In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section China's One-Child Policy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Historical Context
  • Origins of the One-Child Policy
  • Provincial and Local-Level Case Studies
  • Resistance to the One-Child Policy
  • Fertility Decline
  • Infant Abandonment and Adoption
  • Sex Ratio Imbalance and Missing Girls
  • Coercion and Human Rights
  • Policy Debate
  • Selected Research Materials

Political Science China's One-Child Policy
Tyrene White
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0005


In 1979 China’s “one-child-per-couple” policy, or one-child policy, was launched. The policy was part of a multifaceted reform program pursued by the new regime under Deng Xiaoping, and its goal was to limit young, childbearing-age couples to only one child or, failing that, two children. With a population of about 1 billion in 1980, China’s leaders were convinced that only a strict program of population control would make it possible for China to achieve its development goal of “modernization by the year 2000.” This radical social engineering effort was directly at odds with much of China’s reform policy, which saw the state begin to retreat from its pervasive role in every aspect of family and social life. By subjecting childbearing to direct state regulation—that is, claiming that the state had the right and obligation to decide who was allowed to have a child and when—childbearing was effectively “collectivized” at a time when the economy was heading the opposite direction. It is no surprise, then, that the progression of the one-child policy was followed very closely by scholars, journalists, and human rights activists. An impressive body of scholarship has been compiled on this topic, despite serious constraints on research in the 1980s and 1990s. Four national censuses and annual sample surveys have helped improve the quality of demographic data available, but data on policy implementation has been patchy. As a result, two types of studies are dominant: (a) comprehensive works that provide an overview of policy evolution, implementation, and outcomes and (b) case studies that provide more detailed analysis of local policy processes. A third category of scholarship explores the impact and consequences of enforcement, particularly a skewed sex ratio at birth and a rapidly aging population. The scholarship on the one-child policy reflects the nature of the topic, which is broadly interdisciplinary, and the policy has been of great interest not only to political scientists but also to sociologists, economists, anthropologists, historians, and demographers. The works included here bear witness to this breadth of scholarly interest.

General Overviews

Several works provide a broad overview and interpretation of China’s one-child policy against the backdrop of China’s longer-term population control efforts and demographic changes. Banister 1987 and Tien 1991 examine China’s historical and contemporary demographic profile, as well as the evolution of China’s population policies after 1949 and the one-child policy. Both utilize data previously unavailable and data from the 1982 census to reconstruct the demographic past. More than a decade passed before a second set of volumes appeared. Scharping 2003 was the first to provide a sustained analysis of the origins and evolution of the one-child policy and its enforcement. This work was followed by Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005 and White 2007. Scharping 2003 explores the demographic challenges China faced after 1949 and the policymaking process that led to the one-child limit. Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005 tracks China’s shift from a Leninist approach to population policy to one more in keeping with the neo-liberal regime that emerged during the reform era. White 2007 emphasizes the historical continuity between China’s pre-1979 approach to population policy and the one-child policy, and the contradiction between the Maoist campaign methods used for enforcement and the changing realities of reform-era politics in the countryside.

  • Banister, Judith. China’s Changing Population. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.

    Banister examines major demographic trends, particularly fertility and mortality. Using 1982 census data, she reconstructs the impact of the Great Leap Forward famine (1958–1960) and analyzes fertility decline in the 1970s, prior to the one-child policy. She concludes that state intervention played a significant role in the pace of fertility decline.

  • Greenhalgh, Susan, and Edwin Winckler. Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

    Greenhalgh and Winckler trace the evolution of China’s policy development and implementation. Interprets China’s population policy as a particular type of biopolitics, one that evolved from a Leninist to a neoliberal form, tracking with China’s liberalizing economic and social reforms of the 1990s and 2000s, and with the rise of science and influential scientists who argued the necessity of a one-child policy.

  • Scharping, Thomas. Birth Control in China, 1949–2000: Population Policy and Demographic Development. London: Routledge, 2003.

    Offers comprehensive coverage of population policymaking in China from 1949 to 2000 and the development of a bureaucracy capable of implementing the policy. Also examines the demographic consequences of the program.

  • Tien, H. Yuan. China’s Strategic Demographic Initiative. New York: Praeger, 1991.

    Provides an overview of China’s demographic change during the People’s Republic and examines the evolution of population policy. Tien sees the one-child policy as a strategic demographic initiative, a necessary corrective to China’s demographic dilemma.

  • White, Tyrene. China’s Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the People’s Republic, 1949–2005. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.

    Examines the evolution of China’s population policy after 1949 and how China’s distinctive “birth planning” policy led to a program of strict birth limits and the collectivization of childbearing. Rural resistance and the challenges of implementation are detailed. Argues that the mass campaign method of enforcement was the only one capable of overriding the resistance of villagers and local officials.

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