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After nearly 40 years, China is ending its one-child policy

Newly born babies receive vaccines at a hospital in Aksu, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
No longer alone.
By Lily Kuo
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

China is scrapping a 36-year-old policy that restricted families from having more than one child. The communist party’s main decision-making body, the Central Committee, said today that it would allow all couples to have two children, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

Chinese officials have been gradually easing the policy, in place since 1979, as the country’s working-age population shrinks and threatens to drag down an already slowing economy. The decision came after a four-day meeting where policymakers devised an economic plan for the next five years. Officials at the meeting said China would target “medium-high” growth over the near term. (As Quartz previously reported, earlier this month analysts predicted the one-child policy might be scrapped after the committee meeting this week.)

Moving to a two-child policy may boost consumer spending, a primary goal of Chinese economic policymakers. It may also generate a smaller gender gap and a larger labor force, among other effects.

The one-child policy is one of the most prominent examples of the Chinese government’s control over its citizenry. With several exemptions for rural families, minorities, and those whose parents were single children and more, the policy is believed to have covered only around a third of the population. Still, it is at least partly responsible for over 500 million sterilizations and abortions (paywall), many of them forced, as well as parents having second children in secret and suffering extortion or fines for having more than their allotted quota. Families have also been found to give up daughters or disabled children in order to have a son.

In a study questioning the government’s claim that the one-child policy was responsible for preventing 400 million births, Feng Wang of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center called the rule “the most extreme example of state intervention in human reproduction in the modern era.” He added:

History will also likely view this policy as a very costly blunder, born of the legacy of a political system that planned population numbers in the same way that it planned the production of goods. It showcases the impact of a policymaking process that, in the absence of public deliberations, transparency, debate, and accountability, can do permanent harm to the members of a society.

A generation of only-children has given rise to what some have dubbed “little emperor” syndrome, with children growing up to be “more pessimistic, neurotic and selfish than their peers who have siblings,” according to some researchers.

Even after the one-child policy has ended, any potential population rebound will take decades, as many families have already opted not to have more children even after a looser policy made it possible. Earlier this year, applications from newly eligible couples to have a second child came in well short of expectations, according to Chinese health officials.

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