The End of China’s One-Child Policy: Not a Complete Victory


BY DAN PISCOTTANO – China made news late last week when the country’s leadership decided to end its “one-child” policy.[1] The policy had been in place since the late 1970’s, when it was enacted to protect the country against overpopulation.[2] This is a significant development because many believe that the “one-child” policy, which had been enforced through steep financial penalties, sterilization, and even forced abortions and infanticide,[3] constituted a significant humans rights violation.[4]

It should be noted, however, that China has not completely repealed the legislation controlling reproductive rights. Instead, the country’s leadership has simply decided to allow all married couples to have two children.[5] The government’s decision comes as a result of fears about a rapidly aging population and shrinking labor force.[6] Though this may appear to be a step in the right direction, critics do not believe the change will be terribly impactful.[7]

In 2013, the Chinese government began to allow couples, where one of the spouses was an only child, to have two children.[8] Despite this reform, many Chinese couples that would be eligible to have a second child chose not to.[9] Many cited the economic and social pressures of raising a child in “a highly competitive society” as the reason for not taking advantage of the relaxed policy[10]

The irony is that the “pressures” that the couples are concerned about are likely a result of the decades-long one-child policy. The policy has created a class of only children that have become known as “Little Emperors” because of the excessive amount of attention and support that they receive from their parents.[11] This, coupled with a large-scale gender imbalance (caused by the society’s preference for males) has left China with an estimated surplus of 30 million men.[12] Such a surplus, in turn, has made finding a spouse increasingly difficult for many Chinese men. Subsequently, families of single men have invested in making their children more marketable to Chinese women by doing things like buying expensive apartments or houses, or even paying large amounts of money to a woman’s family directly.[13]

In fact, many attribute a recent explosion in property values in China directly to this surplus of bachelors.[14] In a period from 2003 to 2009, some economists estimate that the gender imbalance is responsible for an approximate increase in housing prices of 30-48%.[15] Furthermore, those who choose to simply pay for a woman’s hand in marriage directly can expect to pay as much as “a decade’s worth of farm income.”[16] Given such figures, it is obvious why many considered the pressures of raising one child to be enough.

Aside from the issues with the effectiveness of the legislation, there are also the aforementioned human rights concerns. While the recent change is a slight improvement, it still amounts to a violation of one’s reproductive rights.[17] Many of the issues that were present under the old law, exorbitant fines, sterilization, forced abortions, and infanticide, will likely still occur.[18]

Concerns over the continued human rights violations led to an Amnesty International press release, which characterized the change in policy as “not enough.”[19] The press release went on to explain, “Couples that have two children could still be subjected to coercive and intrusive forms of contraception, and even forced abortions – which amount to torture.”[20]

Notwithstanding the ineffectiveness or the ethicality of the new law, there is still reason to be optimistic. If projections that the policy will not lead to the population growth that China hopes for, then perhaps it is possible that the government will consider completely repealing all legislating relating to family planning. Until then, however, China’s policies remain extremely problematic from a human rights standpoint. As the Amnesty International press release put it, “If China is serious about respecting human rights, the government should immediately end such invasive and punitive controls over people’s decisions to plan families and have children.”[21]


[1] Chris Buckley, China Ends One-Child Policy, New York Times, (October 29, 2015),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Lynn P. Freedman and Stephen L. Isaacs, Human Rights and Reproductive Choice, Vol. 24, No. 1. Stud. in Fam. Plan. 18, 23 (explaining that the “right of couples and individuals to control their reproduction freely and responsibly” is “undeniabl[e]” and “internationally recognized”).

[5] China Ends One-Child Policy

[6] Id.

[7] Mei Fong, China’s Brutal One-child Policy Shaped How Millions Lived, Loved, and Died, The Guardian (October 31, 2015),

[8] China Ends One-Child Policy

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] China’s Brutal One-child Policy Shaped How Millions Lived, Loved, and Died

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Human Rights and Reproductive Choice

[18] Press Release, Amnesty Int’l, China: Reform of One-Child Policy ‘Not Enough’ (October 29, 2015),

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

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