A Demographic Disaster

The Chinese government is now studying the consequences of its one-child policy.

On April 24, 2010, the Associated Press reported that in 2009 the Chinese government commissioned a study of the possible effects of discontinuing or “refining” its onechild policy. The article cites Zheng Zhenzhen, who conducted the study and wrote in the November 2009 issue of Asian Population Studies, “Government control is no longer necessary to maintain low fertility. A carefully planned relaxation of the birth-control policy in China is unlikely to lead to an unwanted baby boom.” It also quotes Xie Zhenming, from the Association of Chinese Population, who anticipates gradual changes in family planning laws over the next five years.

The AP article was published toward the end of a 20-day campaign, in heavily populated Puning County in Guangdong Province, to sterilize men and women who were accused of violating national birth control policies. In the village of Daba, a physician boasted that his surgical team was working nonstop from 8:00 in the morning to 4:00 am the following day. On April 12, the fifth day, Puning officials announced that they were already halfway to their goal of 10,000 sterilizations.

The recent campaign in Puning, during which thousands of Chinese citizens were driven like livestock into family planning centers, was no anomaly. In Shandong, 7,000 women were sterilized by force in 2005, and Chen Guangcheng, a lawyer, spent years in prison for denouncing the involuntary surgical procedures.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), addressing the 37th Annual National Right to Life Convention in June 2009, declared that “China’s one-child-per-couple policy relies on coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, ruinous fines in amounts up to 10 times the salary of both parents, imprisonment, and job loss or demotion to achieve its quotas.” This indictment was substantiated years ago in on-the-ground investigative reports by Population Research Institute.

PRI president Steven W. Mosher demonstrates in Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits (2008), that “the Chinese program remains highly coercive not because of local deviations from central policies but as a direct, inevitable, and intentional consequence of those policies.” He lists the essential components of China’s population control program: targets and quotas, bribes and punishments, organizational structures, and promotional propaganda. “Targets and quotas, it should be noted, were banned by the 1994 Cairo population conference on the grounds that they always led to abuses, but this prohibition has been largely ignored by officials who claim that the numbers are only used for ‘planning purposes.’”

The most disturbing aspect of the one-child policy described by Mosher is the use of group pressure tactics to co-opt the local populace for the goals set by the National Population and Family Planning Commission. A city district that exceeds its quota of births receives no financial awards for exemplary industrial production. Rural couples whose first child was a girl can try again to have a boy, but only on one condition: there must be absolutely no unauthorized births in their village that year. 


The one-child policy was originally designed as a trade-off between material progress and the fundamental human right to raise a family. Limits to Growth, the notorious 1974 report by the Club of Rome about “overpopulation” and scarce resources, was based on wild assumptions and sketchy data. Its alarmist predictions were backed, however, by state-of-the-art computer modeling, which so impressed a visiting systems control specialist from China that he went home and designed a program to make projections about the Chinese population. The apocalyptic scenario that he presented to Communist Party officials left only two alternatives: population control or disaster. Chinese leaders quickly and enthusiastically embraced these findings of “Western science,” which incidentally shielded them from responsibility for economic failures. From then on, population was to blame.

The computer simulation suggested that China’s population could be stabilized by limiting births to 1.5 per woman, but that didn’t satisfy the central planners. The one-child policy, a draconian project allowing only one child per couple, was first proposed publicly by Deng Xiaoping in a 1979 speech. By 1981 it was in place nationwide.

The policy has never been implemented with arithmetic perfection. In rural China especially, where only sons can carry on the family name, care for aged parents, and perform funeral rites, a male heir was so important that parents whose firstborn was a girl were allowed a second chance at having a boy. Since 2002 non-compliant parents can simply pay “social contributions” for their out-of-plan children; these fines are set prohibitively high, however, so that only the wealthiest can afford them. After the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008, which left tens of thousands dead or missing, Chinese authorities permitted parents who had lost their only child to conceive another. Tubal ligations were reversed for hundreds of bereaved women. This temporary easing of the rule applied only to the most hard-hit cities.

