China Ends Their One-Child Policy In 2015 After 35 Years

By | March 25, 2021

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A child hugs a red lantern in China. (Zhang Yin/China News Service via Getty Images)

In the late 1970s, China was a mess. The population was growing out of control, and there was a real risk that would it would soon outpace economic development in the country, potentially leaving millions unemployed, homeless, and starving. Drastic measures were in order, so in 1979, the country implemented a radical and controversial law: the one-child policy.

Overpopulation In China

After the People's Republic of China was officially founded in 1949, the top concern of the Chinese government was shifting the country's culture and economy from agriculture to industry. It was working: As access to medical care and improved sanitation curbed the infant mortality rate and increased the average life expectancy, the economy—and population—boomed. At first, it seemed like a good thing, but by 1958, there wasn't enough food in China to feed everyone. A terrible famine swept the country, and tens of millions of Chinese people died as a result.

Government officials in China vowed to prevent such a devastating famine from ever happening again. They introduced a campaign to promote family planning, led by the popular slogan "Late, Long, and Less," encouraging families to postpone childbearing, space out pregnancies, and scale back their parenting ambitions to two children in urban communities or three for rural families. The campaign, which continued through the '60s and '70s, was somewhat successful, but many families were still having children at unsustainable rates.

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The Danshan, Sichuan Province Nongchang Village people Public Affairs Bulletin Board in September 2005 noted that RMB 25,000 in social compensation fees were owed in 2005. (David Cowhig/Wikimedia Commons)

China's One-Child Policy

On October 29, 1979, China unceremoniously rolled out its government-mandated one-child policy, legally forbidding families from having more than one child. It was initially meant to be a temporary measure to drastically reduce the birth rate, but it remained in place for the next 35 years. The Chinese government went to extremes to ensure compliance: Women faced forced abortions, government-sanctioned surgical sterilizations, and the involuntary insertion of intrauterine devices, while family planning officials kept detailed records of the reproductive status of every woman of childbearing age in their jurisdictions.

The Chinese government also enlisted the help of Chinese citizens, who were encouraged to spy on their neighbors and coworkers and report any suspected pregnancies or births to the government in exchange for monetary rewards. Law-abiding families were also financially compensated in the form of government assistance and better jobs with higher wages, while those who defied the policy faced fines and even lost their jobs. Many couples were granted exceptions, usually those whose first children were girls (more on that in a moment) or boys with disabilities, but those who incurred the wrath of the government incurred it hard.