Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

Living Edition
| Editors: Danan Gu, Matthew E. Dupre

One-Child Policy and Population Aging in China

  • Quanbao JiangEmail author
  • Xiujun Tai
  • Lina Wang
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_652-1



The one-child policy refers to China’s birth control policy and its evolution over the past four decades, beyond the literary definition of one child per couple policy. It is generally considered that the policy was one child per couple policy when it was first officially launched in 1980 and was modified to a more lenient 1.5-child policy in the mid-1980s due to strong resistance (Liang 2014a; Chen 2015). Under this 1.5 child policy, urban couples in most provinces were allowed to have only one child, whereas couples with rural household registration fell into several categories: in six provinces, rural couples were allowed to have only one children, and in 19 provinces, rural couples were allowed to have a second child if the first one was a girl, and in some other provinces, rural parents could have two children (Gu et al. 2007). Therefore, throughout most of the past 40 years, China has been implementing the 1.5-child policy until the start of two-child policy in 2016.


Population growth and its underlying high fertility have been identified as disincentives to economic development (Coale and Hoover 1958; United Nations 1971). Scholars have warned that rapid population growth could lead to a low equilibrium of per capita income either at or close to subsistence requirements (Nelson 1956). As excess births under high fertility would engulf the total product, a period of two to three decades of reduced fertility would result in fewer dependents and promote a higher average economic level in developing countries (Coale and Hoover 1958). This was treated as a classic theory and a solid foundation for controlling births, and generated interest in the need for a population policy and the optimal design of such a policy. With the publication of The Population Bomb (Ehrlich 1968) and The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972), a sound birth control policy received even stronger advocacy.

The “one-child” policy formation in China was formed in a gradual process. Following the founding of China in 1949, the Chinese government’s policy and propaganda encouraged families to have several children (White 2006; Chen 2015). The pro-natalist population policy brought a rapid population growth as indicated in China’s first population census implemented in 1953 (White 2006). Meanwhile, China established a dual urban–rural system and prioritized the development of heavy industry. In this system, the rural population was denied free mobility to cities and confined to meagre fields, and the heavy-industry-oriented system in urban areas failed to create sufficient employment (Chen 2015). Even without absorbing the rural labor force into the industrial and service sectors, urban sectors were overstaffed and inefficient. This made people a burden rather than a driving force for economic development (Liang 2014a; Chen 2015). In 1956, Premier Zhou Enlai said: We need both heavy industry and people. The large population has advantages and disadvantages. A large population means more consumption. … We should advocate for birth control (Zhou 1956). In the course of these economic policies, nationwide political movement emerged from 1949 to 1980, which brought serious destruction to China’s society and hampered economic development. However, economic lag was blamed on rapid population growth. The family-planning policy was thus strengthened in 1970 with the inclusion of the population growth indicator in the national plan, along with specific regulations and requirements.

After Deng Xiaoping resumed power in the late 1970s, he set a goal of quadrupling the annual per capita income by 2000. He highlighted the potential contribution of limiting population growth to the realization of economic development goals and therefore strongly advocated for birth control (Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005). By the end of 1979, the three most powerful leaders in China at the time – Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, and Li Xiannian – collectively supported the strong anti-natalist population policy, which led to the implementation of this nationwide policy (Greenhalgh 2008).

Evolution of the One-Child Policy

One-Child Policy

From the early 1970s until 1980, family planning was implemented nationwide as a “Wan-Xi-Shao” policy, literally meaning “Later marriage-Longer birth spacing-Fewer children” (Liang 2014a; Chen 2015). The one-child policy is widely considered to have been officially launched in 1980 when the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee delivered An Open Letter to All Members of the Communist Party and Communist Youth League-on the Issue of Controlling the Population Growth (hereafter Open Letter) on September 25, 1980, as an offshoot of the “Wan-Xi-Shao” policy. Actually, in late 1978 and early 1979 top leaders and high officials swifted from “one is the best, two at most” policy and emphasized on the one child per couple policy. Due to the implementation by local government, this one child per couple policy had significant achievement in 1979, before the release of the Open Letter (Liang 2014a; Chen 2015). The Open Letter advocates that each couple have only one child, referred to as “one-child-per-couple” or the “one-child” policy for short. In particular, the Open Letter stipulated that CPC members, Youth League members, and especially cadres at all levels should comply with the call of the state and push ahead with family planning work for the good of society and the long-term interests of every citizen. In 1982, the family-planning policy was declared a national mandate at the 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and later included in the amended 1982 Constitution.

