Official attention to ‘family planning’ and population control can be traced back to 1955 when the government published its ‘Instructions on the issue of population control’ (关于控制人口问题的指示). The document states that ‘In the interests of the nation, families and future generations, the Party is in favor of taking appropriate measures for birth control’ (为了国家、家庭和新生代的利益，我们党是赞成适当地节制生育的). But initially because of the 1959-61 famine, and later because of Mao Zedong’s preference for large families, the laws that became known as the ‘One-Child Policy’ were only enacted in 1979. The National Population and Family Planning Commission (国家人口和计划生育委员会), a state agency responsible for population and family planning as well as other policies, was established in 1981. In 1982, family planning was written into the Constitution: ‘The state promotes family planning, so that population growth could adapt to economic and social development’ (国家推行计划生育，使人口的增长同经济和社会发展计划相适应).
Unlike some policies that are ignored by both citizens and officials, the One-Child Policy was and continues to be rigorously enforced with punishments such as high fines and mandatory termination of employment for offenders. Although the logic behind the policy is well understood in China, where ‘there are too many people’ (中国人太多了) is an everyday complaint, the policy has long caused social tensions and always had its critics.
Liang Zhongtang 梁中堂, who used to serve as a consultant at Shanxi Provincial Family Planning Commission, as well as the head of the population research institute at Shanxi Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, has been advocating for alternatives to the policy since 1978. His principle objections were long-term problems caused by the One-Child Policy such as the distorted aging of the population and gender imbalance. In 1985, partly due to Liang’s efforts, Yicheng in Shanxi province became China’s first pilot county to test a ‘Two-Child Policy’. Twenty five years later, according to the 2010 census, Yicheng’s results were positive: the population increased by 24 percent compared to 34 percent nationwide; the male to female ratio of newborns was one for one compared to 118:100 nationally. In a 2012 interview, Liang blamed the mistakes of the One-Child Policy on the planned economy of the late 1970s:
The reason why we implemented the One-Child Policy was because the planned economy had problems and constrained social development. However, no one realized this and thus blamed the population for causing problems… and no one could see the real relationship between economic growth and population growth.
Liang is not alone. In fact, during the first decade of the twenty-first century, voices arguing for a loosening of the One-Child Policy began to be heard more loudly, even within the government. Typical examples are proposals to amend the policy at meetings of the advisory body the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). In both 2000 and 2002, Huang Jingfu 黄敬孚, the head of the Institute of Pediatrics at Tianjin Children’s Hospital, submitted such proposals. Similarly, in 2007, Ye Tingfang 叶廷芳, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, together with 28 other CPPCC representatives, urged for change.
Outside the government, the debate has been more vigorous. Yi Fuxian 易富贤 ignited online discussions over the policy since around 2000 with the publication of his book Big Country with an Empty Nest: Considering China’s Childbirth Policies大国空巢：反思中国计划生育政策 which argues, among other things, that the commonly-held belief that China is overpopulated is erroneous.
In June 2012, an online scandal focused popular opinion on the One-Child Policy: a 22-year-old woman named Feng Jianmei 冯建梅 was detained by family planning officials in the seventh month of a pregnancy with her second child. The officials levied a 40,000 yuan fine on Feng and her husband for violating the One-Child Policy; they did not have the money and so her pregnancy was forcibly terminated by injection. The abortion happened on 2 June; on 11 June, Feng’s family posted graphic pictures of her lying on a hospital bed next to her stillborn child. The photo went viral online and a flurry of sympathetic media commentary followed. The scandal caused a government investigation which resulted in the firing of of two of the officials responsible.
The One-Child Policy is sometimes criticised in mainland public culture for encouraging official malpractice. Because population control is a criterion for assessing the performance of local governments, ambitious local officials are motivated to enforce the policy in the interest of career advancement. In Western management-speak, success at family planning, which includes abortion, is a KPI or key performance indicator. The investigative business magazine Caixin 财新 published a commentary titled ‘The Rights of the Fetus’ (胎儿的权利) which highlighted this problem:
When achievements in family planning are listed as an item of officials’ performance evaluation, or even in a ‘one-vote’ veto position, the use of violent force to enforce the policy in certain places becomes understandable.
