Population Policy, China

  • Paul C. TrogenEmail author
  • Yuan Xu
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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2853-2



Population policy consists of government actions which influence or attempt to influence the growth, size, distribution, and/or composition of a nation’s population.


China’s population policy evolves to respond to changing social conditions. Even the one-child policy, the most controversial population policy in history (Whyte et al. 2015), was never an ideological blueprint for the future but only a temporary fix. During each policy, policy makers were already contemplating their next step.

Types of Population Policy

Population policies can be divided into pro-natal policies and population control policies. Pro-natal policies encourage more children, whereas population control policies seek to limit births. Population control policies can again be divided into two categories, the family planning gap approach and the desired children approach.

The family planning gap approach assumes contraceptives are the best policy, as high fertility results from the inaccessibility and cost of contraceptives (Pritchett 1994:1–2). If contraceptives are distributed, people voluntarily use them to reduce births (Daugherty and Kammeyer 1995:225). It assumes that individual freedom to pursue enlightened self-interest will coincide with the public interest (Gupte 1984:183).

The second strategy, the “desired children” approach, suggests that development is the best contraception. People tend to have the number of children they want, subject to social, educational, cultural, and economic conditions (Pritchett 1994:2). One empirical study found that 90% of differences in fertility between countries were accounted for by differences in desired fertility (ibid).

Population Dynamics of Developing Nations

The People’s Republic of China faced demographic challenges common to the developing world. Since 1950, the population of the developing world more than doubled (Pritchett 1994:1). Almost half of the population in developing countries is young (Gillespie 1984), creating explosive demographic potential as these children approach their own childbearing years. If all couples were limited to only two children, the population would still grow 80%; most countries would need to limit births to one child per couple over the next 30 years just to stabilize the population (Gillespie 1984).

In China, irresistible demographic dynamics collide with immovable geographic constraints. While China has 22% of the world’s population, it only has 7% of the earth’s arable land (Gu 1997:42). Only about 15% of China’s land is suitable for farming. Until 1949, war, famine, and disease kept death rates near the birth rate, and the population was stable at 500 million (Gupte 1984:178). When Mao reduced war and disease as population suppressants, China’s population grew 20 million/year.

Population Policy in China

In 1949, China was the world’s most populous country, with a population of 500 million people. China remains the world’s most populous country with approximately 1.3 billion.

Initial Policy: Socialist Development Is the Best Policy (1949–1954)

Social transformation superseded population control as Mao’s primary goal in 1949. Mao’s statements on population showed appreciation of multiple approaches to population control. Mao took two steps which reduced fertility. The marriage law of 1950 raised the marriage age for women to 18 and Mao integrated women into the workforce (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:246). Officially, the purpose was to protect women. New health policies also improved basic health, controlled disease, and reduced death rates far more than the marriage law reduces birth rates. The population grew 20 million a year for the next ten years (Gupte 1984:178).

Mao’s public pronouncements extolled the value of China’s vast population, “The more people we have, the greater our force”. Mao said, “Every stomach comes with two hands attached,” and the government encouraged births as a means to increase labor as the best way to increase production (Morrish 1994:44). The People’s Daily denounced birth control as, “A way of slaughtering the Chinese people without drawing blood” and called people, “The most precious of all categories of capital” (Gupte 1984:178). Impressive agricultural results before 1957 seemed to vindicate Mao’s confidence (Aston et al. 1984:625).

First Five-Year Plan

China’s first population control campaign was part of the first five-year plan in 1954. The 1953 census revealed the population had grown to 600 million people (Gupte 1984:179). By 1956 an intensive family planning program included distribution of contraceptives, educational programs on reproductive physiology, and a propaganda program extolling the virtues of small families (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986, p.247). Population policy was still pragmatically subordinated to socialist development. The first population campaign was implemented in cities, where only 20% of the people lived, because the collectivization of agriculture had higher priority in the countryside (Gupte 1984:197). The shift from pro-natal propaganda to the family planning gap message that contraception is the best policy was effective. The birth-rate fell substantially (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:247). The new propaganda encouraging small families foreshadowed future policies when state goals would supplant a family’s own goals in family planning.

Mao’s thinking raced ahead of official policy. He was conversant in many schools of population policy. Mao argued that development is the best contraceptive: “after 100 years … our cultural level will be high. When all the people are college educated, they will naturally practice birth control” (Zedong 1958). But Mao’s top priority was building socialism. Mao was confident the Great Leap Forward would solve China’s food problem: “We are not afraid of a population of 800 million or one billion” (ibid). Unfortunately, Mao’s optimism collided with reality during the Great Leap Forward.

