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China hasthe highest population of any country in the world. Mid-2006 estimates set China’s population at just over 1.3 billion; its rate of natural increase (RNI) is 0.6 percent per year. This rate is one-half that of the world and only one-third of India’s RNI (1.7 percent). There is every indication that India will pass China in total population some time between 2030 and 2040. Despite its relatively low RNI, China has chosen to continue its often criticized official policy of one child per family, which has been reauthorized through the current five-year plan (2006-10). The Chinese government justifies the extension of this policy by stating that it continues to be consistent with the country’s basic plan for population growth, a plan that reflects an insistence on slow growth. Along with the statement reauthorizing the one child policy was a proclamation that it would stay in place permanently.
The one child policy was initiated in 1979, when the Chinese government identified it as a short-term measure. At the time of implementation there was great concern that the growth of China’s population would get out of hand. The country’s arable land was limited, and over 60 percent of the population was approaching childbearing age. The prospect of high population increase and the potential inability to produce enough food for growing numbers provided the impetus for the policy. The legislation included several requirements in addition to the one child provision. Included was the insistence on later marriage, a policy long in place in some Scandinavian countries, and on the spacing of children in situations where more than one child was allowed. Other exclusions covered families in which a child was disabled, both parents worked in high-risk industries, or the parents were only children. In addition, there were special provisions in place for rural families. Generally, a second child was allowed after number of years, especially if the first was a girl. In some severely underpopulated regions of China, a third child was allowed.
The one child policy includes provisions for the awarding of economic incentives for families in compliance, and penalties and fines for not adhering to the rules. Some of the more severe sanctions include the loss of personal property and dismissal from work.
Within the one child policy is the acceptance of various means of birth control through contraception and abortion. This approach is similar to conditions in Japan following the end of World War II, when the country was stripped of overseas territorial acquisitions and was back on its four-island homeland. Almost overnight, the rate of population increase in the country declined to low levels and overall population growth was curtailed.
The one child policy was implemented despite an already sharply declining total fertility rate (TFR), defined as the average number of children born per woman in the childbearing years. In the early 1970s, the TFR in China was nearly six, which would indicate a high rate of population increase if it persisted over many years. By 1979, the year in which the one child policy began, the TFR was down to approximately 2.7. The mid-2006 estimate for TFR in China is 1.6, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 and the world average of 2.7. Despite these reassuring figures, the Chinese government insists that the one child policy is within the long-term interests of the country.
Of great concern is the fact that without the policy in place, there could be a dramatic increase in population within a generation, even though the TFR is significantly below the replacement rate. This is because of the high percentage of the population still in the childbearing age group. In short, the Chinese government does not want to run the risk of bringing on a baby boom similar to the ones experienced in the 1950s and 1960s. The government insists that the Chinese population not exceed 1.4 billion by 2010 and that total numbers begin to decline before mid-century.
On the plus side is the change in attitudes toward large families occurring as a population becomes more urbanized. Although China’s urban population is only 37 percent of the total, the move to urban areas is occurring at a rapid pace. This transition is expected to continue well into the future as the country continues to build its manufacturing and industrial base, economic thrusts that are largely based in cities. Also, there is every indication that families in China are becoming more attuned to having small families without the need for enforcement of the government-imposed one child policy. There is evidence as well that the traditional preference for a male child is not as prevalent as in past years. Incidences of female infanticide or the aborting of female fetuses have dramatically declined. Nonetheless, the ratio of males to females in China is 1.2, a reflection of the long-held preference for male children. This current male/female ratio portends serious problems as a generation of boys grows to marriage age with a significant portion of them having limited prospects for finding wives. The impact of this demographic on the political and social conditions of China in the next few years remains unknown.
- Isabelle Attane, “China’s Family Planning Policy: An Overview of Its Past and Future,” Studies in Family Planning (v.33/1, 2002);
- Nicholas Eberstadt, “Power and Population in Asia,” Policy Review (v.123, 2004);
- Susan Greenhalgh, “Science, Modernity, and the Making of China’s One-Child Policy,” Population and Development Review (v.29/2, 2003);
- Dudley L. Poston, “Son Preference and Fertility in China,” Journal of Biosocial Science (v.34/3, 2002);
- Feng Wang, “Can China Afford to Continue Its One-Child Policy?,” Asia Pacific Issues (v.77, 2005).