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'I could hear the baby cry. They killed my baby ... yet I couldn’t do a thing': The countless tragedies of China’s one-child policy

Millions of families paid a huge personal price for a 35-year-old state programme that failed to deliver its promised social and economic dividends. The women who were forced to have abortions still live with the trauma and society must still grapple with an ageing population

Yet instead of being able to hold her newborn child, she watched helplessly while her baby was drowned in a bucket.

She had been seven-and-a-half months pregnant with her fourth child. Under China’s one-child policy, she was carrying the baby “illegally” so she was dragged onto an operating table to have it aborted.

“The baby was alive, I could hear the baby cry,” she said, fighting back tears. “They killed my baby ... yet I couldn’t do a thing.”


But that was not the end of Mao’s ordeal. While she was still suffering from severe haemorrhaging after the abortion, officials tried to force her to have a hysterectomy. She was fired from her job at a state-run factory in Shanghai. Her husband lost his business licence. When she tried to fight her job dismissal and the court threw out her case, she damaged the national emblem inside the courtroom and was taken into a mental asylum.

Even today, the shadow of the one-child policy still lingers over her family. Her three older daughters, who were barred from getting education beyond primary school, can survive only on odd jobs. Mao and her husband, once successful business owners, are now each living on government handouts of 790 yuan (HK$960) a month.

READ MORE: What Chinese think about the easing of the one-child policy

Mao was just one of millions of Chinese women who have suffered traumatising experiences because of the one-child policy, launched 35 years ago to achieve the national goal of controlling the population to boost per capita economic performance.

China’s announcement late last month that it would allow all couples to have two children is widely welcomed, but has also led to reflection on whether the decades-long policy, which has forced tens of millions of families to make sacrifices and led to countless rights abuses, has been worth it.

The one-child policy has come at huge social and human cost to Chinese society: forced abortions, sterilisations, and the insertion of intrauterine contraceptive devices have left physical and emotional scars among millions of women.

Talk to any woman on the mainland, and most will have a gruelling personal story to tell from intrusive and coercive medical procedures that they had to endure. Brutal slogans such as “Abort it, induce it, just stop it from being born!” have translated into countless human tragedies over the past 35 years.


Feng Jianmei was tearful and almost speechless for two years after local officials in Shaanxi  province induced labour seven months into her second pregnancy in 2012. The picture of Feng on a hospital bed next to her bloody aborted baby placed in a plastic bag shocked the nation.

Today, the couple still think about their dead baby. “Our baby would have been three by now if she had lived,” her husband Deng Jiyuan said ruefully.

Xia Nenying, 38, is still suffering from nightmares. At the crack of dawn one morning three years ago, more than 20 family planning officers came to her village home in Jiangxi province and bundled her into a van.

She was taken to a village family planning service station where she was forced to undergo a sterilisation operation. Xia, a rural resident, had had two girls already. While rural residents are allowed to have a second child when the first one is a girl, local cadres wanted to ensure she would not get pregnant again.

“I was totally unprepared,” Xia said. “When they took me away, my one-year-old screamed and cried. Since then, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep. I often wake up in a sweat from bad dreams of people coming to take me away.”

Twins Sun Qiyu and Sun Qichun wave China's national flags at the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing. Photo: Reuters
Those unable to pay exorbitant fines for violating the birth-control policy often had their homes ransacked or even demolished, and their belongings, including livestock and farming equipment, seized.

It is not only the victims who are haunted by nightmares. A former worker at a rural family planning service station said she was haunted by screams of women and babies in her dreams after years of hauling pregnant women to rural clinics and inducing abortions. Feeling that she had blood on her hands, she eventually resigned.

The traumatising impact of the one-child policy is still felt by many families decades later.

Children born outside the birth quota have no legal status as citizens: no identity documents, no rights to education, medical care and other social services.

Even in their adulthood, these so-called “black” citizens, are living on the margins of society – deprived of an education, they are forced to do odd jobs for a living. Even if they have the money, they are unable to travel abroad.