The Great Leap Forward

The largest famine in world history occurred in China during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961), when 30 million people died of famine during government efforts to collectivize agriculture and to shift resources from agriculture to industry (Aston et al. 1984:614, 625).

The Great Leap Forward attempted to realize Mao’s vision of economic growth through labor and socialist enthusiasm. “Human investment” led to building dams with shovels (Gupte 1984:343).

During the Great Leap, opponents of population control won a temporary victory, and the first population campaign was abandoned (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:247). Proponents were denounced as rightists, purged from the Party, dismissed from ministerial posts, and repudiated their policies (Gupte 1984:179; Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:253). A rapid increase in the birth-rate resumed when the famine ended (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:247).

China’s Second Population Campaign

Following the Great Leap’s failure, Mao was replaced by Liu Shaoqi as Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, but Mao still retained leadership of the Communist Party (Aston et al. 1984:614). China’s second population campaign began in 1962 with a reinstatement of the previous population policies and programs (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:247). A central birth planning office was established, and contraceptives finally became widely available again in 1962 (ibid).

Cultural Revolution Population Policy Reversal

In 1966, Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution to oust Liu Shaoqi as head of state and consolidate his control over the government. Like most government activities, the second population campaign and distribution of contraceptive supplies was interrupted (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:247). Red Guards sought to weed out anti-revolutionary elements in society (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:253) and persecuted family planning cadres (Ma 1996:265). Suspension of population campaigns during both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution led to a decade without a population program and led to a baby boom in the 1960s.

Liu Shaoqi was finally ousted as head of state in 1970. At that time, the average Chinese woman bore six children (Gu 1997:41). Inside the government, family planning became a controversial topic. Opinions split into two factions: birth control (contraception is the best population policy) and family planning, which reflected Mao’s idea of central planning for human reproduction. After 1969, an administrative framework for family planning was built (Population Policy 2014).

Later-Longer-Fewer, China’s Third Population Campaign, 1971

Political instability precluded an organized birth limitation program before 1971 (Kaufmann, et al. 1989:708). Pragmatic politicians have little incentive to promote unpopular programs during a power struggle. After Mao reestablished firm control, the “later-longer-fewer” campaign reflected the recentralization of authority. “Family planning” became central planning. Births under later-longer-fewer were rationed under a quota system (Population Policy 2014). National birth quotas were passed down through the administrative hierarchy (ibid). Couples wanting a child had to request a planned birth card from their local family planning committees in order to obtain obstetric care, while alternatives, such as abortions, sterilizations, and IUDs, were provided freely (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:249).

The later-longer-fewer campaign stressed three reproductive norms: wan (“later” as in later marriage), xi (“longer” as in longer spacing between children), and shao (“fewer” as in fewer total children) (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:247;). Committees for planned birth were organized at every administrative level. The delivery of contraceptives was closely tied in with the provision of basic health care by local clinics in urban areas and by the barefoot doctors in the countryside. Medical means of birth control were supplemented with peer group pressure in factories, enterprises, urban streets, and rural villages. Each small group received its allocated number of births. As a result, decisions regarding family size became subjected to intervention by the state in the form of peer group pressure (Population Policy 2014).

Implementation varied. While the national quota was set at the center, the local allocation of these quotas was determined at the local level. In 1980 the legal marriage age was raised two years (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:247). In the city efforts were made to delay marriage further until age 25 for brides and 27 for grooms. (Whyte et al. 2015). Local birth planning officials pressured couples to wait 3–4 years between births (Kammeyer and Ginn 1986:248; Whyte et al. 2015) and to limit themselves to two children in the cities and three children in the country. Penalties were imposed for those who did not comply (Kaufmann et al. 1989:708; Whyte et al. 2015). The later-longer-fewer campaign reduced births from six per woman to an average of three (Fong 2016: xiii).

One-Child Policy

Mao died in 1976. A second generation of eight elders shared leadership, mentored by Deng Xiaoping, who had directed the economic recovery after the Great Leap Forward. Deng set a goal of quadrupling the per capita gross domestic product (GDP), a task made easier by slowing population growth (Fong 2016: 48).

