China’s One-Child Policy From My Students with Siblings

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China has too many people. It’s no secret. In fact, it’s a complaint I’ve heard often since I moved here four months ago, whether it comes from my own mouth after a long day of push and shove on the Guangzhou public transit; or from fellow travelers who make their way through the hoards of people at the tourist attractions and shopping malls; or from my Chinese university students, who like millions of others spent their childhoods working toward a goal of earning a place in one of the country’s highly competitive public universities, only to face the reality that they didn’t make the cut.

Now, they’re settling for a decent education at Guangdong Peizheng College, a private and much more expensive, second-rate option, where I, their foreign English professor, get to ask them questions about things like China’s one-child policy, a law that forbids couples to reproduce more than once.

“China needs to control the population some way,” says Money, the eldest in a two-child family and a bright student whose English is better than most of her peers.  “We have too many people.”

“Is the law working?” I ask, planning to play devil’s advocate to both sides of this classroom debate.

“Yes!” scream those on the left side of the room, who argue in favor.

“No,” say the others.

According to The National Population and Family Planning Commission of the People’s Republic of China, the law has actually prevented around 400 million births in the 33 years since its implementation, though some argue the rate was already declining before the law took effect (China). Neither conclusion, however, would be apparent if you had a front row seat in my classroom.

“How many of you have siblings” I ask, emphasizing a word they learned just last week. Nineteen of the 21 students raise their hand – the same ratio I gathered in my other four classes, give or take a student or two. Roughly 12% of my 97 freshmen university students are only children, and though this is not an accurate sample for the country as a whole (nearly all of my students come from middle class families in Guangdong, China’s richest and most populous province), it’s a strong argument that the one-child policy, like so many other laws in China, isn’t working.

Peizheng College is expensive by local standards (US$2,890/year compared to the government universities with an average tuition of US$963/year) and my students’ parents can afford to send them here. These are the same parents, it seems, that can afford to have multiple children – which is to say they can pay the absurd government fine of between three and six times that of the average disposable income in their local province, according to Want China Times. For wealthier couples, the fee may be doubled or tripled. In Shenzhen, a nearby city in the Guangdong province, a couple was recently fined 780,000 yuan (US $125,000) for two extra babies (Unlucky Eight). Surprisingly, more than a few of my students have three or more brothers and sisters.

“China have many boys and not many girls,” says Suky, a big sister to her eight-year-old brother. She’s arguing against the law, though her statement needs no debate. “Everybody wants a boy.”

China's one child policy

“Why does everybody want a boy?” I ask, not sure how the girls will respond.

“The boys need to take the name or it will be dead,” says Kim, an intelligent, charismatic girl at the top of her class, and a proud aunt to two nephews. “And when our parents dead, become died, the boys take everything.”

The family fortune and estate can only be passed down to a male, in historic China, so parents worry that having only a girl will deplete the family legacy. A senior student once told me about a family who had twelve girls before they finally birthed a son, not the first story of its kind, and all of those girls will be left with nothing when the parents pass. It’s up to the woman (or her parents, in some cases) to find a good husband to care for her. However, there is a loophole.

“Sometimes the man can marry the woman and get her name,” says Windy, a second child and budding feminist who disclaimed the arguments of “boys are stronger,” and “boys can care for the parents when old,” with a simple, unwavering statement: “girls can do it too.”

Apparently, if a single girl marries a worthy boy (which is to say he comes from a family with a good name and a similar financial background) who is not the only son, he can take her family name and continue its heritage.

To a foreigner, the reasons for favoring male babies hardly seem worthy of the problems it has caused. In China, law forbids pregnant women to discover the sex of a fetus before birth. This is the government’s attempt to prevent the high rate of female abortions (sex selective abortions are consequentially illegal) but like most other rules in China, breaking it is only a matter of money.

