Show and Tell 5

For our fifth Show and Tell project, I analyzed our class readings on China’s one child policy. The one child policy started in 1980. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCP) sent a letter to the CCP’s General Membership and Youth League about the problems caused by overpopulation.1 If there was no population control, there would be 1.3 billion people in China in twenty years.2 The Central Committee wrote, “With the population growing at such a tremendous rate, we have come to encounter increasingly severe problems in such areas as feeding the entire people, clothing them, housing them, providing adequate transportation, education, public health care, and employment for our people.”3 They said that they were concerned about lower standards of living if the population grew too much because there would not be enough resources to provide for everyone. 

The Central Committee brought up the possible problems with a one child policy, like an aging population and a greater number of men than women, and then dismissed them. On the topic of an imbalance sex ratio due to the one child policy, the Central Committee wrote, “The people of New China, and especially the younger generation, absolutely must overcome the old-fashioned mentality of believing males are superior to females; if a couple gives birth to a single female child, then they must bring her up properly and well, just as they would a boy.” 4 I think that they were not actually addressing the issue. It would be very difficult to change millions of people’s traditional beliefs in a short time just because the party said that men and women were equal. As I will go into more detail later, one of the biggest consequences of the one child policy ended up being an imbalance of male and female babies due to sex-selective abortion, abandonment of female babies, and female infanticide.5

The Central Committee also said that an aging population would not be an issue because most of the population in 1980 was young, and only five percent of Chinese people were over the age of 65.6 Contrary to what they wrote, the aging population has become a problem in China recently.

According to the US Census Bureau’s International Database, China’s population age demographics have changed a lot in the past few decades.7 Their data started in 1990 and was updated at the end of 2021. Here are the population pyramids for 1990 and 2020:

Population pyramid showing numbers of people in China by age, 1990
China’s population by age in 1990
Population pyramid showing numbers of people in China by age, 2020
China’s population by age in 2020

As you can see, most of China’s population is middle aged in 2020, compared to the larger numbers of children and young adults in 1990. There are a lot more people in their sixties and seventies now than there were in 1990.

In her book Women and China’s Revolutions, Gail Hershatter wrote that elder neglect and abuse have been consequences of the one child policy, especially in poor rural areas.8 It has become more common for couples to move out instead of living with the husband’s parents, and there are not enough young people to take care of their elderly relatives.9

Another consequence of the one child policy is a disparity in the number of men and women. In the 2006 documentary “China: The One Child Policy,” they reported that the ratio was 120 boys to 100 girls.10 Sex-selective abortion became common after ultrasound machines were introduced. As a result, the government made it illegal for doctors to reveal the sex of a fetus in 1994, but patients got around the law by bribing doctors.11 Adult women have been harmed by the one child policy too. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, some women were kidnapped and sold as brides because of the “shortage” of women who were able to marry.12 Furthermore, forced abortion was not banned at the federal level until 2002.13 The one child policy greatly reduced women’s ability to control their own bodies. 

The documentary shows that there were class divides in how the one child policy was enforced. A poor rural couple, Ms. Liu and Mr. Ma, had a second child and had to pay a fee that was four times their annual income.14 They struggled for years and had to cut back on food. On the other hand, the Zhangs, a wealthy couple in Shanghai, decided to have a second child and pay the fee because it was not that much money for them.15 The disproportionate enforcement on poor families could be seen as a form of eugenics.

By 2015, the Chinese government ended the one child policy and encouraged every family to have two children because of the problems with sexism and having too small of a labor force to support the elderly population.16 It is still too early to tell how much of an effect that allowing couples to have two children will have. It will take a couple decades for the babies born now to be old enough to enter the labor force and take care of elderly people. Until then, the government could adjust its policies to deal with social issues.


“China: One Child Policy.” Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Anonymous Filmmakers Library, 2006.

Hershatter, Gail. Women and China’s Revolutions. Critical Issues in World and International History. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

“International Database (IDB): China.” United States Census Bureau. Updated December 2021.,2023&FIPS=CH&COUNTRY_YEAR=2023&COUNTRY_YR_ANIM=2023&FIPS_SINGLE=CH.

“The One Child Policy” In The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. Third ed. Edited by Janet Chen et. al. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

  1. Janet Chen et. al., “The One Child Policy,” in The Search For Modern China: A Documentary Collection (New York: WW Norton and Company, 2014), 514-520.
  2. Chen, “The One Child Policy,” 516
  3. Chen, “The One Child Policy,” 515
  4. Chen, “The One Child Policy, 518
  5. Gail Hershatter, “Capitalized Women, 1978-,” in Women and China’s Revolution (Critical Issues in World and International History), (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 254.
  6. Chen, “The One Child Policy,” 517
  7. “International Database (IDB): China,” US Census Bureau, Updated December 2021,,2023&FIPS=CH&COUNTRY_YEAR=2023&COUNTRY_YR_ANIM=1990&FIPS_SINGLE=CH
  8. Hershatter, “Capitalized Women,” 256.
  9. Hershatter, “Capitalized Women,” 256.
  10.  “China: One Child Policy,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Anonymous Filmakers Library, 2006.
  11. “China: One Child Policy”
  12. Hershatter, “Capitalized Women,” 256.
  13. “China: One Child Policy”
  14. “China: One Child Policy”
  15. “China: One Child Policy”
  16. Hershatter, “Capitalized Women,” 257






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