On the national level, the policy has led to a disproportionately high number of male births because of sex-selective abortions, a rapidly ageing population without adequate government support and labour shortages. Parents who have lost their only child face an uncertain old age.


With such drastic social consequences and human cost, many people now question why the one-child policy was ever introduced and how it could have remained in place for 35 years, exceeding even the government’s original plan of 25 to 30 years.

After the Communist Party came to power in 1949, anticipating war, leader Mao Zedong encouraged people to have large families. After a 1950s baby boom, fearing a population explosion, the leadership first introduced campaigns to encourage fewer children and then, in 1980, officially enforced a nationwide one-child policy – limiting most urban couples to one child and some rural families to two. The policy was launched at a time when the Chinese leadership needed to rebuild its political legitimacy with the country reeling from the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

The post-Mao Zedong leadership made economic development the basis of its legitimacy. With the aim of boosting the living standards of its population, controlling population growth was seen as essential for increasing its per capita gross domestic product growth, said demographers Wang Feng, Cai Yong and Gu Baochang in a 2013 paper.

“This per capita metric, using population size simply as part of the political calculation for achieving political goals, has been a constant driving force to justify the continuation of the one-child policy,” the paper, Population, Policy, and Politics: How Will History Judge China’s One-Child Policy? said.

China has long defended the one-child policy as being a vital step in preventing a rapid expansion of population that could have led to food and resource shortages. It claimed that the policy had prevented 400 million births, but this has been disputed by demographers, who say that the number of averted births has been grossly exaggerated.

“The claim that China’s one-child policy has had a major role in controlling China’s population growth and in propelling China’s economic boom is one of the major myths associated with the policy, and is fundamentally a false claim,” said Wang, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine.

A couple take pictures with their baby at the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing. Photo: Reuters
Wang said nearly 75 per cent of China’s fertility decline occurred before the one-child policy was launched in 1980, and the recent low fertility was closely associated with economic and social changes after the beginning of the 1990s.

China’s total fertility rate – the average number of children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime – dropped by more than half, from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979.

Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, noted that while an estimated 15 to 25 per cent of China’s rapid economic growth between 1982 and 2000 could be attributed to the demographic dividend, because the fertility decline already happened before the policy, “the direct contribution from the one-child policy to China’s economic growth is relatively small”.

Wang, Cai and Gu looked at what China’s fertility would have been if there were no one-child policy, using the fertility trend in China before the one-child policy and trends in other countries. They projected that by 2010, fertility would have fallen to its currently observed level of around 1.5 children per woman anyway.

While the demographic effect of the one-child policy in reducing population growth is very small, the policy’s social cost in depriving most families of a second child was enormous, having forcefully altered family and kinship for Chinese society, scholars say.

Ai Xiaoming, a retired professor of women’s studies, said many women initially supported the policy. It was then seen as a modern and progressive measure and believed they should put national interests ahead of their personal needs. They willingly abandoned the traditional mindset of relying on children for their old age, and believed in the government slogan: “It’s good to have one child, the state will take care of your old age.”

Yet 35 years on, China’s pension system is under severe strain. Longer lifespans and decades of one-child policy mean the proportion of China’s elderly population is climbing rapidly. By 2050, 39 per cent of the population will be over the age of 60, compared with 15 per cent now, according to official data.

Although China provides pensions for most senior citizens, many say the coverage is inadequate. “The sense of crisis is very strong,” Ai said. “To many, the slogan, ‘The state will look after you in your old age’, has become an empty promise.”

For Liu Meilian, 52, a widow who lost her only child in a car crash six years ago, the prospect of old age is a particularly challenging one. Liu, a teacher, said the monthly pension she would receive as a civil servant when she retired in three years’ time, now at a rate of about 4,000 yuan, would not cover additional costs if she became ill and had no children to care for her.

“If I knew things would turn out like this, I would have risked anything – even a prison term – to have another child,” she said.

