Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

China’s Generation of Only Children Wants the Same for Their Kids

The one-child policy left a permanent impression on family life and depresses fertility rates even today.

By , a writer based in Beijing.
A woman pulls a trolley with a sleeping child.
A woman pulls a trolley with a sleeping child along a street during the Golden Week holiday in Beijing on Oct. 2. Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images

When China released the results of its most recent census in May, the numbers showed a problem the government already knew about but whose magnitude it might not have expected. China’s fertility rate—the number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime—stood at just 1.3, one of the lowest in the world. (For comparison, the rate was 1.64 for the United States and 2.2 for India in 2020.)

Since then, state media has kept up a flow of reports parsing the decline’s causes, which articles argue range from improved living standards to advancements in women’s education. Notably absent, however, is a factor the government is not keen to bring up—especially amid current talk of promoting child-friendly social policies—but one that has deeply shaped the way Chinese families think.

The one-child policy, which was imposed by the Chinese Communist Party in 1980 and lasted just over three and a half decades, was one of the world’s largest experiments in social engineering. Expert opinions differ on the extent of the policy’s impact on China’s long-term fertility rate, but they agree it accelerated the decline in fertility that came as a result of the country’s economic development. Japan and South Korea, where fertility also declined as people grew richer, both had higher fertility rates than China’s when their GDP per capita were around China’s current level. The Chinese government claims the policy prevented 400 million births, although the impact is debated.

When China released the results of its most recent census in May, the numbers showed a problem the government already knew about but whose magnitude it might not have expected. China’s fertility rate—the number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime—stood at just 1.3, one of the lowest in the world. (For comparison, the rate was 1.64 for the United States and 2.2 for India in 2020.)

Since then, state media has kept up a flow of reports parsing the decline’s causes, which articles argue range from improved living standards to advancements in women’s education. Notably absent, however, is a factor the government is not keen to bring up—especially amid current talk of promoting child-friendly social policies—but one that has deeply shaped the way Chinese families think.

The one-child policy, which was imposed by the Chinese Communist Party in 1980 and lasted just over three and a half decades, was one of the world’s largest experiments in social engineering. Expert opinions differ on the extent of the policy’s impact on China’s long-term fertility rate, but they agree it accelerated the decline in fertility that came as a result of the country’s economic development. Japan and South Korea, where fertility also declined as people grew richer, both had higher fertility rates than China’s when their GDP per capita were around China’s current level. The Chinese government claims the policy prevented 400 million births, although the impact is debated.

Inside China, my generation did not know a time when the one-child family was not the social norm in cities. In the countryside, families were allowed a second child if the firstborn was a girl. But for urban kids, siblings were almost unknown unless the family was exceptionally rich and powerful. Growing up as single children impacted us deeply—and we carry that stamp even today, especially in our own childbearing decisions.

Born in 1988, I have only second-hand knowledge of the social jitters that surrounded the one-child policy in its early years of implementation. Today, the one-child family has become a Chinese middle-class cultural ideal. In the three and half decades under the policy, China grew far richer—a prosperity now associated with smaller families.

Our parents, relieved from child care’s heavy burden, were able to devote themselves to work, generating wealth that not only liberated my generation from material wants but opened us to a world of possibilities our parents never dreamed of for themselves. Handwringing about the “little emperors,” the policy’s supposedly spoilt product, has faded from public memory. Single children who enjoyed their parents’ undivided attention believe their own offspring deserve at least as much. Multiple children, meanwhile, are associated with rural poverty, not urban aspirations.

“I want for my child what I had. That is why I am not having another,” read the top-voted post in a thread on zhihu.com, in which single children share their views about having kids themselves.

The one-child family has established itself so firmly in my generation’s consciousness, in fact, that those who contemplate having a second or third child often find it difficult to conceive how they would handle it. Having grown up as single children among others like them, they can find no model that might serve as a guide: The plethora of childrearing manuals have few answers for simple questions like how to handle sibling rivalry. Their own childhood, instead of helping them gain parental insight, can often get in the way of sensible, attentive parenting.

“Single children are particularly anxious about being parents,” wrote a child psychologist who goes by the name Xing Pu on her popular WeChat public account on parenting methods. “Not understanding the true needs of their children, they do the only thing they can think of, which is to give their children what they had missed out on in their own childhood.”

And there are other single children who ask no compensation for their childhood. For them, the single-child existence has aspects they are keen to preserve. Dong Chang, a 28-year-old administrative employee at a dentist’s clinic in Beijing, explained in an interview with the New York Times last year why single children like her do not want children. “We are all only children, and to be honest, a little selfish,” she said. “How can I raise a child when I’m still a child myself? And take care of him and feed him at midnight?”

If basic child care duties were all that was involved in parenthood, more Chinese might have jumped onto the bandwagon. In reality, those of us who feel daunted by that prospect are confronted with quite another picture. Over the past few decades, the cost of raising a child has increased exponentially, thanks in large part to the one-child policy, which caused families to concentrate all of their resources on their single offspring. These days, the proper middle-class childhood is not complete without after-school tutoring on multiple subjects and extracurricular clubs on weekends. College and graduate school abroad have become a rite of passage. Marriage is hardly possible in large cities without the exorbitant dowries or apartments parents furnish their children with.

It is then far from surprising that single children, gauging the scales childrearing costs may reach in another two decades, are opting out of parenthood in droves. The economic burden of having children has become so prohibitive it forced the government into drastic action. In July, it launched a costly crackdown on the for-profit tutoring industry in an attempt to rein in the rat race. But many parents expect it will only make matters worse.

Finally, such crude state attempts to encourage childbirth by reducing its expected long-term costs do not begin to address my generation’s more pressing concerns. Almost as old as the one-child policy itself are warnings about the elder care crisis it would engender down the road. The crisis is now upon us as we become the sole caretakers of our aging parents: With the “inverted pyramid” of demographics bearing down on us, each couple is left coping with two sets of parents alone.

Some are hit harder than others, among them the roughly 137 million people of childbearing age who are migrant workers. Unlike their urban peers who receive help from parents in buying homes and raising children, migrant workers are counted on by their parents for care and support, typically by moving them from the countryside to the cities where the migrants live. For those migrants, supporting themselves as well as their parents in large cities already puts a terrible strain on their limited incomes. It makes having children seem like an ambitious project.

That is, of course, if they have a shot at it at all. A significant number of Chinese men are not so lucky. China now has 30 million more men of marriageable age than women, according to government estimates, a legacy of the decadeslong one-child policy mixed with a cultural preference for sons over daughters that led to gender-based abortions. (The government campaigned against them and attempted to impose legal limits on telling parents their babies’ sex, but doctors were often bribed anyway.) The sex ratio at birth is less skewed now, but because those born when the ratio was at its peak are just reaching adulthood, the number of surplus men on the marriage market is expected to grow in the coming years.

The Chinese Communist Party once hailed the one-child policy as a stroke of political foresight that helped alleviate global overpopulation. Now, it is suffering from its domestic consequences. With a new mandate to boost the national birthrate, the party is making promises to reduce the cost of education and increase labor protections for women. Meanwhile, it tries to leave the one-child policy quietly behind as it leaves behind other inglorious chapters of its history. But how likely will it succeed when we, the targets of its new policies, are living lives irrevocably shaped by the old?

Helen Gao is a writer based in Beijing. She writes about the cultural and social impact of Chinese authoritarianism. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic and the New York Times.
 Twitter: @Yuxin_Gao

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?