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And You Thought YOU had it Bad: A Look at China’s One-Child Policy and Recent Relaxations

In family law we deal with clients that are going through probably the worst period of their lives, and do our very best to minimize the damage and help them rebuild healthy productive lives. I joke with my friends in transactional law about how placid their work is compared to mine. “You mean the contract may fall through and X company may not be able to tout their new project by the next annual shareholders meeting? My clients only have the custody of their children at stake, but your client REALLY has it bad” said no one ever. Still, it is important to keep things in perspective. Some of our clients may have the custody of their children at stake, but no matter what happens, they will not be declared criminals and fined should they have more than one child. This article will look at the Chinese policy that has made the news recently because of the Chinese government’s relaxation of what is commonly known as the “One-child policy,” discuss the policy’s controversies and supposed benefits, and outline the changes purportedly being made.

The Policy

Within the People’s Republic of China (not to be confused with the Republic of China, more commonly known as Taiwan), families in a large minority of the population are subject to strict implementation of a law restricting them to only having one child. Families who have twins are not penalized. Families may also apply to have a second child, but are usually only permitted if their first child was a girl or was physically or mentally handicapped. Semi-autonomous regions (such as Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet), as well has foreigners living in China are also immune from the policy, leaving a little over a third of the population subject to strict-implementation. Violators of the policy are subject to a large annual fine, known as the shèhuì fǔyǎngfèi, or social fostering fee, that usually represents a large portion of their income, and the extra child is usually not eligible for any state benefits, including education.


Western nations and scholars have generally harshly criticized the policy for a number of reasons. More libertarian countries like the United States across the board find the policy an abhorrent interference with a fundamental right of human beings to procreate. Other criticisms point to the markedly negative effects of the policy, including the considerable sex-based birth rate disparity in the PRC. For every 100 girls born in China, 115-120 boys are born. This is most likely due to selective abortion practices, and allegedly to a lesser extent abandonment, adoptions, and infanticide. Restriction to only one child also arguably exacerbates what some consider to be sexist aspects of conservative interpretations of Confucianism.


The policy was of course implemented as a result of China’s population boom crisis of the 1960s,70s, and 80s which left the population greatly vulnerable in years of famine,  so vulnerable in fact it was the basis for a wonderfully stereotypical (and probably somewhat racist) gimmick American parents used to use to guilt children into eating their food, which has since fallen out of style (see e.g. the film “A Christmas Story”). Estimates vary greatly as to the effectiveness of the policy, but approximately 100 (according to critics) to 400 (according to the Chinese government) million persons were not born as a result of the policy. The purported benefits of the policy on top of lessoning the possibility of famine include reductions in other problems associated with overpopulation such as the spread of disease, slums, and crime rates. Social services are also not overwhelmed, and families limited to only one child can use the funds that would otherwise be used for the children on things like improving their standard of living, and investment.

Relaxation of the Policy

Chinese officials officially announced this week that Chinese families with at least one parent that is an only child may have a second child themselves. This in effect allows the two youngest adult generations to have two children if their parents in turn honored the policy. Communist party leaders have also indicated their willingness to relax the shèhuì fǔyǎngfèi, but no concrete commitment has been made.


This article has hopefully been more educative than admonishing. I, like probably most Americans find the People’s Republic of China’s family planning laws to be unacceptable restrictions to fundamental human liberties, but then again I grew up in a country with a five times higher per-capita income rate with one quarter of the people within a land mass approximately equal in size. My perspective is somewhat different. However you the reader feel about the realities outlined in this article, always remember that all these problems we have in the First World, are just that, First World problems.

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