China’s One-Child Policy Change: Sustaining the Four Modernizations

In order to grow the four modernizations, have just one child.”[1]

This quotation and others like it were used in propaganda posters the Chinese national government developed to promote the launch of its “One Child Policy” (the Policy) more than 30 years ago.  The four modernizations referred to the fields of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology.  Deng Xiaoping, leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after Mao Zedong, set goals to develop each of these political-economic spheres in 1978.[2]  One barrier to economic growth was China’s growing population, which emerged as a concern for leaders in the PRC by 1953.[3]  After other initiatives to control the population failed, and in order to achieve those aspirations connected with the four modernizations, Deng established the One-Child policy in 1979.[4]

The Policy has been the main form of birth control in China since its inception, and that statement is meant to include general reproductive education.  I lived in China for more than eight years during the 2001-2012 period.  While there, one of my closest friends was shocked to learn she was expecting a child shortly after she was married.  She was nearly 30 years old and a university educated teacher, but genuinely did not have any idea how she became pregnant.  Her lack of knowledge and understanding of human sexuality is very common, especially for those in smaller cities or rural areas since this topic has not been a focus of education.

“The Family Planning Policy,” as the One-Child dictum is called in China, combined with a historically rooted cultural preference for boys rather than girls, has created several society-wide challenges.  That list includes gendercide, bride abductions, incest, lack of female representation in education and the workplace, an increase in the female orphan population due to the abandonment of girls, and the phenomena of little emperors and bare branches, to just to name a few.  The term bare branches is used to describe the large population of unmarried young men in China, due to a relative lack of women to be partners.  The descriptor Little Emperors refers to the spoiled behavior of some children, arising from the fact they grew up as an only child and, as a result, the center of their families’ attention.

After more than 35 years, the PRC announced a change in the Policy in Fall 2013.  In brief, the change mostly affects Han families, the majority ethnic group in China, whose members may now have two children, rather than just one.[5]  There is not much debate today in the PRC concerning whether the Policy should have been altered.  Many citizens are pleased with this significant shift in the government’s stance.  When I read about the modification, however, my question was not why, but why now?

The answer is easily connected to the economy.  Not much has changed in the perspective of China’s political leaders since 1978.  The government is still focused on economic growth in the four industries identified decades ago. However, the definition of what is included in those areas has shifted and now includes:  industrialization, informatization, urbanization, and agricultural modernization.[6]  Further, whereas, in 1978, the government’s leaders viewed people as a detriment to economic growth, they are now viewed as necessary to increasing and sustaining China’s economic standing.

During the past few decades the PRC has surpassed every forecast regarding its growth and development to become a global economic leader.  This rise can be credited both to government leadership and to the hard work and sacrifice of the nation’s people.  Indeed, let me restate that with more emphasis:  People have been and continue to be key to China’s success.  Without a growing population to continue to drive its economic growth, the country will not be able to sustain the thrust of its four modernizations. It is clear the country’s leaders understand the significance of this fact.

Thus, the PRC altered its one-child policy to bolster the country’s population.  This shift in orientation will eventually lead to a larger pool of labor to address each of the four areas of emphasis identified.  A larger population with money to spend also implies increased consumerism.  Families that have a second child will certainly spend money on their children, helping to sustain the economy.  Perhaps in the long run, the new policy can eliminate some of the unintended consequences of the original law, especially the disturbingly low ratio of girls to boys in the population.

Population growth also has negative implications: growing stress on each of the industries mentioned, rising enrollment in the university education system, which is already facing challenges, increased pollution, and natural resource depletion to only name a few.  In fact, these drawbacks suggest that the policy change may have come too late to deliver the results the country’s leaders envision.  And, in any case, China’s government now confronts the formidable challenge of convincing its citizens to have more than one child.  It is useful to keep in mind that for 35 years Chinese families were daily told it was their duty, as good citizens, to have only one child.  Nationwide, the government constantly reminded its citizens, through propaganda posters and other means, of how costly having an additional child would be.  The result of this long-term proselytization campaign has been a society-wide “group think” in favor of one child per family.  But, like the sustained misinformation barrage that helped create a nation of families with only one child, I am confident there will soon be new government campaigns to convince citizens that, now, “The Four Modernizations can only be Sustained through Families of Four.”


[1] Translated from:

[2] Benjamin I. Schwartz, China and Other Matters, Harvard University Press, 1996, 264.

[3] Matt DeLong and William Wong, “A History of China’s one-child policy,” The Washington Post, (November 15, 2013),, accessed January 18, 2014.

[4] Malcom Potts,  “China’s One Child Policy:  The Policy that Changed the World,”  British Medical Journal, Vol. 333, (August 19, 2006):  371,, accessed January 18, 2014.

[5] Chris Buckley, “China to East Longtime Policy of 1-Child Limit,” The New York Times,
November 15, 2013, January 18, 2014. 

[6] Youngs, Gillian, ed, The Digital World:  Connectivity, Creativity, and Rights, New York:  Routledge, 2013, pp. 40.

JamieJamie Sanchez is a 2nd Year PhD student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought Program (ASPECT) at Virginia Tech.  Her focus is Cultural and Political Thought and her research seeks to analyze how urbanization is understood differently by the Chinese state and marginalized minorities.

Prior to starting the ASPECT program, Jamie lived and worked in Northern China for more than eight years.  Her professional experience includes business consulting, business start up and management, personnel training, and teaching.

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