A recent blog article in the New York Times raised yet another issue that is, at least in part, a result of the family planning policy: child trafficking. Experts estimate the numbers could be as high as 70,000 children kidnapped each year, though the Chinese government claims about 10,000 (McDonald). Children are bought and sold for less than US $5,000 in the mainland, and the majority of stolen babies are boys (McDonald).

There are now 120 males for every 100 females in China, according to an article in The National Interest, and the problem only continues to worsen (Hayoun). At its implementation, the policy was mostly aimed at urban residents; minority populations and those who live in rural areas are allowed to have a second child if their firstborn is a girl. Not long ago, the government realized the various consequences of such a law and relaxed it so that married couples who are both single children can reproduce twice, regardless of living location or gender. More recently, policy makers proposed that by 2015 married couples nationwide be legally able to birth two children (Goldberg), but the outcome is still unknown.

According to the National Population and Family Planning Commission, incentives for adhering to the Family Planning Law include receiving a “Certificate of Honor for Single-Child Parents,” and a reward determined by the relevant province (China). Currently, the Guangdong government provides a monthly payment of 10 yuan ($1.60) each month to families with a single child, according to Yun, an associate professor of business management at Peizheng College, and the proud father of his four-month old daughter. But to people who can afford a second child, and even many who can’t, this incentive is laughable. Yun is among the many who plan to have another one day.

It’s fair to say the government has taken only baby steps to loosen the policy restrictions and encourage voluntary involvement, but even with changes on the horizon, enforcement remains a difficult task in a land where edict is often overlooked.

“If the one-child policy is causing problems like this,” I ask. “Do you think it is doing more bad than good?”

“Yes. It also creates a generation gap,” says Harden, a single child who wishes he had siblings, but more importantly that people had the right to decide. “We [single children] have nobody to talk to that can understand us.”

“What about your cousins!” shouts Con, the eldest of two, from across the room. “They can understand you.”

“If this law worked like the government said it should, you wouldn’t have cousins.” I pipe in to close the conversation before the end of class.

On an emotional level, the students arguing against the law have won the debate. But when I asked about an alternative method for population control (an unarguably necessary action in a country with one-fifth of the world’s inhabitants), nobody had any ideas. And so far the numbers – despite the millions of unaccounted for, illegal births that happen across the country with the help of corrupt doctors and parents who don’t register their children with birth certificates – claim the one-child policy is, in fact, working.

I draw a straight line on the board to drive my point home. “If the one-child policy worked ideally,” I continue, “it would eventually diminish the need for such English vocabulary as brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins, thus creating a family tree more like a narrow stick than a blossoming tree.”

This debate is over, at least in my classroom. The bell rings and my students ponder this information as they slowly and quietly exit the room, wandering into the crowded halls and working their way outside to blend in amongst their thousands of peers.


Read more: An ESL Insider’s Ultimate Guide to Teaching English in China


Jessica J. Hill, the Teach Abroad Editor for Wandering Educators, is an Oregon native currently working in China. She writes about traveling, teaching abroad, and coming home. Find more of her stories here:





China. National Population and Family Planning Commission of the People's Republic of China. Population and Family Planning Law of the People's Republic of China. N.p.: China Population House, 2002. National Population and Family Planning Commission of P.R. China. China Population Publishing House, 23 Feb. 2012. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.

Goldberg, Adam. "China One-Child Policy: Government Think Tank Urges Country's Leaders To Start Phasing Out Policy Immediately." The Huffington Post., 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.

Hayoun, Massoud. "Understanding China's One-Child Policy." The National Interest. The National Interest, 15 Aug. 2012. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.

McDonald, Mark. "Buy, Sell, Adopt: Child Trafficking in China." International Herald Tribune. New York Times, 26 Dec. 2012. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.

"Province Wants Relaxation of China's One-child Policy." BBC News. BBC, 07 Nov. 2011. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.

“Unlucky Eight for Guangdong Couple Whose IVF Worked Too Well." N.p., 15 Dec. 2012. Web. 28 Dec. 2012.




All photos courtesy and copyright Jessica J. Hill