China’s One-Child Policy and its Anthropological Impacts

China’s one-child policy and its anthropological impacts
by antonio kuilan


Early propaganda one-child policy poster. “Carry out family planning, implement the basic national policy.”

Ever since its inception in 1979, China’s one-child policy has been controversial and perhaps one of the biggest social experiments ever. Though the policy–a law that only allows Chinese couples to have only one child–was initiated as a short-term measure to curb population control and economy purposes, it’s still in place over 40 years later. During that period, the policy has attributed to many sociological issues in China. We will examine how the policy came to exist and many of the anthropological impacts it has had on China.

Early 60s poster. “Practicing birth control is beneficial for the protection of the health of mother and child.”

China has limited couples to one child only since 1979 to curb population growth. Since that time the policy has birthed many unintended consequences. These include an imbalanced gender ratio, infanticide, child developmental issues (such as the “little emperor” syndrome), and deviant behaviors. Due to China having more men than women, more than 20 million men are unable to find brides and this have led to other consequences such as female trafficking and sex crimes. It also has been suggested that the imbalanced gender ratio will have dire consequences in the future.

While the policy has curbed population with negative consequences, one researcher states that there has been a positive side for girls that give them the opportunity for upward mobility.

Origins of the Policy

Early propaganda poster. “Practice birth control for the Revolution.”

The policy’s origin can be traced back to the late 1950s, when the idea of birth control started to emerge by a group of nonparty intellectuals, which stemmed from a book called “New Population Theory” by Professor Yinchu Ma. The book depicted ideas on improving conditions and theorized what would happen to an unchecked growing population. While China’s leaders started noticing the increasing population as a threat to its economic development and food supply, the party chose to propagandize and popularize birth control tactics through densely populated areas. The propaganda campaign went through its evolution of changes from voluntary-based birth control to eventually a state-based population program.

Early propaganda poster. “Marry late for the Revolution.”

After political movements such as the Cultural Revolution, and the Anti-rightist Movement, China’s population increased to some 250 million additional in the 1970s. More birth control campaigning went underway, with additional steps that included extending contraceptive and abortion services into rural areas.They also encouraged the Chinese people to marry late and conceive late. In 1975, it was noted that urban fertility rates fell below 1.8% in urban areas and below 4% in rural areas. The official China’s One-Child Policy finally emerged in 1979 to further curb population growth and was officially announced by the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee.


In National Geographic’s documentary “China’s Lost Girls,” Lisa Ling points out the devastating impacts due to the China’s one child policy while Vanessa Fong argues how urban daughters have benefited from the policy in her article called “China’s One-Child Policy and the Empowerment of Urban Daughters” printed in American Anthropologist.

Vanessa Fong’s article seems biased, since it only favors urban daughters and doesn’t incorporate many other areas such as the countryside. Fong even states:

“. . . I cannot claim to have known families from all areas of China’s socioeconomic pyramid. Like my survey sample, my ethnographic sample does not include youth from the narrow, extremely elite top or the wide, impoverished, rural bottom of that pyramid.”

In one instance, Fong claims that girls are more fortunate than boys because girls have “more paths to upward mobility.” Girls that possess successful careers, family values, and educational attainment are deemed as important spouse selection criteria for men. Parents invest their savings into their daughters education with the hope that they will be more ‘marketable’ in the marriage field since men in return will provide housing, rent, security, etc.

This is the ideal vision but it draws in an opposing critical point by Lisa Ling. According to her documentary, there are 13 million more boys than girls. What happens when there aren’t enough girls? A China population official in the documentary acknowledged this and speculated that by the year 2020 there will be no one to marry. He also stated that this is “. . . a very serious social problem.” A problem that give rise to negative impacts.

Ling showed that these impacts are already starting: the abduction of women, forced prostitution, and forced marriages. An investigator is shown who is committed in freeing women who are abducted. One woman freed by the investigator speaks of the cruelties inhibited by her captor. She stated that she was kidnapped, sold ($435 U.S.), chained to a room, and sexually assaulted for years. The captor impregnated her to bear his child. The investigator said these stories are all too common; broken legs, broken arms, beaten and other forms of degradation are the norm during captivity and when trying to escape.

Consequences also are birthing black markets. Steven Mosher from Population Research Institute in Washington D.C. stated from a 2005 report that the extreme high gender imbalances gave rise to a commercial sex trade and that up to 800,000 people (80% are women and girls) are trafficked across the borders to be sold as sexual slaves and wives each year. Mosher states twenty-five million men in China can’t find brides due to the massive gender imbalance and that 60 million girls are “missing” in China.

Anthropologist Vanessa Fong – Harvard.

