Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Born in the PRC

By Michael Kile - posted Friday, 13 November 2015

China recently announced a new two-child policy. The decision has been hailed as President Xi Jinping's most significant reform since taking office two years ago. But why was there a one-child policy in the first place?

The theory and practice of population control has a long history. Friedrich Engels set the ball rolling in February 1881 with his letter to German socialist leader, Karl Kautsky, about the latter's book, The Influence of the Increase in Population on the Progress of Society.

"There, is, of course, the abstract possibility that the number of people will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase. But if at some stage communist society finds itself obliged to regulate the production of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry this out without difficulty."


When China's demographic drama began a century later, its response was influenced inevitably by Engels and Marx. A national census on 1st July 1964 showed the country contained 695 million people, up from 552 million in 1950. Another on 1st July 1982 suggested an increase of 313 million to 1,008 million in almost two decades. Had this annual growth rate of 2.09 percent continued, numbers would have doubled in the next 33.5 years – to 2,106 million by 2016, compared with today's estimate of 1,368 million.

China's post-1949 leaders initially believed a large population was an asset. Revolutionary mantras like "vast territory, abundant materials, and massive population" were popular, but rapid growth soon became a cause for concern.

In 1977, Beijing's new Office of Population Theory Research published a volume that became almost as well-known as Chairman Mao's Red Book. It proposed direction government intervention in family life. There was still 'total anarchy' in collective procreation, despite successful birth control campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s. Only state intervention could ensure 'synchronisation' with national development.

"Human reproduction is no different to the production of other goods and services in the socialist economy. The current state of total anarchy must be replaced by reproductive planning. Raising the nation's children is not merely the sole concern of each citizen and family. Their actions affect the nation's total population, the socialist revolution and its success. Family planning, therefore, is more than a matter of distributing contraceptive knowledge and technology. It must also ensure that childbearing in each and every household is synchronised to the national development plan."

The aim was to achieve 'xiaokang shuiping' – a 'comparatively comfortable level of living' for every citizen – by 2000. To have any hope of doing so, the Communist Party decided it would have to reduce population growth even further than levels attained during the voluntary – 'later, longer, fewer' - campaign, which halved the birth rate to 18 per 1,000 during the 1970s. According to demographer H Yuan Tien, this was 'the most comprehensive, determined and successful effort ever made to regulate population growth in any modern nation.'

Faced with the daunting task of administering an urban population of 191 million and rural numbers of 796 million, a 'minimum reproduction policy' - with the one-child family as its centrepiece – was announced in 1979. The Party not only believed China's growth rate was unsustainable, but also wanted no more than 1,200 million people by 2000 to achieve its Four Modernizations program. The ultimate target was 700 million sometime this century.


What was the result? Ironically, while the average number of births per woman declined by about 50 percent from over six children in the late 1960s to about 2.7 in 1979 under the voluntary family planning regime, declines under the compulsory one-child policy were less dramatic, with women still having an average of 2.5 children in the mid-1990s, compared to1.7 in 2013.

Why did it not continue to fall, as expected by the State Family Planning Commission? The number of children desired by most couples simply reached a personal threshold. Rural couples resisted the new policy and had 'unauthorised' children. Most wanted at least two children - and at least one son – for security in old age. The Commission had ignored the importance of these attitudes.

Whatever the social and human costs – and they still loom large – the Party was able to modify these desire by 'massive ideological mobilisation'. Government propaganda was initially so persuasive that birth control was embraced as a patriotic duty – at least to the level of two children per couple. Another important factor influencing behaviour was stabilisation of the infant death rate at 61 every 1,000 births by 1980, half that of a decade earlier.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

5 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Michael Kile is author of No Room at Nature's Mighty Feast: Reflections on the Growth of Humankind. He has an MSc degree from Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London and a Diploma from the College. He also has a BSc (Hons) degree in geology and geophysics from the University of Tasmania and a BA from the University of Western Australia. He is co-author of a recent paper on ancient Mesoamerica, Re-interpreting Codex Cihuacoatl: New Evidence for Climate Change Mitigation by Human Sacrifice, and author of The Aztec solution to climate change.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Michael Kile

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 5 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy