Where is the Equity in China’s “One Child Policy”?

by Nicholas Wong

In the year 1968, Professor Robert Ehrlich and his wife published The Population Bomb, which predicted massive starvation due to overpopulation. About a decade later in 1979, the People’s Republic of China passed the “One Child Policy” under which only one child was allowed per family. At that time, China had the largest population in the world at 969 million. Adopting such a policy would in theory prevent overpopulation. Although ethnic minorities and rural families could bend the rules and have more than one child, China successfully decreased its fertility rate from 2.9 in 1979 to 1.7 in 2004 according to Therese Hesketh’s health policy reports. While China claims to have received economic benefits from the decrease in new births every year, it has suffered social disadvantages.

Between the years 1980 and 2001, the overall sex ratio in China was reported to be 1.15:1 boys to girls in Hesketh’s reports. While this ratio may seem trivial, it has lead to thirty million more men than women. This imbalance leaves some men unable to marry and thus threatens the family dynamic. Shripad Tuljapurkar and other researchers speculate that the disruption can further lead to mental health problems in men because the family unit is so important in Chinese culture. Even though a trend of male favoritism has been present for generations, the One Child Policy has exacerbated misogyny in China. One of the worst outcomes that may be linked to this policy is that unmarried and childless men may resort to the human trafficking of women for relationships. In 2014, the United States Department of State released its Trafficking in Persons report that targeted China’s One Child Policy as a driving force behind the sex trade in the region. Every year, up to 20,000 women and children are trafficked into the country according to a report made by Protection Project. The 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report raises concerns that women from all over the world from Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Africa and the Americas are trafficked to China in order to fulfill the demand for brides and prostitution. The policy has not only affected families within China, but its impacts have been felt all over the world.

When a woman in China, under the One Child Policy, illegally has a second child, she is forced to pay a large fine or have an abortion. In some cases, forced sterilization has also been a penalty. The Chinese Health Ministry has stated that over 336 million abortions have been performed since 1971 (Jian). Not all of these abortions have been forced, but many can be linked to the strict government policies. The unimaginable was reported in Sky News on October 3, 2013. At 4 A.M. on a Friday, Liu Xinwen was woken up by the sound of people breaking into her and her husband’s home. Soon, a group of twenty government officials from the Shandong Province Family Planning Commission were in her bedroom. They took Liu from her bed to the People’s Hospital of Fangzi District in Weifang City so that she would be given an abortion-inducing drug. The six-month-old fetus, now dead, was delivered two days later. Photos were later released of Liu Xinwen lying in a bed next to a bucket. The bucket at the side contained her aborted child. This tragedy is hardly conceivable, and yet, Liu Xinwen’s story is not uncommon for women who bear second children in China. An individual’s control over his or her own body is a fundamental right in many countries, but not in China where there is acting legislation in place that grants the government power over women’s bodies.

Women’s power is not only infringed upon in the personal realm; they have less opportunities and rights in social and economic realms as well. Within China itself, there is a massive disparity in high-ranking positions in both government and business. In 2015, women occupied only 23.6% of parliament positions. Similarly, only 17% of high ranking positions in businesses, such as managers and CEO’s, belong to women (Catalyst). Instead, most women work in service-related jobs. They even face discrimination once outside of the work force: their retirement age is five years earlier than men’s. The lower retirement age results in smaller pensions and lower salaries (UN). Looking outside of China and into first world countries like the United States, women still face similar problems. In the U.S. alone, as of 2015, women, even those in managerial and top-level positions, made eighty cents for every dollar men made (IWPR). Even though gender inequality is still a major social issue in the U.S. and China, significant improvements have been made. In the U.S., women’s wages have increased about 17.1% from 1979 to 2002 (Caiazza). Additionally, from 1971 to 2016, the percent of female state legislators grew from 4.5% to 24.6% (Catalyst). As for China, wages have also increased, and there has been legislation put in place to protect women, such as legalized divorce. Similarly, there are also more and more female students pursuing higher education, which can result in better employment. Some parents choose to bear sons over daughters for financial reasons, thus, these greater opportunities granted in the workforce and higher education can reduce such preference. Still, there is work left to be done. Not when women’s autonomy in the public and personal realm is still being threatened—in countries that pride themselves on progressive mindsets, like the U.S., and in China.

