Change and continuity under China’s two-child policy

Tuesday, October 3, 2017 - 11:11

Ahead of the latest instalment of our China Changing Festival, co-founder and editor of WAGIC (Women and Gender in China) Séagh Kehoe offers their interpretation of the impact, considerations, complexities and ambiguities around China’s introduction of the two-child policy.


On 29 October 2015, China's state news agency Xinhua reported a significant change to one of the most widely recognised and controversial symbols of the Communist Party’s rule - the one-child policy. From 1 January 2016, the two-child policy took its place, allowing all married couples in China to have two children.

Introduced in 1979, the one-child policy was originally intended as a temporary measure to curb China's rapidly growing population and stimulate economic growth. It ultimately remained in place for more than 35 years.

Strictly  enforced, the human toll of the one-child policy could often be enormous. Couples who failed to comply with the policy could face loss of employment, forced abortions and sterilisations, and vast ‘fines’ for ‘illegal births’.

This policy, and its impact on the lives of millions of people in China, have been the subject of various pieces of dystopian fiction, most notably across the chilling pages of Ma Jian’s The Dark Road and more recently, Maggie Shen King’s The Excess Male.

To what extent the policy was responsible for the great fall in China’s birth rates is still a point of discussion. Many argue birth rates were already in decline before the policy was introduced and would have continued to fall as a result of urbanization, rising incomes, and, as Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen contends, ‘the empowerment of Chinese women through rapid expansion of schooling and job opportunities’.

While a number of exceptions to the policy were gradually implemented over the years, the policy generated a number of major demographic issues for the country. With couples allowed to have only one child, a strong traditional preference for sons led to sex-selective abortions and resulted in a dramatic gender imbalance with roughly 116 boys born for every 100 girls. As a result, notes Xinhua, China now has 34 million more men than women, many of whom will be unable to ever find wives.

The government introduced the two-child policy in the hope that it would alleviate the mounting pressures of this extreme gender imbalance, and also arrest other big issues such as a rapidly aging population and a shrinking work force. However, many wonder to what extent this new policy encouraging married couples to have two children will really put a dent in a demographic trend that has been established for decades.

China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) reported that the number of new-borns in the year following the policy’s introduction increased by 1.31 million against 2015, while the birth-rate of second children rose to 45%. These numbers however still fell short of government estimates.

Yet in urban areas, high living costs, long work hours, insufficient provision of social welfare, maternity and parental leave, along with ever-rising child-care expenses often means many couples are reluctant to have a second child, or even a first one.

For women the policy also presents additional concerns about how it might impact their careers, promotions, and earnings. Many fear that it could feed into what is already an overt and widespread culture of gender discrimination in the workplace. Discussions about the new policy on Chinese social media regularly point to anxieties about discriminatory employment practices and how employers will react to the prospect of having to now potentially pay maternity benefits twice.

For all its controversy the one-child policy is often credited with improving women’s status in urban spaces, particularly in terms of girls’ education. With families only permitted to have one child, girls often became the focus of their family’s aspirations and financial resources. What the new policy will mean for these advancements in gender equality made during the old-child policy era remains to be seen.

The baby deficit is a serious challenge for the government, and could curtail China’s future economic growth and ability to provide for its aging population. The government will now need to consider options such as more affordable housing, healthcare and education, better regulations to protect women from gender discrimination in the workplace, and perhaps tax breaks to encourage couples to have more children.

Another option would be to make it less difficult for single women to have a child. Without a ‘reproduction permit’ from the government to have children outside of marriage (notoriously difficult to obtain), unmarried single women and other pregnant people may face ‘fines’ and their children may be denied birth certificates. The government also continues to prevent single women from accessing assisted reproductive technologies, such as egg freezing.

Despite the new challenges and changes the shift to the two-child policy has brought, one thing remains constant – a strict state policy of birth control. The new policy will not end forced sterilizations, abortions,or ‘fines’ for ‘illegal births’, nor will it make it easier for single, unmarried women and other pregnant people to have children. As long as the State continues to intervene in and override people’s personal decisions about having children, questions of bodily autonomy and reproductive rights will remain prominent.


Séagh Kehoe’s take on this, is just one of the many perceptions to be discussed at Women, China and the Two-Child Policy, one of a number of talks taking place at Southbank Centre on 7 October as part of our China Changing Festival.

listen to the talk

Séagh Kehoe is a PhD researcher as the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. They are co-founder and editor of WAGIC (Women and Gender in China), an online project dedicated to discussing gender, sexuality, and feminism(s) in China past and present. They can be found on twitter via @seaghkehoe, and @halfthesky49