The 1.5-Child Policy

In rural areas, farmers largely rely on children for old age support and therefore opposed the one-child policy. This resistance ultimately led to the less-strict 1.5-child policy (Liang 2014b; Chen 2015). In April 1984, the CPC Central Committee issued An Approval of the Reports of Family-Planning Work to adjust the stringent one-child-per-couple policy. In urban areas, the one-child policy was upheld, whereas, in the rural areas, couples would be permitted a second childbirth if the first was a girl, generally referred to as the “1.5-child” policy. As China’s family-planning policy was provincially localized, in practice, the policy for rural residents fell into several categories. In the one-child policy, nearly all couples, whether urban or rural, were allowed to have only one child if they resided in a provinceof Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing, Jiangsu, or Sichuan. Under the “1.5-child” policy, urban couples were permitted to have only one child, whereas rural couples were allowed to have a second child after a specified birth interval if the first-born was a girl; this became the dominant policy in 19 of China’s 31 provinces. As per a two-child policy, rural couples living in the provinces of Hainan, Ningxia, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Xinjiang were allowed to have two children. Many other detailed amendments and exemptions applied to the general 1.5-child policy, which enabled couples who were otherwise limited to having only one child to have a second under certain conditions (Gu et al. 2007).


In November 2013, the 18th CPC Central Committee passed the Decision of the CPC Central Committee on Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening the Reform, which initiated a policy shift whereby a couple in which one spouse was an only child would be eligible to have a second child. However, the 2013 relaxation of the family-planning policy failed to bring about the expected baby boom and fertility rebound. On October 29, 2015, the Communiqué of the Fifth Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee stipulated that China would adopt a universal two-child policy. Compared with the past, the universal two-child policy is a big step forward, though it is still a birth control policy. However, the universal two-child policy has not yet led to the expected rise in births and fertility levels (Zhao and Zhang 2018).

Implementation of the One-Child Policy

To implement the one-child policy, China established a heavily staffed top-down family-planning bureaucracy, whose strict organization and broad network laid a solid foundation for efficiently reliable administrative forces to implement the policy (White 2006). In 1981, the former National Family Planning Commission was formally established and began to build a family-planning administrative system from central to local governments (Nie 2005).

The family-planning policy was initiated to slow population growth by encouraging fewer births for the sake of the common good. However, as this policy deviated markedly from China’s reality and the fertility desires of the common people, officials began to use various means to achieve their targets and pass their performance evaluations, from public education to economic and administrative penalties, from administrative and legal measures to physical force (Nie 2005). Among these procedures, fines as punishment for out-of-quota births were particularly common. The policy turned to a state-mandated birth rationing program and a relentless campaign to force human reproduction to submit to the will of the state (White 2006). Rural residents developed many countermeasures to resist the birth control policy. Violence (and the threat thereof) against family-planning officials began to occur in the early 1980s (Cao 2013). Overall, the policy incited conflict and compromised social harmony (Liang 2014a, b; Chen 2015).

Effect on Averted Births

The one-child policy affected China’s aging process via its effect on averted births and population age structure. However, the number of births averted by the family planning is controversial. In China’s official discourse, the family-planning policy had averted 400 million births. According to Weiqing Zhang (2006), the Commissioner of the former National Population and Family Planning Commission, “Based on the estimate by some experts, China had averted 300 million births by 1998, and … 400 million births by 2005.” On November 11, 2013, the spokesman for the National Health and Family Planning Commission claimed that the reduction of more than 400 million births had mitigated the pressure of rapid population growth on China’s resources and natural environments, contributing markedly to China’s ranking second in the world in terms of economic gross (Chen 2015). Some scholars support this claim of averting 400 million births. Tao and Yang (2011) examined the data from the year 1980–2008 for over 140 countries without family planning. In their regression models, they predicted that the total fertility rate of China in 2008 to be 2.50 without family-planning policy, and the family-planning policy alone had averted 458 million births, net of the impact of economic and social development. However, Wang et al. (2013) indicated some fallacies in the assertion and calculation of averted births. They projected China’s fertility using a Bayesian model and concluded that by 2010, fertility would have fallen to its currently observed level of around 1.5 children per woman, and the family-planning policy did not appear to play a dominant role in declining fertility. More should be attributed to socioeconomic development rather than the birth control policy in China’s fertility decline (Cai 2010; Zhao and Zhang 2018).

Effects on Population Aging

The 1980 Open Letter minimized concerns about certain consequences. In the mid-1980s, demographers predicted that if the one-child policy were to achieve complete success, its side effects would be extreme (Bongaarts and Greenhalgh 1985; Liang 2014b). Today, China is indeed facing these challenges, among which population aging is one of the most crucial issue.

However, similar to the birth control policy on fertility decline, it is difficult to disentangle the effect of one-child policy from the effect of socioeconomic development on aging process as these two are interrelated.

