher than that in rural areas. 6

Years of political upheaval had left many peasants cynical about government policies and their likely duration; it also left them adept at avoiding unpopular prescriptions. Local authorities were forced to rely on fines for higher order births. They also turned to stringent birth control campaigns, which in the policy’s earlier years resulted in considerable numbers of women being bullied into abortions and sterilisation. Village level family planning workers were caught between the state’s demands and the determination of their friends and neighbours. Gradually villagers developed a process of negotiation and compromise 7 which allowed a degree of flexibility within the policy. As a result, irrespective of the particular directives at any given time, the proportion of women with one child who went on to have a second (almost universal behaviour in the late 1970s) fell only to 90% by 1990. 8

Effect of reform process on implementation

The economic reforms of recent years in China had many—often unintended—consequences for the one child family policy. Possibly the most important has been the growth of internal migration. Tight restrictions on movement, especially rural-urban movement, were relaxed as the demand for labour in the towns and cities grew. Government efforts to regulate the migrants, or even to identify their numbers, have been only partially successful. Recent estimates suggest that up to 150 million Chinese—most of them adults in their 20s and 30s—form a floating population who leave their villages for longer or shorter periods. 9 Earning cash wages, living in makeshift accommodation, moving between jobs and between cities and their home villages, these people are seldom eligible for state provided services and see no reason to draw official attention through temporary registration.

One result has been declines in the reliability of population statistics, already compromised by the reluctance of family planning workers to admit their inability to achieve the results demanded of them. In 1991-2, perhaps a quarter of all births were missed. 10 As a result, although China’s official total fertility rate for 1990-5 was 1.92 children, 11 it may be more realistic to assume total fertility around the replacement level—that is, a little over two children per couple.

Although both male and female births are underreported, the birth of a girl is twice as likely to be ignored. 12 Underreporting is believed to account for about half to two thirds of the difference in infant sex ratios, which by the early 1990s had risen to 114 boys for every 100 girls. Unrecorded daughters may be left with relatives, adopted out, or abandoned to orphanages, 13 which are increasingly unable to cope with the influx. Sex ratios are further skewed by widespread abortion, after the illegal but lucrative use of ultrasound to identify fetal sex.

In many rural areas rising incomes make it possible to see the fine for an additional child as a feasible investment strategy. At the same time peasants are increasingly saving for old age through a variety of retirement schemes, some offered through non-government family planning associations. These family planning associations, besides promoting family planning and the one child policy, offer various social welfare benefits including training and income generating loans for rural women and basic maternal and child health screening and care. 14

The introduction of fees for health services has had severe consequences for poorer peasants, and many women are unable to access reproductive health services, including maternity care or even follow up for contraceptive problems. One recent provincial survey found that over 70% of diagnosed women in a random sample had at least one reproductive tract infection. 15

A long standing challenge to effective family planning had been the poor quality and limited choice of contraceptives, especially in rural areas reliant largely on intrauterine devices and sterilisation. With support from international agencies, especially the UN Population Fund, quality has been improved (manufacture of the unreliable steel ring intrauterine device ceased in 1994). A wider range of methods is becoming available, and despite the extra cost to the individual they are proving popular.

Urban dependence on the state for employment, housing, education, and other benefits, which facilitated compliance with the one child policy, is being progressively reduced. However, although some in lucrative private work may choose to ignore the policy, for most people the increased costs and greater insecurity which they now face probably contribute to caution in family building. Instead, incomes are channelled into buying better health care and education for the sole child and providing the desirable brand name toys and clothes now available. Concerns over spoilt “little emperors” are widespread, and some family planning associations now run parent education classes to counter parents’ overprotective behaviour.

Outcomes of one child policy

The one child policy has unquestionably imposed great costs on individuals, even if (as has been suggested 16 ) these costs have to be seen in the context of a Chinese tradition in which demographic decisions have never been individual. Most Chinese people seem prepared to make such a sacrifice if the pain is generally shared. 17 , 18 In 1993, the family planning associations were officially given a supervisory role in monitoring coercion and other abuses in implementing the policy. The complaints they receive almost invariably relate to unfair favourable treatment of cadres or other favoured individuals.

The main criticism of the policy, though, is undoubtedly its stimulus to sex discrimination. Faced with hard choices about overall numbers, the Chinese girl child has once again become expendable. Too many girls, if not aborted, face orphanages or second class lives concealed from the world and with reduced chances of schooling and health care. China has one of the world’s highest rates of suicide of women in the reproductive years. 19 Increased pressure to produce the desired child, and a perceived reduction in the value of females, can only have exacerbated the problems of rural women.

At the same time, the successes of the policy should not be underrated. In the context of rising costs and rising aspirations throughout China, there is increasing recognition among the four fifths of the population that is rural of the burden to the family of having a third child, and some are even willing to avoid a second. 20 Moreover, since its inception reductions in Chinese fertility have reduced the country’s (and the world’s) population growth by some 250 million. These reductions in fertility have eased at least some of the pressures on communities, state, and the environment in a country which still carries one fifth of the world’s people.

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From A Collection of Cartoons on Marriage and Children (Hun yu bai tai man hua ji) by NING Changhui, 1989.

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Object name is kanp4468.f2r.jpg

One is ideal, said Mao

Internet Geography

Case Study: China

The Chinese government introduced the ‘One Child Policy’ in 1979. The aim of this policy was to attempt to control population growth. The policy limited couples to one child. Under this policy couples have to gain permission from family planning officials for each birth.

If families followed this policy they received free education, health care, pensions and family benefits. These are taken away if the couple have more than one child.

The benefits of this policy are that the growth rate of China’s population has declined. Without the policy it is estimated that there would be an extra 320 million more people in a country whose population is estimated to be 1.3 billion.

The scheme has caused a number of problems in China. This is particularly the case for hundreds of thousands of young females. Many thousands of young girls have been abandoned by their parents as the result of the one child policy. Many parents in China prefer to have a boy to carry on the family name. As a result large numbers of girls have either ended up in orphanages, homeless or in some cases killed. Also, 90% of foetuses aborted in China are female.

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