End of the One Child Policy: China’s need for Long-Term Sustainability


On October 29th after 37 years, China abolished its major “One Child policy” which dictated by law that Chinese families could only have one child. Although this policy was officially abolished as part of the solution towards the increasing age of China’s population and discrepancies in the sex ratio of the nation, it now highlights the importance of the Chinese government addressing the needs of its people through nurturing belief in the livelihood of the people and long-term sustainability, rather than creating policies aimed at rapid growth and quick solutions, especially in this era of China’s meteoric growth.

In context, the One Child Policy was developed in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping, when the Chinese population was approaching one billion people. Looking at future ambitions for economic growth in relation to the challenges presented by the large population and its growth, Deng emphasized stronger family planning in order to reduce the birth rate, which resulted in the development of the One Child Policy. Although the policy has been estimated by the Chinese government to have prevented about 400 million births since its conception, the rapidity of the policy’s emplacement has also created undeniable social and demographic problems. One such problem is that the average age of the Chinese population has gone up, with an estimated quarter of the Chinese population to be over 65 by 2050. This causes serious implications for the Chinese workforce, as it decreases the productive population of the nation, while increasing the number of people dependent on pensions and government support. In addition, the policy also inadvertently created a large discrepancy in the sex ratio, as the traditional preference of males over females caused many families to avoid giving birth or abandoning daughters.

As seen in the example of the “One Child Policy”, which placed a quick short term solution in the pursuance of economic growth, China has often been brash in looking forward towards its goal of economic growth, taking in a logical approach that often creates short-term and rapid growth, but creates far more grave long-term challenges. In the modern sense, this can be seen in the growing present day environmental crisis in China. Although China contains a robust industrial and manufacturing sector, the pollution caused by these sectors and its associated infrastructure has often degraded the environment. In 2012, an MIT study estimated that air pollution in 2005 cost the Chinese economy $112 billion, being a five-fold increase since 1975. Another study by the Chinese government showed that in 1990, 10% of the country’s arable land was contaminated, while in 2006 it was significantly higher, as the results have not yet been released most likely due to their alarming nature.

These problems and challenges have translated into social friction between the government and the people as these policies, being great for economic growth, give little sensitivity for people on the individual and regional scale. With the rising consciousness of the Chinese citizens whom are concerned for their health and environmental safety amid the decreasing environmental quality of their nation, has translated into growing civil grumblings and disturbances. Recently, on October 17th, villagers in Yangchun, Guangdong, protested and clashed with police over the construction and testing of an incinerator nearby. Cited as being concerned about “dioxins” and “noxious smoke”, the protest clearly highlighted the concerns over their safety and health in the face of growing industrialization in the nearby region. These environmental problems are not limited to the domestic front as the pollution in Beijing was cited by the BBC as becoming so grave that many companies reported decreasing migration of foreign expats to the city, with a survey in 2014 by the American Chamber of commerce showing 48% of the respondents saying that air-quality was a major issue. As a result, these skilled workers were reported to be looking to relocate in other Asian cities, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, with lower amounts of pollution and cleaner environments.

Although the Chinese government may be visibly disturbed by such changing events, especially the Yangchun protests as growing into distrust against the government, it should not be seen this light. Symbolically, in images from the Yangchun protest, the protesters carried Chinese flags with them, showing that their anger was not towards the government and the Chinese nation, but rather more specifically the mismanagement and corruption of the Chinese industrial complex, seeing it as an obstacle towards their belief in a better China. In addition, the disillusionment of the expats to Chinese cities such as Beijing is not due to falling economic clout, but purely due to the spiraling pollution and poor quality of living as a result. Consequently, in their prospects for increasing a more sustainable long term future, the Chinese government should reach out and gain greater understanding from its people. As evidenced by these two examples, as well as abolishing the “One Child Policy”, by starting at the base and understanding the needs of the people, the government can develop policies that specifically serve the people and maintaining their quality of life, and thus becoming centered on methods of how to maintain the long term sustainability of the Chinese nation. However, as the geo-political environment dictates that economic development is still needed, this belief in serving the needs of the people should be harmonized with economic development. By maintaining a long-term practice of intertwining the two, it develops a healthy political practice of developing a certain sense of economic sustainability that would allow for a more moderated material economic growth in return for greater domestic sustainability as well as accountability. As seen in the recent abolition of the “One Child Policy”, showing the inability for such short-term economic centralized policies to emit long-term benefits, the future of Chinese policy making should take in a greater understanding of the people and their needs, so that they become tied in with government economic policies to allow for more harmonious solutions and sustainable paths for China’s long term future.