[Begin strikethrough]Definitely[end Strikethrough] Probably One: A Generation Comes of Age under China's One-Child Policy

By Meulenberg, Claudia | World Watch, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

[Begin strikethrough]Definitely[end Strikethrough] Probably One: A Generation Comes of Age under China's One-Child Policy


Meulenberg, Claudia, World Watch


Had China not imposed its controversial but effective one-child policy a quarter-century ago, its population today would be larger than it presently is by 300 million--roughly the whole population of the United States today, or of the entire world around the time of Genghis Khan.

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The Chinese population-control policy of one child per family is 25 years old this year. A generation has come of age under the plan, which is the official expression of the Chinese quest to achieve zero population growth. China's adoption of the one-child policy has avoided some 300 million births during its tenure; without it, the Chinese population would currently be roughly 1.6 billion--the number at which the country hopes to stabilize its population around 2050. Many experts agree that it is also the maximum number that China's resources and carrying capacity can support. Standing now at a pivotal anniversary of the strategy, China is asking itself, Where to from here?

China's struggle with population has long been linked to the politics of national survival. China scholar Thomas Scharping has written that contradictory threads of historical consciousness have struggled to mold Chinese attitudes towards population issues. China possesses a "deeply ingrained notion of dynastic cycles" that casts large populations as "a symbol of prosperity, power, and the ability to cope with outside threat." At the same time, though, "historical memory has also interpreted a large population as an omen of approaching crisis and downfall." It was not until economic and development issues re-emerged as priorities in post-Mao Zedong's China that the impetus toward the one-child policy began to build rapidly. During Mao's rule population control was often seen as inhibiting the potential of a large population, but in the years following his death it became apparent that China's population presented itself as more of a liability than an asset. Policymakers eager to reverse the country's backwardness saw population control as necessary to ensure improved economic performance. (In 1982, China's per-capita GDP stood at US$218, according to the World Bank. The U.S. per-capita GDP, by way of comparison, was about $14,000.)

The campaign bore fruit when Mao's successor, Hua Guofeng, along with the State Council, including senior leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, decided on demographic targets that would curb the nation's high fertility rates. In 1979 the government announced that population growth must be lowered to a rate of natural increase of 0.5 percent per year by 1985. In fact, it took almost 20 years to reach a rate of 1 percent per year. (The overestimating was in part due to the lack of appropriate census data in 1979; it had been 15 years since the last population count and even then the numbers provided only a crude overview of the country's demography.) Nevertheless the Chinese government knew that promoting birth-planning policies was the only way to manifest their dedication and responsibility for future generations. In 1982 a new census was taken, allowing for more detailed planning. The government then affirmed the target of 1.2 billion Chinese for the year 2000. Demographers, however, were skeptical, predicting a resurgence in fertility levels at the turn of the century.

The promotion of such ambitious population plans went hand in hand with the need for modernization. Though vast and rich in resources, China's quantitative advantages shrink when viewed from the per-capita perspective, and the heavy burden placed on its resources by China's sheer numbers dictates that population planning remain high on the national agenda. The government has also stressed the correlation between population control and the improved health and education of its citizens, as well as the ability to feed and employ them. In September 2003, the Chinese magazine Qiushi noted that "since population has always been at the core of sustainable development, it is precisely the growth of population and its demands that have led to the depletion of resources and the degradation of the environment. …

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