One Child Policy in China

A story about Chinese culture....

In Ancient China there was a man named Confucius. He had many ideas about how people should live their lives and how families should be structured in order to have a harmonious society and good life. His ideas became part of Chinese culture, even today. Some of his most famous sayings are common to many of the religions practiced in the world too. A good example is the Golden Rule - "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you". Confucius said it a bit differently though. His version was "Don't do to others what you don't want others to do to you." If only that saying had been able to guide people's lives in China, a lot of problems over the years would not have happened to the country and the people there.

Along with how people should treat one another, Confucius told people it was important to honor their ancestors. The Grandfather or oldest male in the family would be in charge of the entire clan and everyone who came thereafter would honor him. Son honoring his father and father honoring the grandfather. The family structure was called patrilinial - passing property (homes and money) from grandfather to father and then to his eldest son when the father died. Only the males could make the decisions about the household such as buying property or an oxen to plow the fields. The role of the grandmother and mother were to support their family, have children, maintain the household - cooking, cleaning, making clothing, and even helping in the fields on the family farm (if they were farmers). If the family had a daughter, they knew she would only be part of their family until she was old enough to marry. When she got married she would become part of her husband's family and would support him and his people. She would often even lose contact with her parents and siblings. Some families believed that if they paid too much attention to their daughter it would be so hard for them to part with her and so hard on her to leave them. Other families paid a lot of attention to their daughters hoping that they would attract a nice family to marry into. Either way, the role of the girl in the family was not very good unless the family she married into was wealthy.

Before 1949 when the Communist government took over China, families would allow their daughter to marry at a young age and sometimes men would have more than one wife. When Chairman Mao and the Communist government took over, he declared that "women hold up half the sky" and insisted that women and girls be treated equal to men. At that time things began to change for girls in China. Men could only have one wife and eventually daughters could inherit property from their family just like the boys did. And by then, the old-fashioned practice of binding a girls feet in order to make her more attractive to a wealthy family had been declared inappropriate (actually in 1928). So from the 1950s on everyone began to think that there would not be such a system of ancestral worship and girls and women would be able to gain their rightful place in society. Women held leadership positions in government and in business much as they had done during the Tang Dynasty some 1500 years before.

Chairman Mao wanted everyone to be equal and share in the country's effort to grow and prosper using a communal system. He encouraged families to have as many children as they could in order to support the growth of an already large nation. The country did grow and it grew without people thinking about where the food would come from or how the people would be able to afford to educate them. Before long some bad decisions about agriculture caused a great famine and people didn't have enough to eat. Still Chairman Mao wanted people to have more children and to grow the country strong for the future. It was more than the resources in China could handle. More people to feed and educate with too little land for farming. After Chairman Mao died the next leader, Deng Xiao Ping, decided there needed to be a plan to slow down the growth of the country. He realized that they could not continue having so many children in each family if they were going to be able to survive, be healthy, and have a bright future. By the mid-70s he initiated what is called Central Family Planning. Each family living in the city would be allowed to have one child and each family living in the rural areas where children were needed to help with the family farm could have two children in order to have one boy. If the first child was a girl, they could have a second child to gain a boy. The boy would be needed to carry on the family farm knowing that someday the girl would likely marry into another family and join her husband's family on their farm.

We started to call this plan China's One-child policy. At first, people in China weren't used to such a rule. Sometimes they would have more children then they were allowed and would get into trouble. Each work unit or company was allowed a certain number of children to be born in a given year. They would then determine which employees still didn't have a child and tell them when it was their year for their "quota". The quota basically meant that they should have their one child during that year specified. Of course sometimes it's hard to have a baby exactly when you are told to do so - some people failed while others got pregnant when they weren't supposed to do so. This lead to some strange and unusual practices to get people to comply with the plan. Today, people are allowed to have their child at any time they want. They can still only have one child if they live in the city and two if they are farmers. If they want additional children, they are encouraged to adopt a child and are allowed to do so.

So how come so many girls ended up in orphanages to be adopted?

On the rural farms the people have very little education. Sometimes they only went to school for a couple of years or their schooling wasn't very good. Even today, people who live on rural farms only go to school for 6-9 years if they don't drop out before they finish. They worry about how they will earn enough money to support their family. Many farmers only earn around $150 USD per year while some others may earn as much as $1000 per year. Still, neither number is very much money. The farmers want to be sure that when they are old there will be someone living on the farm to care for them. That's why they want to have a son. He is responsible to care for the parents until they die. He will work the farm and earn money to feed them or go to the city to work and send money home to them. If they only have a daughter, they worry she will move away when she gets married and they might not have her help in the future.

The rural people are very traditional. Some believe they need many children just in case one or more of them doesn't survive childhood illnesses. In the past this was a common problem - children might not be healthy enough to survive childhood diseases. Many farmers still believe in the teachings of Confucius and ancestral worship, filial piety - which supports the thinking that the sons are important to the parent's well-being in their older years. In recent years the government has been offering farmers some options for retirement pay so they will not expect help from their children in old age and will perhaps consider keeping their additional daughters.

As you may have figured out, most families in rural China will try to have a son. If they have a daughter they will keep her and then try for a son (this seems to be common practice from those families who have found birthparents). If the second child is a daughter they have to deal with the dilemma of what to do - do they accept the government money to keep their daughter and not try for a son, or do they try to give her away (leave her where she can be found and cared for by another family) and try to have the son. If they keep both daughters and then have a son, they will be fined some money. It's a lot of money compared to what they earn each year. Some farmers can afford to pay the fine and will keep their additional children. Some can't afford to do so and make the tough decision as to how to manage the number of children in the family and which child will be passed on for another family to raise. When a family has too many boys, the problem is the same - they still can only have two children if they are farmers or if they can't afford the fine. Often family members will take in the additional children and raise them as their own if they don't have their "quota" of kids.

As society improves, education levels increase, and income levels increase the rural farmers is not as "backward" as in the past - they have options - they can pay the fine or they understand about family planning better or they see their family as more hopeful and in better condition for the future. It's not that these are horrible people, they have just been faced with really tough lives and a set of rules that doesn't have much flexibility because China has so many people.

Today for China to feed it's people they rely heavily on other countries and buy staple foods from far away. Soy beans from the US, rice from the US, and wheat from the US and Canada travel in large ships to feed the people of China. Often we don't realize what that volume really means to China. Let's take a look at the US state of Illinois. It's a large producer of soy beans. 60% of the beans grown in Illinois are sold to China for food, feed, oil, and industrial purposes. Because China is so short on land to grow their crops they must rely on other countries to grow food and feed. Since China represents 1/5 of the world's population (look at the five fingers on your hand as an example), if they don't control the growth in terms of the number of children born each year, the entire world will run out of food.

While we might not like some of the details within the story told or untold, the reality is that without China's one-child policy we would be living in a very different world with different global dynamics and different issues/concerns. One may not agree with the policy nor accept many of the actions which have occured as a result of the policy but we can't ignore the economic realities China would be facing today had it not curbed population growth.

Used with permission and written by: 
Dr. Jane Liedtke, CEO and Founder:
Our Chinese Daughters Foundation, 
please visit this wonderful orginazation at

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