Q: What is China’s one-child policy?

A: For more than three decades, this strictly enforced rule has meant that many Chinese couples could only have one child. They risked huge fines (as in three to 10 times the average annual income, depending on their province), as well as varying degrees of harassment from local authorities, if they had more than one child.


Q: When did it start?

A: China’s Communist leaders enacted the policy in 1980 to curb runaway population growth. It has been one of the biggest experiments in state-mandated demographic engineering and has been heavily debated. The policy reshaped Chinese society — with birthrates plunging from 4.77 children per woman in the 1970s to 1.64 in 2011, said U.N. estimates. It also contributed to the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio at birth, with baby boys outnumbering girls.


Q: What part of the policy is being changed?

A: China announced that couples can have a second child if either of the parents is an only child. It is a significant but small change that will affect a specific group (adults without brothers or sisters, which, because the one-child policy has been in place for 33 years, includes many adults of childbearing age).


Q: What will the change mean?

A: The reason leaders are changing the policy is likely because of an aging population and a possible future labor shortage. However, a lot of people in China were allowed to have a second child under existing exceptions. For years, rural peasants whose first child was a girl were permitted to have a second child. In addition, couples who are both ethnic minorities and couples who are both only children were already allowed to have a second child. Also, experts say that even if given the option of having a second child, many urban couples will still choose to have only one because of the rising costs of housing and education in China’s cities.


Q: Why is the one-child policy so hated and criticized?

A: Human rights groups have exposed the practices of forced abortions, infanticide and involuntary sterilizations, all banned in theory by the government but still occurring to avoid fines and harassment for violating the policy. The policy has also left quieter devastation in its wake in the form of childless parents — couples too old to have another child when their only child suddenly dies. Much resentment also stems from the huge fines the government collects for violations, estimated to equal billions of dollars. The public is not told exactly where the money goes. Lastly, critics say, there’s something disturbing and wrong with the government infringing on people’s sexual and family decisions by telling them whether they can have children and how many. “The whole system needs to be dismantled,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. “What they’re doing is just tinkering with it, allowing one specific category of people to have two children. And it’s being done mostly for demographic reasons. … Not because the system is abusive and generates so much pain for so many.”


Q: But has the policy done any good?

A: The Chinese government says the policy has prevented about 400 million births, which it sees as beneficial for a country whose enormous population poses increased social, economic and environmental challenges. On the global scale, the government claimed in 2011 that its policy single-handedly delayed by five years the date by which the world’s population will reach 7 billion.

Washington Post