While Fong shows how urban educated daughters have significant incentives such as using “their time to pursue prestigious and well-compensated work rather than using it to bear and rear large numbers of children,” Lisa Ling shows the rural countryside cruelties that occurs should newborns be female: “aborted, abandoned, hidden, or even killed.” Fong’s partisan view makes no attempt to include the many negative aspects of the one-child policy, only stating she only “…heard rumors” about farmers committing infanticide and follows with “I never heard of such abuses occurring in Dalian.” Abandonment, sex-selected abortion, female infanticide, and unreported female births are responsible for the unbalanced sex ratios in China.

Lisa Ling talking to two young Chinese males.

Another unintended impact is the increasing obesity among young Chinese males. In Ling’s documentary, she states that due to the one-child policy, parents are compelled to “spoil” their only male child, notably with food, allowing them to eat whatever they want. She argues obesity is on the rise and the documentary depict many “fat reduction centers” that are sprouting in China in an attempt to curb this issue.

Xuefeng Chen, the Deputy Director of the Beijing’s Chinese Children’s Center, also argues that parent’s spoiling their only child are producing self-centered “little emperors.” She expressed concerns regarding single-children growing up without the same child experiences that their parents had (playing, socializing, and growing up with many other children) and that their children may not have an avenue to channel their stresses, since they may not have a child friend. Children do have a natural desire to socialize and these types of isolated pressures may produce long-term problems. Single-children have already been found to exhibit serious personality difficulties over children with siblings, but on a positive side they seem to have higher intellectual achievement. Boys seem to be developing a strong sense of entitlement, egotism, inability to share toys with others, and incivility. It is undeniable that single-children will shape a different society for China. Which raises questions: What kind of leaders will these children make in the future? Will they be decisive on matters that affect the people of China or in world affairs? Since politics demand compromises and negotiations, will egotistic boys who cannot share toys with others and feel entitled to their privileges grow up to be leaders who are unable to listen to the views of others, only working towards their own views and interests?

Ling also touches on the pressures resulting from the one-child policy such as the prioritization of boys to pass on the family name and thus the family’s honor. It has been tradition in many cultures to pass their family’s name, creating a legacy. Logically,  a Chinese boy reaching manhood would carry out this task. However, the policy is placing immense pressure on its citizens which is shaping and altering their views. If they are forced to have one child, they are forced to make a psychological and biological decision which ultimately favors a boy as the only child. This correlates to what the population expert and Ling discussed: there will be no women in the future to compensate for the massive imbalance of gender. It’s nice to have a boy with the idea he’ll stay with you, provide labor, carry the family name and provide a sense of “social security” when reaching old age, but if you multiply this by millions of Chinese citizens holding the same idea, how will they get to carry the family name if there are very few women? Wouldn’t some families accidentally sever their own family’s legacy? In a broader perspective, isn’t China possibly creating its own self-extinction due to their decreasing females?

Ling shows another side: American families adopting Chinese girls. Is China brewing adoption ‘markets’ and creating monies in the whole ‘adoption’ market? According to Children’s Hope International, the total cost of adoption is slightly over $11,000 without including travel expenses and a sleuth of other fees, in addition to a $3,000 ‘donation’ required by adoptive parents to be paid to the orphanage.The accumulation of fees will bring the adoption tally to $20,000-$30,000. In a NY Times article, there has been over 8,000 adoptions in 2010, with increasing yearly trends of 1,000 more per year. More than 55,000 Chinese children has been adopted by American families alone as of 2006 If China is over populated and decided to implement the one-child policy, why not just gracefully place the undesired Chinese girls to Americans–or any other nation–instead of capitalizing on them?

In a subtle way, Ling glamorizes the segment in the documentary that depict American families receiving their new found adoptees. “We’re the lucky ones,” an American woman exclaimed. Is it really “lucky” that American women adopt children from a country that has made it illegal for their citizens to have more than one child? In one scene, you see an American woman with expressive joy holding the Chinese baby girl, while the biological Chinese mother walked away in tears, powerless, with her head down. Her tears communicated a constellation of emotions. There are no lucky ones here.

Currently, there are no plausible alternatives to the existing policy. It is noted that the policy can be “relaxed,” and the idea of two-child family has been mentioned by some. Even though China admits its gender imbalance is related to the policy, they have pledged to keep it in place until the year 2050.


While this blog post doesn’t capture every emerging impact and scattered controversies (such as a seven-month pregnant Chinese mother taken to a hospital and given an injection to induce an abortion which killed her unborn baby because she already had one existing child, or men digging up female corpses for ‘ghost marriages.’), it provides a solid foundation on the China’s one-child policy, its consequences, and how it may impact China’s future generations. The authors in unity with many researchers agree that China’s population has been curbed due to the policy, but at what consequential impacts? The oppression and psychological/sociological suffering a female Chinese parent endures is a violence glossed over by this policy. While the population may be under control, the anthropological impacts are monumental as we’ve seen here. The gender imbalance ratio will undoubtedly lead to more sociological consequences in the near future. This is a matter that merits the most upmost attention. You cannot deface one side of the coin without the value of the whole coin being compromised.


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