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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Chinese Studies The One-Child Policy
Susan Greenhalgh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0220


Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) introduced its policy advocating only one child per couple, the one-child policy has attracted enormous attention from journalists, scholars, politicians, and ordinary people across the globe. (Although the policy was modified in many areas to allow 1.5 or even 2 children, the leadership continued to advocate one child for all. This essay follows conventional practice in referring to it as the one-child policy.) Today (the mid-2020s), almost a decade after it was abandoned, we have a vast scholarly literature on the policy, but only a partial understanding of it. We know a great deal about rural reactions, but little about urban responses. We know a lot about the policy’s effects on women and girls, but almost nothing about the consequences for men and boys. Moreover, in the literature we find two very different understandings of the subject of interest. For some, the one-child policy refers to the state’s project to limit the number of births per couple. Their assessments of the policy tend to be sharply negative. For others, the one-child policy refers to the state’s efforts to reduce quantity while improving the quality (suzhi 素质) of the next generation. For these researchers, the evaluation is more nuanced, recognizing certain benefits along with the terrible costs. This second line of thinking holds that the quantity project would not have succeeded without the quality project, which entailed creating new kinds of persons with new, more modern identities and aspirations. This article covers both approaches. After general overviews, it contains six sections. Moving roughly chronologically, these deal with the policy’s origins, the local politics of enforcement, gender consequences for the younger and older generations, the quality project of optimizing China’s society, and the shift to a two-child (2015) and three-child (2021) policy. This article omits almost all journalistic writings, which tend to focus heavily on coercive enforcement. Most of the work included is in English. For years, many of the issues of greatest concern were too risky for China-based researchers to study. Moreover, many social demographers from China have been trained abroad and published extensively in English-language journals. Although the policy ended in 2015, the debates over its politics and morality are certain to continue. Equally important, the policy profoundly remade China’s society, culture, and politics in ways that will continue to unfold over time. (For technical and other demographic work on the policy, readers should consult the Oxford Bibliographies in Chinese studies article “Population Structure and Dynamics since 1949.”

General Overviews

Three studies, all published in the mid-2000s, analyze the shifting politics of China’s population policy from the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949; to the early Deng years when the one-child policy was born; to roughly 2005. The historical coverage means their treatment of the one-child policy focuses largely on the decade-plus of hard enforcement (1979 to the mid-1990s). Scharping 2003 and White 2006 are concerned with the quantity project. Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005 broadens the terrain to include quality improvement as well as quantity restriction. All the authors have done extensive field, documentary, and other kinds of research on the policy. Though the three studies cover similar spans of time and deal with the shifting politics of policymaking, enforcing, and effects, they ask different questions and tell very different stories. Scharping 2003, by a demographer with political interests, is concerned with the working and demographic effects of the birth control program. White 2006, by a political scientist, is most interested in the embedding of the birth planning policy and program in Chinese elite politics and in the political economy of economic reform. Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005, by an anthropologist and a political scientist, is concerned with the broad shift from more forceful to more indirect modes of control of individual conduct by a still-strong state. This shift, which has accompanied China’s rapid entry into global circuits, is clearly evident in China’s population work. Working within a shared, broadly Foucauldian framework (among others), the complementary angles of vision offered by these two disciplines allow for a broad and coordinated coverage of developments within state (Winckler) and society (Greenhalgh). The main arguments of each study are described in the annotations. Where specific chapters in these texts provide important overviews of topics reviewed in this article, they are separately cited in the relevant sections. Jacka 2007 offers a trenchant reading and comparative analysis of the three books.

  • Greenhalgh, Susan, and Edwin A. Winckler. Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780804767217

    This book examines the historical process of “governmentalizing” population (bringing it under rationalized control), then “governing” it to realize the state’s aspirations for national prosperity and global ascent. Since the one-child policy’s launch, harsh Leninist forms of biopolitics have partly given way to more “neoliberal,” society-centric forms in which the “governors” include professional experts, market forces, families, and self-governing individuals. Part 1 examines central-level policymaking from Mao to Hu. Part 2 documents the shifting urban and rural politics of enforcement, the staggering costs borne by China’s rural people, especially women and girls, and the impact on state-building.

  • Jacka, Tamara. “Population Governance in the PRC: Political, Historical, and Anthropological Perspectives.” China Journal 58 (July 2007): 111–126.

    DOI: 10.1086/tcj.58.20066309

    This thoughtful review essay compares the three studies, pointing out areas of difference, highlighting the contributions of each, and suggesting unanswered questions for further research.

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

    Scharping’s book is an updated and expanded version of a predecessor published in German in 1995. The author is keenly interested in the birth control program, both how and how well it worked. Theory and overarching arguments are of less concern. Detail-packed chapters provide focused accounts of policy formulation, bureaucratic implementation, popular response (just a little on this), and demographic results. Readers interested in the organizational, bureaucratic, and legal pathways by which policy was shaped and implemented, and statistics on demographic outcomes will find much to engage them.

  • White, Tyrene. China’s Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the People’s Republic, 1949–2005. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

    White’s primary concern is the place of birth planning in Chinese politics. Seeking to unravel why the regime introduced and maintained this harsh campaign while pursuing liberalizing reform, she argues that birth planning constituted a single, long-term mobilizational campaign that represented the longest and last of China’s (in)famous campaigns. Focusing on rural China, she contends that campaigns became indispensable tools of governance, uniquely capable of winning the battle over births. As economic reform eroded older power dynamics, campaigns stopped working, ushering in fundamental change.

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