But, even now it is too late to alter the situation for many individuals. Many, like Liu, are too old to have another child and many others do not want more than one child because of the rising costs of raising children.

A man carrying his two children poses for photograph in front of the giant portrait of late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong. Photo: Reuters
After the government loosened the one-child policy in late 2013 – allowing families in which one parent was an only child to have two children – only one million couples, or about 10 per cent of those who were eligible, applied to have a second child last year, according to official figures.

Some estimates suggest that raising a child from birth to the age of 18 costs about 20,000 yuan a year, the equivalent of more than 40 per cent of the average mainland household income.


Even from a demographic point of view, experts say the two-child policy is too late to make any noticeable difference.

The National Health and Family Planning Commission said with about 90 million couples in the country eligible for the new two-child policy, the peak number of births in a year was expected to rise to 20 million – up from 16.87 million births in 2014. But experts say that even with three million additional births, it is only a few percentage points of the total number of births.

“The long-term demographic effect is going to be negligible,” Wang said. “The new policy is more political and humanistic than demographic.”

Demographers say the projected increase in population will not be enough to reverse the ageing trend for the Chinese population and the shrinking workforce. In fact, the government will need to encourage couples to have more children, further expand the pension scheme and defer the retirement age to avert a looming crisis, they say.

During the past decade, the number of workers aged between 20 and 29 on the mainland has fallen by 15 per cent and it will shrink by another 20 per cent in the next 20 years. Meanwhile, the number of people over the age of 60 was forecast to double from the current 200 million to 400 million by 2033, Wang said.

The impact of the new policy would be slow, taking about 20 years to show, Cai said.

Wang warned: “The government should recognise this could be one of its greatest challenges. If it cannot deliver adequate support – given that people have made a huge sacrifice by having just one child – it would challenge their political legitimacy.”

Cai said although the projected total figure of 20 million births would raise the total fertility rate to 1.8 from the current 1.55, this was still way below the level of 2.1 that would allow the population to replace itself.


Scholars have campaigned to scrap the one-child policy for more than a decade, arguing that the low fertility rate was worryingly below the replacement rate. In 1970, the fertility rate was 5.8, but in the past two decades, the mainland’s fertility has dropped to one of the lowest levels in the world. The total fertility rate has dropped from 1.82 in 2000 to 1.55 in 2014.

Despite the warnings, the policy remained in place. Analysts said the bureaucracy of the ubiquitous birth planning departments had become resistant to policy change, having grown to rely on the fines from punishments for over-quota births for local government income.

Experts said the resilience of the policy also showed how policy-making processes in a political system that lacked transparency and accountability could result in disastrous outcomes, and how an authoritarian regime could treat individuals as mere numbers and subjects of the state to be sacrificed for national goals.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said the one-child policy showed that policy-making in China was “impervious to the extraordinary human cost of its choices and riddled with impunity for past and ongoing abuses.”

Wang, Cai and Gu said in their 2013 paper that history would remember the policy as “the most extreme example of state intervention in human reproduction in the modern era” and “a very costly blunder, born of the legacy of a political system that planned population numbers in the same way that it planned the production of goods.”

Life has been reduced to just a number
Ai Xiaoming

They said that in many ways the one-child policy’s damage surpassed even the impact of other historical calamities such as the Great Famine in 1959-61 and the Cultural Revolution.

“The one-child policy will surpass them in impact by its role in creating a society with a seriously undermined family and kin structure, and a whole generation of future elderly and their children whose well-being will be seriously jeopardised,” they said.

A tragic consequence of the one-child policy was the widespread disrespect for life in Chinese society, Ai said. Society’s attitude towards abortion is so casual that women in the early stage of pregnancies are often asked: “Are you keeping it?”

Ai herself is one of many victims of botched birth-control operations. Like millions of women, she had to have an IUD fitted after her first child, but 20 years later, a serious infection caused her to have a hysterectomy.

“Reproductive rights have never been respected,” Ai said. “And life has been reduced to just a number.”