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A Shocking Insight into China's One-Child Policy

Updated on March 11, 2017

For the most part, living and working in China provides an array of experiences and opportunities. Of course, you need to battle with the daily nuisances, of which I shall type a few: swarms of people everywhere at all times (no kidding); an inability to follow traffic rules; removal of mucus wherever one goes (even on new subway trains); construction equipment that might kill you (see note below); and all of this combined with an air so toxic you might as well smoke 50 a day. This, however, may seem trivial when compared to what I shall share with you today.

Before I continue, though, I have to say I have had a wonderful time here. There is no way I couldn’t admit to this, indeed, I found what I might call my ‘soul mate’ if I were to use such description and have made two friends I hope to maintain contact with into the future. What’s more, at work, I have grown professionally, taking on a never ending number of tasks that in an easy world one would shy away (I dread feedback sessions). Despite these rosy aspects, my boyfriend and I, nevertheless, are planning our China-exit. While this fascinating country has a lot to offer, it's without doubt not a suitable place to spend a life.

While living in China offers a fascinating experience, most international workers are planning their China-exit within months (if not weeks) of arrival.


I turn now for my reason for writing – China’s One Child Policy.

The one-child policy was introduced in China in 1979 in an effort to slow the countries population growth. Despite encouraging childbirth since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the government changed course during the 1970s as the population was becoming so large as to prevent any level of meaningful economic development. The main point of the one-child policy was to prevent couples from having more than one child per family. Of course, there were some exceptions like, for example, ethnic minorities across China weren’t required to follow, and in some cases, if a girl was born it might be possible for the couple to attempt for a boy through a second child.

How was the one-child policy enforced? Well, as with everything in China, obtaining any sort of result is difficult, let alone finding details of success. In most cases, the one-child policy was enforced through the use of fines. In other cases, depending on the corruption level at the local government level and one’s family position, enforcement ranged from no punishment at all through to forced abortions during pregnancy.As is commonplace in China’s modern history, however, the most common practice for enforcement was through coercion and fear, as I will illustrate later.

In 2015 the one-child policy was formally phased out, with couples now allowed two children per family. Many in the West are eager to describe this as evidence of China’s progress. It’s not. The end of the one-child policy is but an attempt to control the population and the private family life of individuals across the country, as was the introduction of the original policy in 1979. The suffering of families throughout the period of enforcement has simply been forgotten with attention now focussed on pressuring women to birth two children for the sake of a strong, well defended and employable (rather than retired) China.

One Child's Experience

With the history in mind, I now share with you a conversation I had with an acquaintance of mine. You needn’t hurry to inform me of the limitations of oral history – I’m paying thousands in student debt, I should use remember what for – but here we have an insight into aspects of Chinese society that may never be shared. We can be assured that while this account may be distorted by memory, the memory was created by an experience.

For the sake of this article, my acquaintance shall be named James. So James asked me about family life in Britain, with a particular focus on the difference between Christmas and Chinese New Year. He asked the common questions that all Chinese like to ask of foreigners – I shan’t bore you with them. The conversation began to change direction as he told me his relationship with his grandparents felt particularly cold. Being interested, I asked him to explain. The reason was because unlike other Chinese children he was not raised by his grandparents.

Why the difference for James? He continued his story by informing me that he has two older sisters. Those of you following studiously will realise his mother and father already broke the one-child policy once by having their second daughter. They then broke the law for the second time by giving birth to him.

The punishment for the second child, he informed, was a fine that the family could afford at that time. However, enforcement of the policy must have changed (I can’t be sure of the details here) as when the local government agents (a kind of police come gestapo) were informed of his mothers’ third pregnancy, they tried to force an abortion. Luckily, James mother was able to escape this ‘punishment’ else I wouldn’t be writing this today. Of course, I am sure there are many women who didn’t successfully flee.

As a result of James’ mother escaping her family home, the government agents preceded to arrest other family members in the hope of encouraging her return. Fortunately, his mother was strong enough to stay away from the family home well beyond her giving birth to James. This is not the end, however.

The next part of the story is what had an impact on me the most. James continued to divulge that his mother returned to his hometown when he was four of five. The government agents were somehow informed and returned to see to his mother and father. Of course, the government was powerless to do anything about the child but still his mother, with her instinct, grabbed James and tried to escape from the bedroom window. James informed me he remembers his mum pushing furniture in front of the bedroom door and encouraging him to open the window as those government agents attempted to force open the door she tried to block. The attempts failed. His mother was arrested and the family forced to pay a large fine. I didn’t push him for more details.

As James recounted this story, I could tell he was anxious, with hints of sadness and anger. I asked him to tell me how he felt about the situation now, particularly about the government of today. He replied: ‘I can never accept [the government]. The people in control now are the people of these policies [one-child policy and two-child policy] … I can never forget.’

This was just one example of the coercion and terror so common in China, on one particular area of policy. Indeed, if you visit China for travel, you’ll probably love the experience. Likewise, living and working here has many advantages too. Nevertheless, as you become more settled here, you’ll become aware of the details of the dark history many have lived through in the past century. They’re alive and willing, albeit ever cautiously, to tell their story but it's basically impossible to record when living under the watchful eye of a tyrannical government.


Before I finish, I made a note at the beginning referring to the construction that might kill you. The subway line is under construction around ten minutes walk from my home. Last week there was a terrible accident. A piece of equipment fell onto the passing traffic crushing a car and killing two passengers. I hasten to add this is not an uncommon phenomenon in China.

See you.


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