First, the one-child policy accelerated China’s aging process. At least in the beginning, the one-child policy led to a partial decline in fertility (Cai 2010; Jiang and Liu 2016; Zhao and Zhang 2018). This fertility decline accelerated China’s aging process. In 1982, older people aged 65 and over accounted for 4.91% of the total population; in 2000, the proportion rose to 7.10%; and further to 8.92% and 10.06% for rural population in 2010 (Population Census Office under the State Council 1985, 2002, 2012). Although factors such as life expectancy extension also significantly affected the aging pace in China, the decline in fertility due to one-child policy cannot be neglected.

Second, the size of China’s family and the number of children has shrunk with the policy. In 1982, mothers aged 45–49 bore an average of 5.37 children, 2.36 in 2000, and 1.84 in 2010 (PCO 1985, 2002, 2012). With the decrease in the number of children, the family size has declined, and the family structure has changed. With the traditional pattern of daughters getting married and moving out, as well as the current large-scale influx of rural residents into cities, it is becoming more and more usual for elderly people to live alone. The 2010 census data indicated that among people aged 65 and over, 14.44 million households of older people live alone, and 8.12 million of such older people are in rural areas; 13.53 million households are older couple households, and 6.84 million such households live in rural areas (PCO 2012). An increasingly serious “empty nest” phenomenon poses a great challenge in terms of the emotional and health care of older people.

Third, the numbers of only-child families and those bereaved of their only-child has increased greatly. The term “only-child family” refers to a family which consists of the parents and an only child. There were 158.41 million only children aged 0–30 in 2005 (Wang 2011). Forty percent of Chinese households have only one child. Even if some families currently with a very young only child may have a second child in the future, it was estimated that over a third of all Chinese households may well end up with only one child (Wang 2011). Compared with a family with multiple children, a family with one child faces a higher risk of becoming childless as a result of losing that child. The issue of a family’s bereavement of an only child is one of great concerns (Jiang et al. 2014). Official estimates suggest that the current total number of families bereaved of an only-child is at least one million and is increasing by approximately 76,000 households per year. It has been estimated that the number of such families will increase to 11.84 million by 2050 (Wang 2013). Bereaved parents are disadvantaged and vulnerable in terms of their physical and psychological health, economic status, and social network. They tend to self-exclude from the outside world. They have also begun to petition governments at various levels for a resolution to their dilemma given the state-mandated limitation of having only one child and for their old age support (Wei et al. 2015.

Fourth, old age support in China has challenges. The spouse and children are the main caregivers for older people under Chinese culture and the institutional arrangement. With the advent of small families and the decline in the number of children in a family, the trend for family members to take complete care of older people will be difficult to sustain. The availability of family members to provide care and support for older parents will most likely continue to decrease (Wu et al. 2009). The family old age support pattern has weakened and China’s value of filial piety has been challenged. The data from China’s 2010 population census indicated that regarding the main sources of support for people aged 65 and over, 49% comes from the support of other family members, 20% comes from their labor income, and 25% from pensions. In rural areas, the proportions are 59%, 28%, and 5%, respectively (PCO 2012). The unprecedented weakening of family caregiving and the relative absence of community and institutional care make care for disabled elderly an important social issue which urgently needs to be solved.

Future Directions of Research

China’s one-child policy has been a popular topic in academia. Yet much more remains to be examined regarding a campaign that has existed for four decades and population aging. The following topics warrant particular consideration. The first is to measure to what extent one-child policy affects population aging quantitatively. Currently, the effect of one-child policy on fertility decline is controversial, so the effect of China’s family planning on aging is not so clear. The second is to compare the difference in older age of only-child parents and parents with more than one child. The third is to study the well-being and vulnerability in terms of physical health, psychological health, economic situation, social support, and social security of older parents who are bereaved of their only child, and compare their well-being with non-bereaved parents.


China’s family-planning institution, born out of its planned system, is unreasonable (Liang 2014a). China’s one-child policy was not merely a one-child-per-couple policy. Though it is not easy to measure the effect of one-child policy on China’s population aging process, this policy has driven down the fertility level and accelerated the aging process. It has also decreased the number of children, shrunk the family size, and changed china’s family structure. The policy produced around 150 million only-child families, among which a proportion lost their only child and were disadvantaged. The decline in children number weakened China’s traditional family old age support system. Without improvement in social security system, China’s old age support is being challenged.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Population and Development Studies, School of Public Policy and AdministrationXi’an Jiaotong UniversityXi’anChina
  2. 2.School of Economics and ManagementShanxi Normal UniversityLinfen CityChina
  3. 3.School of Public Policy and AdministrationXi’an Jiaotong UniversityXi’anChina

Section editors and affiliations

  • Yuying Tong
    • 1
  1. 1.The Chinese University of Hong KongHong KongChina