The fines imposed on offenders against the policy, often euphemistically referred to as a ‘social fostering fee’ (社会抚养费) are another source of criticism, and possibly serve as an even greater incentive than family planning targets for local officials to enforce the policy. The major state new agency Xinhua ignited a debate about this problem in September 2013 with an opinion piece titled ‘Problems of the Health and Family Planning Commission, Audit Commission and Other Social Compensation Fee Collection, Management and Auditing issues’ (卫生计生委、审计署回应社会抚养费征收管理和审计等问题). The article notes:
No comprehensive audits have been done and no solid accounting has been conducted on social compensation fees, fees for water conservancy projects and poverty alleviation funds which are made up of small amounts.
Another Xinhua article piece titled ‘The “mystery” of “fines for exceeding the birth limit”‘ (“神秘”的“超生罚款”) quotes a lawyer who in July 2013 sent requests to 31 provincial governments for information such as budget, total revenue and disbursement of social compensation fees. The only information he received was the total general amount of such fines from 17 provinces in 2012, which was about 16.5 billion yuan. However, the article notes ‘as for the way the fees were spent, none of the provinces were willing to reveal anything.’
Other media outlets followed with critical commentary. For example, Beijing Times (京华时报) published a commentary in a harsher tone:
Facing questions, they should give the public a ‘clear account’. What are the specific uses of this money? Have the revenue and expenditure been accurately separated? Were entrapments completely resolved? How is the money collected, used and managed? Only by giving clear and specific answers to these questions can the public stop being confused, and find the right path for the social compensation fees.
The media attention on the One-Child Policy also attracted renewed online interest in a 2012 essay by Gou Xinyu 勾新雨, deputy editor-in-chief of Investor China (投资者报), titled ‘Reasons for the Social Compensation Fee Not Tenable’ (社会抚养费理由不成立):
The reason for social fostering fees does not exist. China is not a high welfare state like north Europe, not even like Russia which subsidizes children’s milk powder. Most expenditures on Chinese children are from their families. Since the government does not fulfill the responsibility of social fostering, what is the point of the social fostering fee?
Another event that stimulated public debate was the growing rumour in May 2013 that the prominent film director Zhang Yimou 张艺谋 had fathered seven children with several women. He later admitted to having three children with his wife. There was a variety of reactions. Lian Yue 连岳 (real name Zhong Xiaoyong 钟晓勇), a journalist and social critic, wrote a defense of Zhang that is representative of one side of the debate:
The best thing that Zhang did was to ignore the one-child policy, and this is wonderful… Zhang’s disobedience of the policy is not a privilege but a defense of his basic human rights. Those who can’t understand this are like those Jews who claimed no one had been detained or arrested by the Nazis, because Hitler’s law said they had to stay in the concentration camps, while those who escaped are enjoying a ‘privilege’.
The other side criticised Zhang as a member of an elite minority that enjoys privileges unavailable to ordinary people. Xinhua Daily Telegraph (新华每日电讯), a national newspaper managed by Xinhua News Agency, published a commentary along these lines:
If law enforcement cannot treat everybody equally, how will ordinary people feel? And how can people build confidence in the fairness of family planning institutions?
The Decision released at the Communist Party’s Third Plenum in November 2013 indicated a loosening of the One-Child Policy. The official statement read: ‘China will adhere to the basic national policy of family planning, and start to implement a two-child policy for couples if one parent is a single child.’
Many scholars have already expressed their agreement with the changes and their hopes for further reforms. Liang Jianzhang 梁建章, a professor at Peking University and co-founder of the travel and air ticket website Ctrip.com, is a long-time advocate of family planning reform. He commented:
We hope that the central government can realize that a complete loosening of the one-child policy would have an even greater benefit for future economic development…A nation unwilling to invest in their children has no future.