1.3 billion and counting...

At present, China has a population of approximately 1.3 billion people. In 1950, the rate of population growth in China per year was 1.9%. To put that in context, an annual growth rate of 3% would cause a population to double in less than 25 years. Aware the population growth would soon become unstainable, the Chinese government introduced the one-child policy in the late 1970s.

Broadly, the one-child policy allowed each couple just one child from their relationship. The implementation of the policy slowed the population growth to 0.7% per year. The one-child policy has since been abolished but the Chinese government has suggested that it prevented approximately 400 million births. From that data it would appear the one-child policy was a successful way of managing the population; however, recent studies have uncovered some harmful repercussions.

The gender imbalance in China is one such repercussion, with experts suggesting anywhere from 30 to 60 million girls are missing from the population. According to a 2010 census, there were 118 males for every 100 females born in China. The global average is 105 females. So, what happened to all those girls?

Associate Professor John Kennedy from the University of Kansas and Shi Yaojiang from the Shaanxi Normal University recently published a study in the China Quarterly suggesting the above statistics regarding missing girls are likely exaggerated. Kennedy and Yaojiang suggest many those girls aren’t missing at all, but rather their births weren’t registered, particularly in rural areas.

Research found that between 1990 and 2010, there were roughly 15 million girls missing. This figure also included female death rates and international adoption. Further research indicated approximately 11 million had simply gone unreported by families, leaving 4 million unaccounted for.

Chinese families that had more than one child during the one-child policy period faced fines and other punishments. Kennedy and Yaojiang’s study suggests rather than face these repercussions, families turned to sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, and these practises likely explain the other 4 million missing girls. Previous research had suggested between 1980 and 2000, 8.5 million girls were missing due to these devastating practices.

Interestingly, the one-child policy has also led to China’s rapidly ageing population. It’s been projected that by 2050, one quarter of China’s population will be over 65 years old. An ageing population affects the workforce and healthcare system dramatically. China’s ageing population is part of the reason the government chose to abolish the one-child policy.

The one-child policy undoubtedly also had significant emotional impact on individuals and couples. These issues involved not being allowed to determine the size of your family, being pressured into terminating a second pregnancy, or having a second child who is not allowed to access the healthcare and education systems, all of which were certainly harmful repercussions of the one-child policy.

Was the one-child policy a successful way of managing China’s population? There are certainly varied opinions. While the government suggests it was beneficial in preventing 400 million extra births, it appears the consequences outweigh the benefits. The ageing population and gender imbalance are two such consequences resulting from the policy.

It’s important to remember when the one-child policy was introduced, the government couldn’t foresee the technological and agricultural boom soon to occur. At the time, there was serious concern about drought, famine and how the rapidly growing population would cope with shortages.

It’s hard to imagine a society today that would implement a policy controlling how many children you’re allowed to have. But perhaps China didn’t have any other option. One positive to take from this is the Chinese government isn’t ignoring the issues that come with a rapidly growing population.

Abbey Brandenburg