China's Loosening One Child Policy: Motivations and Implications

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Since 1979,[1] the People’s Republic of China has enforced laws restricting the number of children had by Chinese couples in an effort to stem the social, economic, and environmental challenges created by the nation’s exploding population.[2] Noncompliance results in hefty fines.[3] Implementation of this “family planning” policy has seen much criticism for its perceived human rights intrusions of family development and potential to reinforce gender bias.[4] Present laws limit many couples to having a single child, but allow a second child if couples live in rural regions and have only a daughter, are of a minority ethnicity, or have no siblings themselves.[5] But, change is coming.

Couples will soon be permitted to have a second child if either parent is an only child.[6] The announcement was made by the state-run Xinhua news agency on November 15, 2013, coming as one of several reforms meant to improve human rights in China.[7] While the change clearly allows parents more discretion in family rearing, it seems like a minor adjustment to the policy that many have argued leads to selective-sex abortions, child abandonment, and infanticide.[8] The country’s hugely disproportionate birth gender ratio, with boys vastly outnumbering girls,[9] is said to be the product of a traditional preference for males that leads many couples to make sure that their sole child is a son.[10]

While some see the relaxation as a step toward improved human rights,[11] there is very likely another motivation behind the reform. China is expected to have a future shortage of young workers.[12] The screeching halt in population growth resulting from population control measures[13] means that working-age citizens make up a decreasing portion of the population as pre-regulation generations age. Leaving aside an insufficient workforce to man the nation’s booming economy, current policy would likely strain China’s social programs by way of an aging population that cannot be supported by its progeny.[14] At the current rate, more than 25% of the population will be older than 65 by 2050.[15]

Experts have estimated that the loosened one-child policy could result in as many as 2 million additional Chinese births per year,[16] but the true result will depend on the reaction of eligible parents. Some observers suggest that the change will have little impact on birthrates, as parents have become accustomed to smaller families and may not be able to afford another child.[17]

While the outcome is uncertain, it seems logical that there will be at least some increase in births. Some portion of the eligible parents presumably would like to have another child.[18] Forecasters suggest that more births could mean more business for United States industries like farmers and agricultural companies, who are already cashing in on China’s increasing demand for foreign crops.[19]

Increased birthrate or not, China’s population presents complex international law issues. The nation’s interest in environmental and economic sustainability is inevitably at odds with its citizens’ interest in reproductive freedom. Deprioritizing either of these interests could encourage allegations that China is breaching international agreements.

Birth restrictions deplete the working class and methods of restraint arguably violate treaties, such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[20] which China helped draft.[21] But deregulation, alone, could exacerbate the serious pollution and environmental problems that overcrowding already causes for the nation,[22] which has declared avid support of treaties calling for reduced greenhouse gas emissions.[23]

It appears that China is left to choose what it finds to be the lesser of several evils.

Activist groups seeking to change or bring attention to Chinese policies will likely continue to file thousands of complaints with the communist government.[24] Those looking for an international forum may report grievances to departments of the United Nations, such as its Human Rights Council.[25] However, considering China’s history of undemocratic rule[26] and its prominent position on relevant international commissions,[27] the prospect of dissident change or sanctions seems uncertain at best.

[1] China-reforms: One-Child Policy to be Relaxed, BBC, (Nov. 15, 2013),

[2] The Consequences of China’s ‘One-Child’ Policy, Wash. Post,

[3] William Wan, Six Questions on China’s One-Child Policy, Answered, Wash. Post, (Nov. 15, 2013),

[4] See id.

[5] US Farm Belt to Feel One-Child Policy Change in China, Fox News, (Nov. 16, 2013),

[6] Susan Donaldson James, China Reforms One-Child Policy to Gain Competitive Edge, ABC News, (Nov. 15, 2013),

[7] Mariano Castillo, China to Ease One-Child Policy, Abolish Labor Camps, Report Says, CNN, (Nov. 16, 2013),

[8] See Wan, supra note 3.

[9] See id.

[10] China to Ease One-Child Policy, Abolish Labor Camps, Wash. Times, (Nov. 15, 2013),

[11] Seeid.

[12] See James, supra note 6.

[13] See Wan, supra note 3.

[14] See BBC, supra note 1.

[15] Id.

[16] Wan, supra note 3.

[17] See Simon Denyer and William Wan, In Reform Package, China Relaxes One-Child Policy, Abolishes Prison Labor Camps, Wash. Post, (Nov. 15, 2013),

[18] See Castillo, supra note 7.

[19] See Fox News, supra note 5.

[20] See Reggie Littlejohn, China’s One-Child Policy, David Kilgour, (Dec. 04, 2008),

[21] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Drafters, United Nations,

[22] See Alister Doyle, CORRECTED: China Says One-Child Policy Helps Protect Climate, Reuters, (Aug. 30, 2007),

[23] See Yamei Wang, China Calls for Second Commitment of Kyoto Protocol, Xinhua, (Nov. 29, 2011),

[24] See Wen Yuqing, Xin Yu and Tian Yi, Beijing Hits Out at Human Rights Critics, Asia Times, (Dec. 11, 2013),, (stating that Chinese citizens file thousands of human rights grievances with the government each day).

[25] Human Rights Council Complaint Procedure, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,

[26] See BBC News Asia, How China is Ruled: Communist Party, BBC, (Oct. 8, 2012),, (calling the communist government “obsessive about control, regularly showing itself capable of great brutality in suppressing dissent or any challenge to its authority”).

[27] See BBC News Europe, Concern Over New UN Human Rights Council Members, BBC, (Nov. 13, 2013),, (citing apprehension regarding the presence of countries, including China, on commissions charged with protecting human rights).

Posted by Peter B. von Stein on Thu. January 16, 2014 8:00 AM
Categories: China, Customary International Law, Population control/management

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