China Says ‘One Child’ Policy Will Be ‘Strictly Enforced For Decades’

By Patrick Goodenough | July 30, 2009 | 4:30 AM EDT

China says its one-child policy, initiated in 1979, has helped to reduce the country’s population by 300- to 400-million people. (Photo: Shanghai Population and Family Planning Commission)

( – China has rejected suggestions that it is easing its controversial “one-child” population control policy, following reports that authorities in Shanghai are encouraging eligible couples to have a second child.
The news made headlines, with media reports saying the 30-year-old population policy was being “relaxed” or “eased.” But Beijing denied this was the case.
“Officials say [the one-child policy] will be strictly enforced as a means of controlling births for decades to come as overpopulation is still a major concern,” the Xinhua state news agency reported.
There is nothing new in the fact that many Chinese couples who are themselves only children are allowed to have a second child (exceptions are also allowed for ethnic minorities, rural dwellers and other categories). In Shanghai, regulations in place as far back as 1997 state that “couples who meet any one of the following conditions can have a second birth … both parties are only child in their family.”
What is new is that family planning officials in China’s biggest city and commercial center are now actively encouraging couples in that category to have their permitted second child, in a bid to counter the rapid graying of Shanghai’s population and prevent future labor shortages.
The city’s family planning chief, Xie Lingli, told Chinese media last week that officials would make home visits to eligible families and ensure they were aware of their right to have a second child. Emotional and financial counseling would also be offered.
According to Xie, 97 percent of families in the city of nearly 19 million people have only one child. At the same time, more than 21 percent of the total population is aged over 60, a proportion that is expected to rise to around 34 percent by 2020.
“The rising number of retirees will put pressure on the younger generation and the social security system,” she said.
‘Pragmatism, not repentance’
Demographers and economists have long warned about the long-term effects of China’s birth limitation program. One expert projects that the number of Chinese people over 60 will rise from more than 140 million in 2008 to 200 million by 2015.

Concerned about the economic implications of a rapidly graying population, family planning officials in Shanghai are encouraging eligible couples – those without siblings – to have a second child as permitted under longstanding regulations. (Photo: Shanghai Population and Family Planning Commission)

But human rights advocates, pro-lifers and others are concerned about the more immediate costs. China’s policy is notorious not just because it denies individual citizens the right to make their own decisions on family size, critics say, but because it gives rise to numerous other human rights abuses.
They range from punitive fines for illegal, or “out of plan,” births – China Daily reported last March that the fines are between three and eight times the average per capita income – to forced abortions and involuntary sterilizations carried out by officials aiming to meet quotas set by Beijing.
In a society where male children are preferred for traditional and economic reasons, sex-selective abortions of baby girls continue, despite a ban on the use of nonmedically necessary ultrasounds to determine gender.
A study in the British Medical Journal in April found that there were 32 million more males than females in China under the age of 18. “Sex selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males,” the British and Chinese researchers found.
“Although sex selective abortion is illegal, proving that an abortion has been carried out on sex selective as opposed to family planning grounds is often difficult when abortion itself is so readily available,” they argued.
Reggie Littlejohn, an expert on the one-child policy and founder of a new coalition called Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, points to less obvious rights violations also arising from the policy. These include the theft of children and, in a country where an increasingly skewed gender balance means millions of Chinese men will struggle to find brides, sex slavery and trafficking.
According to the World Bank and the World Health Organization, around 500 Chinese women commit suicide every day. The State Department’s 2008 human rights report said “many observers” believe that the one-child policy contributes to the high suicide rate.
“Even a two-child policy is a gross violation of fundamental human rights,” John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in Britain said of the reports from Shanghai. “Apart from the brutal way in which the Chinese authorities enforce population policy – forced abortions, forced sterilizations, punitive fines etc. – couples have the right to have as many children as they want.”
Smeaton noted that Shanghai officials were giving pragmatic reasons for their approach. It “doesn’t mean they are repentant for the crimes they and other population controllers have committed under the 30-year one-child policy and are continuing to commit.”
‘No official policy causes more harm to women and girls’
Citing the one-child policy, the Bush administration from 2002 withheld funding for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), which operates in China, in line with U.S. legislation prohibiting funds for any agency that “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”
The UNFPA has long denied that its work in China supports coercive measures, and President Obama this year reversed the policy.
Nonetheless, advocates like Littlejohn are seeing some positive signs, noting that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken out against coercive family planning.
Testifying before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee last April, Clinton said “I consider any governmental imposition that imposes government policy on women to be absolutely unacceptable. And I feel strongly about forced sterilization, forced abortion or any other egregious interference with women’s rights.”
Clinton said she had said as much in Beijing in 1995, when as First Lady she attended the U.N.’s Fourth World Conference on Women.
In her speech at that event, she said, “It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will.”
Littlejohn was recently invited by the new White House Council on Women and Girls to give a presentation on China’s one-child policy. She said Wednesday she had a “very warm” reception.
“Those present seemed genuinely concerned about the violence to women and girls caused directly and indirectly by the one-child policy,” she said. “As I told them, there is no other official policy in the world that causes more suffering to women and girls than China’s one-child policy.”
Obama established the White House Council on Women and Girls by executive order in March, saying its mission was “to provide a coordinated federal response to the challenges confronted by women and girls.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow