The True History of China’s Disastrous One-Child Policy

Reform Is Too Little, Too Late

A preschool student looks up as other children take an afternoon nap in a classroom of a school for children of migrant workers in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, January 10, 2013. William Hong / Reuters

On October 29, 2015, the Chinese Communist Party announced that all couples will now be allowed to have two children, thus ending the 35-year enforcement of that nation’s one-child policy. In response, some have suggested that although fertility in China is now so low that a one-child policy is no longer needed or desirable, it was perhaps justified when it was launched in 1980. At the time, so the argument goes, former Chairman Mao Zedong’s long-term opposition to birth control had produced runaway population growth that threatened to impoverish the nation and undermine party rule. And however coercive the one-child policy was, many believe that it succeeded in preventing roughly 400 million births, thus benefiting China and the entire world, as The Washington Post observed in its October 31 editorial praising the ending of the policy. The facts say otherwise.

It is true that Mao is on record claiming on multiple occasions that rapid population growth was not a problem for a socialist country such as China. However, as on so many other topics, Mao was anything but consistent on this issue. For example, in 1957, Mao stated that China needed to draw up national plans to regulate reproduction. He denounced the “anarchism” of uncontrolled births and advocated a national campaign to promote birth control. He pushed for the establishment of a governmental agency to regulate births, which was done in 1964, after China recovered from the disastrous Great Leap Forward famine. Then, in 1970, well before China implemented the one-child policy and while Mao was still very much in charge, China made its momentous shift from voluntary family planning to mandatory birth limits.

That policy was symbolized by the slogan “Later, longer, fewer,” meaning delaying marriage until one's mid-20s, spacing out births by at least four years, and having fewer children overall—only two for urban couples and three for rural families. Highly coercive enforcement also began during the 1970s; women who became pregnant “over quota” faced heavy pressure to submit to abortions and sometimes

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