As of the beginning of 2016, China’s One Child Policy was replaced by the Two Child Policy. This new policy is an improvement, but continues to promote a misogynist environment in which the government has control over women’s reproductive rights. Furthermore, the cultural preference for males still exists, even with parents’ ability to have two children. And other countries seem to be moving backwards. In the United States, lawmakers are threatening women’s access to abortions, contraceptives, and other general medical services. Ten states have already defunded Planned Parenthood. By interfering with these services, these lawmakers are violating basic rights women have to good health. Women’s rights have been violated in China, but infringing upon female freedom is an epidemic throughout the world.

Supporters of the One Child Policy argued that drastic measures needed to be taken in order to reduce the massive population growth that China experienced. However, there are multiple ways to reduce population growth that empower women instead of violating their rights. One method is raising awareness of birth control and the potential financial difficulties of bearing many children. The Huffington Post published an article that clocked the average cost of raising a child for a middle-income family at 245,340 dollars in 2013 (Thomas). And this number is likely to keep going up at a pace that statistics can’t keep up with: in 1960, the predicted cost was under 200,000 dollars. At this unpredicted rate, parents may be more hesitant to have another child. While China’s goal is to reduce the number of pregnancies, the United States’s goal is to reduce the unintended pregnancy rate according to the September 2016 fact sheet released by the Guttmatcher Institute. 45% of all pregnancies, or 2.8 million, in the U.S. in 2011 were unintended (meaning “mistimed” or “unwanted”). By increasing access to reliable birth control as well as educating women to use it correctly, countries can make sure that every child brought into the world is intended and prepared for. This method, which is hinged upon the careful use of birth control, also empowers women because they can control when or whether they bear children.

While the birth control method can prevent some population growth, it fails to include those who consciously want and choose to have more children. Another preventive method that may be more effective is to make options available for women other than motherhood; one effective example would be to offer federal scholarships for STEM education. Since cost is such a barrier for higher education, increasing the amount of financial aid would allow more women to attend higher education institutions. In fact, 75% of mothers who obtained bachelor degrees had children after age 25 while 62% of their counterparts, who had at most a high school education, had children before age 25 (Livingston). When women are more focused on building their professional lives, they are more likely to delay having children and have less as a result. Furthermore, since 76% of STEM jobs are comprised of men, the large gender disparity in careers in engineering or medicine would decrease (Beede). Not only would governments be curbing population growth, but they would also be financially empowering women and reducing gender inequality in sectors of the job market.

It is hard to believe that in our world today some people still perceive women as inferior. In a merit-based society, every one’s worth, including women’s, must be proven—not predetermined. Throughout history, despite being constantly marginalized, women have surpassed expectations and achieved incredible feats. Rosalind Franklin discovered the structure of DNA. Simone Biles earned five gold medals in her Olympic gymnastics career. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 for discovering the Human Immunodeficiency virus. The next year, two women, Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider, received the same Nobel Prize for their discoveries about chromosomes. Without these talented female members of society, such accomplishments and discoveries may not have occurred.

We must strive for a world in which the next time potential parents think about having a child, they will be unable to decide if they want a daughter or son. After all, someone’s daughter grew up to be Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and someone else’s became Grace Hopper, who invented the compiler for computers. On the other hand, someone’s son grew up to be Barack Obama, President of the United States, and someone else’s became Steve Jobs. The point is that people, regardless of gender, have the power to transform the world. Son or daughter, there is no wrong choice.

Works Cited

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Hesketh, Therese. “The Effect of China’s One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 353, 2005, pp. 1171-6. Web. Accessed 29 Oct. 2016.

A Human Rights Report on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Protection Project, 2010.

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Livingston, Gretchen. “For Most Highly Educated Women, Motherhood Doesn’t Start until the 30s.” Pew Research Center RSS. 15 Jan. 2015. Web. Accessed 29 Oct. 2016.

“Pay Equity & Discrimination.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 29 February 2016. Web. Accessed 29 Oct. 2016.

Thomas, Emily. “This Is How Much It Costs To Raise A Child In The U.S.” The Huffington Post, 2 Sep. 2014. Web. Accessed 29 Oct. 2016.

Trafficking in Persons Report. US Department of State Publication, 2014, 7-432.

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