The baby boom preceding the later-longer-fewer campaign created a large cadre of women approaching their childbearing years. In the 1970s, half of China’s population was under 21 (Daugherty and Kammeyer 1995:239). The problem was not people having more babies but more people having babies (Gupte 1984:182). The huge bulge in the population pyramid in the 1960s had the potential to create an equally large echo effect in the 1980s (Gu 1997:42). With a half billion young people approaching their childbearing years, even if each couple were to have only two children, a population explosion was imminent (ibid). China was already importing between 15 and 20 million tons of grain to feed its people (Gupte 1984:162). In 1980, China’s population appeared destined to reach 1.4 billion by 2000, surpassing the country’s ability to feed itself (Morrish 1994:45).

In the early 1970s, a project group using computerized population models projected that China needed to limit each couple to a single child (Ma 1996:265). China’s one-child policy was crafted by military rocket scientist Song Jian (Fong 2016:48). Song projected that under a two child per family quota, the population would continue to balloon, and even with a one-child policy, the population would still grow for another 25 years (Fong 2016:53). The policy would be necessary for three decades (Fong 2016, 58).

On September 25 1980, an open letter asked communist party members to voluntarily limit their family to one child (Fong 2016: x). The one-child policy progressed through three phases: (1) a restrictive policy with strong implementation, (2) a liberalized policy with relaxed implementation, and finally (3) a liberalized policy, with stronger implementation.

First Phase: One-Child Policy Introduction

The first phase was a restrictive policy with increasing implementation. This policy was announced in 1979 and leniently enforced during 1980–1981 (Greenhalgh 1986:491). Fines would be levied on families who violated the policy, based on family income and other factors. Fines could range from inconsequential to five times annual disposable income (Fong 2016:6, 67). From the central government to the local level, Population and Family Planning Commissions were created to raise awareness among the populace and to provide surveillance for implementation of the policy.

In 1983, circulars appeared calling for mandatory IUD insertion for women with one child, abortions for unauthorized pregnancies, and sterilization for couples with two or more children (Greenhalgh 1986:491). Strict application of the one-child policy followed. National annual birth quotas were allocated to the provinces which assigned responsibility to local governments to set the number of births permitted in each area (Li 1995:563). Local officials, either heads of work units or village heads, selected the families authorized to have a child (Li 1995:563). Birth permits were not automatically granted to new couples; to achieve targets, local authorities required people to wait until they got a permit (Li 1995:568). Pregnancies outside the plan (without permits) had to be terminated (Li 1995:563). The birth-rate dropped to 1.385 per couple in 1984 (Ma 1996:267), but there were unanticipated consequences. Abortion and sterilization campaigns led some couples, desperate for a son, to commit female infanticide (Greenhalgh 1986:491). Unanticipated levels of resistance erupted; women illegally removed their IUDs or ran away to cities or the wilderness to have children, and people attacked family planning workers (Greenhalgh 1986:508).

Second Phase: Central Document 7

In 1984, the nationwide one-size-fits-all measure proved so unpopular that the central government was forced to decentralize a large portion of the one-child policy (Fong 2016:71). Document 7 encouraged the development of local policies at the local level to suit local needs (Greenhalgh 1986:493; Short and Zhai 1998:374). Revisions enabled those most in need to have a second child (Greenhalgh 1986:507). This liberalization was likely due to a desire to stop female infanticide (Mosher 2001:45) and to ease political strains at the local level (Greenhalgh 1986:492).

Each of the 30 provinces developed its own family planning laws, to meet 5-year targets set by the Central Family Planning Commission. The provincial-level administrative regions were divided by household registration status. Families with urban household registration status could have only one child. Policy divided citizens with rural or agricultural household registration status into three categories. Residents in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Chongqing, and Sichuan provinces still needed to follow the one-child rule. In Hainan, Qinghai, Ningxia, Yunnan, and Xinjiang provinces, residents with rural household registration status were allowed to have two children. Families in the other 19 provinces would follow the rule of 1.5-child policy which means if the first child was a girl, a second child was allowed as long as their births were within the plan and did not jeopardize the goal of limiting population to 1.2 million by the year 2000 (Greenhalgh 1986:492). The birthrate, which was 13.85 per thousand in under the strict policy 1984, rose to 20.0 per thousand under the relaxed policy during 1986–1989 (Ma 1996:267).

