Population, Policy, and Politics: How Will History Judge China’s One-Child Policy?

Content from the Brookings-Tsinghua Public Policy Center is now archived. Since October 1, 2020, Brookings has maintained a limited partnership with Tsinghua University School of Public Policy and Management that is intended to facilitate jointly organized dialogues, meetings, and/or events.

One of the main puzzles of modern population and social history is why, among all countries confronting rapid population growth in the second half of the twentieth century, China chose to adopt an extreme measure of birth control known as the one-child policy. A related question is why such a policy, acknowledged to have many undesirable consequences, has been retained for so long, even beyond the period of time anticipated by its creators.

With the world’s population growth rate now at half its historical peak level and with nearly half of the world’s population living in countries with fertility below replacement level, we can look back at the role politics played in formulating, implementing, and reformulating policies aimed at slowing population growth (Demeny and McNicoll 2006; Robinson and Ross 2007; Demeny 2011). In this context, an examination of China’s unprecedented government intervention in reproduction offers valuable lessons in appreciating the role of politics in the global effort of birth control in the twentieth century.

Aside from the rise and fall of Communism, family planning programs along with the Green Revolution could be considered two of the most consequential social experiments of the twentieth century. These two experiments differ, however, in both content and approach. The Green Revolution was aimed at feeding the population, while family planning programs were designed to curtail its growth. The Green Revolution was technological, economic, and global, while family planning programs were social, political, and often country specific.

Nowhere in the world did politics and policies figure more prominently in the effort to control population growth than in China. The policy of allowing all couples to have only one child finds no equal in the world and it may be one of the most draconian examples of government social engineering ever seen. In this essay, we cast China’s one-child policy in the changing global context of population policymaking, we revisit the supposed necessity of such a policy by examining the claim that the policy was responsible for preventing 400 million births, and we discuss the reasons such a policy, with all its known negative consequences, has been allowed to stay in place for more than thirty years since its inception.

Editor’s Note: this paper first appeared in Population and Development Review, published by the Population Council.

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