According to the fifth national census, conducted in 2000, China’s total fertility rate fell to 1.22, whereas the replacement level is slightly above 2.0. Almost all provinces reported rates below the replacement threshold. The AP article cites projections that in years to come the number of 20- to 24-year-olds in China could decrease by half while the proportion of people aged 60 or more could become as much as one-third of the total population. This demographic trend is sure to affect the country’s economic growth.

Why hasn’t the whole family planning system been abolished? In February 2009, a reporter for Le Courrier International wrote that although China’s one-child policy is causing demographic problems, family planning organizations in every locality and at every level of government are “the livelihood for at least several hundred thousands of persons,” who therefore tenaciously support the policy and even dispute the national census results to defend their jobs.


The human costs of the one-child policy have been incalculable. Huo Datong, a psychoanalyst who trained in France and practices in China, says that “the trauma of the only child is the major challenge confronting China.” In a book titled China on the Psychiatrist’s Couch he explained that “the One-Child Policy strikes at the heart of the Chinese family structure, which is founded on many children—a sign of prosperity…. The government cannot eradicate the Chinese cultural desire to be the father or mother of many children…. A new equilibrium has to be devised.” Congressman Smith described the devastation more bluntly. “Women are severely harmed emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Chinese women are violated by the state. The suicide rate for Chinese women—about 500 a day—far exceeds suicide rates anywhere on earth.”

Females of all ages have suffered disproportionately from the government restrictions. Mosher writes, “Within a few years of the introduction of the one-child policy, hundreds of thousands of baby girls were being drowned, smothered, or abandoned at birth each year…even in relatively wealthy areas like the Pearl River Delta, where female infanticide was unknown in earlier times.”

The increased availability of techniques for determining the sex of a fetus has led to widespread selective abortion. An official report notes that currently 119 boys are born for every 100 girls (in 1982 the ratio was 108 boys to 100 girls). It is expected that by 2020 between 25 and 30 million Chinese men will have no prospects of marrying.

This gender imbalance has already led to a host of social ills: higher rates of crime, homosexuality, and divorce, and a lucrative market in surrogate mothers (usually recruited by agencies from poor villages). The Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing admits that there is trafficking in North Korean and Vietnamese women, who are sold to single Chinese farmers. These “undocumented slaves” are often resold to other networks or else handed over to the Chinese police, who receive a bounty for sending them back across the border.

In May 2009, the French newspaper Libération published an article on the abduction or “theft” of Chinese children. (A piece in English by Peter Hitchens corroborated the story in April 2010.) Between 8,000 and 15,000 children disappear in China each year; three quarters of them are boys, victims of human trafficking. A Chinese lawyer maintains that “the government does not want to acknowledge the breadth” of the phenomenon and does nothing to combat it. “There are three sorts of buyers: families without children; those who have daughters only; those who have a son but want to have several descendants in keeping with the traditional image of the family…. Theoretically one has to satisfy several criteria in order to adopt, but there are always local arrangements. After several years…the village leader legalizes the child,” making it impossible for the biological parents to find their child. (Human trafficking in Chinese children is hushed up because it would tarnish the country’s image.) 

In February 2009, another study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted that in a poll of 18,638 women, 69 percent of those who were authorized to have a second child said that they did not want one, mainly for financial reasons. The urban Chinese, at least, have learned well the lessons of the past 30 years: China’s vast but shallow economic development leaves money tight, and parents have little margin of error. 

Will the Chinese learn as readily the lessons appearing on the new propaganda posters? “Pay attention to the issue of gender imbalance.” “Boy or Girl? Let Nature decide.” “Caring for girls is caring for the future of our nation.” Or will the propaganda posters someday read: “One or three or five or eight? Let Nature decide”?


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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.