With increasing flexibility came increasing responsibility. The second reform in the second phase of the one-child policy strengthened the cadre responsibility system (Greenhalgh 1986:493) and held local cadres accountable for successful implementation (Short and Zhai 1998). Cadre responsibility systems spelled out the rewards for success and penalties for failure (Greenhalgh 1986, p.503). Provincial officials also became responsible for family planning outcomes:

In 1990 the central government instituted a nationwide accountability system. Called yipiaofoujue (loosely translated as “one-vote-veto”), it made birth-planning targets a major objective for all provincial authorities. Administrators who did not meet their area’s birth quotas could face wage reductions, demotions, or even dismissal. (Fong 2016:73)

A third reform during the second phase was the Information Management System (Greenhalgh 1986:504). Continuous systematic monitoring of fertility assured that targets were met (Greenhalgh 1986:499). The system recorded the status of women of reproductive age (Greenhalgh 1986:504). One reporter’s visit to a family planning service station in Jiekuang Village Elementary School in Hunan Province showed how the system worked (Lawrence 1994). A chart on the wall recorded the 160 women of childbearing age assigned to that station. Of 160, 125 were sterilized, twenty were using IUDs, five were infertile, and four were on the pill. One had a recent birth, and five had permits to have babies (ibid). Every six months, family planning workers performed ultrasounds on women using birth control to ascertain if the steel ring IUD was in proper position and to catch babies conceived outside the plan early enough to perform safe abortions (ibid). Any such woman lacking an allotted a space in the official quota was expected to have an abortion (ibid).

Third Phase: Liberal Policy with Strong Implementation

The third phase of the one-child policy was a liberalized policy with stronger implementation. A December 19, 2000, State Family Planning Commission white paper set a population cap of 1.6 million by 2050 and reiterated that targets and quotas were to be achieved by education and persuasion (Mosher 2001:45). The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee elevated population goals to the level of economic goals. Village cadres would also have their salaries docked for poor performance.

Selective Two-Child Policy

After the eighth session of the third plenary in November 2013, the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee revised regulations, among the most important of which was the selective two-child policy. The selective two-child policy was a prototype that allowed families formed by the marriage of two single children to have two offspring.

The selective two-child policy signaled the imminent phasing out of the one-child policy. Its purpose was attained. The one-child policy was an interim solution to drastically reduce the fertility of one generation (Greenhalgh 1986:508). The youngest children of the baby boom were now over 40 and had declining fertility. Relaxing the one-child policy became feasible once the baby boom generation passed beyond their childbearing years.

The Two-Child Policy

Officials implemented a two-child policy in late 2015 because of early indications that the one-child-policy was creating a labor shortage. In 2015, the last year of the 12th five-year plan, the demographic dividend generated by workers born in the 1960s, baby boom was evaporating, and economic growth slowed. According to Peian Wang, the vice director of China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, the two-child policy is more practical than the selective two-child policy because it better serves China’s current population and economic trends. Now anyone will be allowed to have a second child, regardless of where they live.

China’s move to a two-child policy may be too little too late. When Beijing adopted the selective two-child policy in 2013, only about one tenth of the eligible couples applied to have a second child (Fong 2016:xii). Many say it is too costly and stressful to raise a second child (Fong 2016:xii;). The costs of services like schooling and health care are still prohibitively high (Fong 2016:7). A survey conducted by Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences shows that the average spending per child per year in 2011 was 32,000 yuan (about $5,000 US dollars), compared to the average disposable family income 31,838 yuan (Wu and Yu 2011). Since the cost of an additional child exceeds average the disposable family income, 45.3% of parents in this major city did not want to have a second child, even if allowed. Modern educated women choose to have fewer children (Fong 2016:55).

Thirty five years of the one-child policy allowed many Chinese to internalize the one-child household as the ideal. If Beijing is unable to reverse this thinking, China’s population will peak between 2020 and 2030 and then decline to 1950 levels in 2100 (Fong 2016:xii).


Policy Evolution

In less than 70 years, China has run the full circle of population policy. First, the official policy was “each stomach came with two hands attached” as population was extolled as labor as China endeavored to build socialism by hand. The first population control policy worked under the assumption that contraception is the best policy. The next policy was family planning but with Chinese characteristics that planning was designed to meet central birth quotas. The next step was the one-child policy. This policy worked too well. After 35 years, the one-child policy has changed Chinese culture, and many urban couples now prefer to have only one child. Now, a shrinking labor force insufficient to support China’s retiring baby boomers is causing China to successively relax its population policies in hope of more births. But, as other developed countries have discovered, encouraging people to have more children often has modest impact. The People’s Republic of China’s population policy has now come full circle. China’s challenge will be to encourage its modern, educated, urban workforce to have enough children to support its retiring baby boomers. This will be the hardest challenge yet.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.East Tennessee State UniversityJohnson CityUSA
  2. 2.Vanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA