How Did the One-Child Policy Affect China?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What was China’s one-child policy? How did the one-child policy affect China?

Between 1980 and 2016, China had a one-child policy designed to combat overpopulation by limiting families to having one child. The policy restricted women’s rights, caused higher child mortality rates, and led to more crime in the nation.

Continue reading to learn more about the impact of China’s one-child policy, according to Amartya Sen in Development as Freedom.

China’s One-Child Policy

Designed to combat a rapidly growing population, China’s one-child policy has had far-reaching ramifications. While the policy was in effect between 1980 and 2016, China contends it prevented 400 million births.

How did the one-child policy affect China? Although population growth slowed, the policy also caused a host of demographic consequences. Because of the social preference for males, the one-child policy led to sex-selective abortion and abandonment and neglect of baby girls. As a result, the male-to-female ratio has become skewed, with about 34 million more men than women in the country.

The Chinese government often used force to ensure compliance with the policy. To circumvent this, many children born in violation of the policy were kept undocumented.

The Phenomenon of “Missing Women”

Sen notes that bias against women has resulted in a troubling trend that highlights the harms of misogyny on public health and development. One manifestation of this bias is the phenomenon of “missing women” in developing countries.

In most of the Western world, South America, and Sub-Saharan Africa, there are slightly more women than men. This is due to factors such as:

  • Women are “hardier” than men, meaning they survive better given equivalent treatment and have naturally longer life expectancies.
  • Most war casualties are men.
  • Men, on average, engage in riskier behavior than women.
  • Men are disproportionately the victims of violent crimes.

However, in some parts of the world, such as China, India, and parts of the Middle East and North Africa, there are more men than women. Considering that the factors above apply to these places as well, this finding needs explaining.

Sen’s research suggests the explanation is anti-female bias. In these regions, girls are neglected more than boys, especially in early childhood. This neglect comes in the areas of health care and nutrition, with many poor families choosing to invest more in boys, whom they consider more “valuable.” This leads to more girls than boys suffering from malnourishment and other health problems that reduce life expectancies.

Anti-female bias also comes in the form of sex-selective abortion, especially in China, where the government implemented a “one-child policy” around 1979 in an attempt to combat overpopulation. (Shortform note: China has since adopted a “two-child policy.”) These forces have led some nations to have populations with approximately 0.05-0.10% fewer females than males.

This may seem like a small difference. However, it amounts to around 60 million to 100 million fewer women, as a result of social bias. This means there are fewer women to contribute to the economy and worse health for children.

(Shortform note: According to a 2020 report, there are now nearly 150 million missing women. China and India account for nearly all of this demographic disparity. It was Sen’s own research on the subject in 1990 that brought this issue to many policymakers’ attention, and his work has helped galvanize support for women’s rights in these two nations.) 

How China’s One-Child Policy Affects Crime Rates

While Sen addresses the moral implications of “missing women,” researchers have discovered that China’s one-child policy may also be affecting the nation’s six-fold increase in crime.

Young unmarried men commit more than two-thirds of violent and property crimes in China. There are currently around 120 men for every 100 women in China, making it difficult for many to find a wife. Researchers found that this skewed male-to-female ratio accounts for a 34% increase in violence.

Given the relative scarcity of Chinese women, it has also become customary for men to provide a sizable cash offering to the bride’s family, which researchers believe has encouraged men to commit more financial crimes.

Additionally, research indicates that when boys grow up in male-heavy environments, they have a greater propensity to commit acts of violence. This impact on crime rates is one more effect of the phenomenon of “missing women” that Sen helped identify through his research.

Population Control

Despite an increased food supply, some nations have resorted to population control as a response to rising population growth rates.

In judging the effect of coercive population control, Sen asks three questions:

  1. Is this sort of coercion just?
  2. What are the unintended consequences of population control?
  3. What happens to population levels without coercive measures?

Sen’s preferred idea of justice considers both the intrinsic value and the instrumental value of freedom. Therefore, he weighs the freedom of families to choose how many children to have as well as the impact of that decision on society.

Intrinsic Importance of Family Planning

Sen believes the right of couples to choose the size of their family is a freedom people value for its own sake. Government responses to violations of coerced family planning policies also violate other freedoms.

In one example from China, Sen says the family planning police pulled a family from their home and then blew up the home with explosives. Next to the rubble, the officials painted a warning to others to obey the government policy.

Unintended Consequences of Population Control

Sen says that China has become worse off due to its one-child policy. Since China implemented its “one-child policy” in 1979, its fertility rates have dropped considerably. By 1999, the rate was 1.9, slightly below the replacement level of two children per couple. By contrast, India’s was 3.1, while the average among other low-income countries was 5.0.

However, Sen argues that the one-child policy has negatively affected China as well. China’s infant mortality rate is much higher than that of the Indian state of Kerala, despite both places having similar rates when China enacted its policy in 1979. Sen believes this is because the “one-child policy” in China, which has an anti-female bias, caused neglect of female babies. Additionally, sex-selective abortion increased substantially under the one-child policy.

How Did the One-Child Policy Affect China?

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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