Gender Imbalance of China’s One-Child Policy Generation

What effect did the one-child policy have on the ratio of men and women in China?

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Map of the sex ratio of people born during the one-child policy in China.

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The one-child policy is one of the biggest and most controversial family planning policies ever. It was created as a way to curb the country’s population growth. At that time, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) was afraid of overpopulation and afraid of experiencing another famine. The one-child policy was imposed in 1980 and written into the constitution in 1982. This restricted all families to having only one child.

There were however, some exceptions to the one-child policy. In the mid-1980s, rural families were allowed to have a second child, if their first child is a daughter. Later, some exceptions were also made for ethnic minorities.

In 2015, the one-child policy was relaxed to a two-child policy. In 2021 it was even relaxed to a 3-child policy.

Apart from preventing overpopulation, the idea was that the one-child policy would also increase social mobility and economic growth. The Chinese government believed that limiting family size would lead to greater investment in each child and a higher standard of living for families.


The one-child policy was enforced through financial penalties. Families that were not able to pay this fee, would not be able to obtain a hukou for their child (a legal registration document that is required in order to marry, attend state-funded schools, or to receive health care). Which would lead to their child not receiving education or healthcare. Other forms of enforcement included loss of employment, and in some cases, forced sterilization or abortions.

In some areas of China, women and/or men were forced or rewarded or fined to use contraception or sterilization after the birth of the first child. The most common methods were the intrauterine device (IUD) for women or a vasectomy for men. In 1983, sterilization became mandatory after the birth of the second or third child.

A propaganda painting in Guangdong Province promotes the idea of a nuclear family with a single child.

The most horrific example of the enforcement of the one-child policy, took place in Shen County and Guan County in Shandong Province. On the 1st of May 1991, the local government announced that the next 100 days, there would be no births in both counties. Any woman that was pregnant at that time, was forced to have an abortion. Even if it was their first child. The policy led to mass panic and dramatic reduction of the local population in 1991.

The one-child policy has been enforced unequally in China. Wealthier Chinese were easily able to pay the fines and could therefore have more children without any other consequences. Government officials were often also exempt from any fines or punishments if they had more than one child.

Effect of the one-child policy on the sex ratio

The biggest effect of the one-child policy, has been on the sex ratio in China. As we can see on this map. Culturally, there is a preference for sons in China. In rural areas, having a son is vital to the farm. Financially, there is another reason for the strong preference for sons. Once a girl gets married, she will belong to the husband’s family. Traditionally, this means that the daughter will have to take care of the in-laws instead of her parents. China, especially back in the 80s and 90s, does not have social programs or pension systems to take care of the elderly. This has always been and still largely is, a responsibility of the children. Having a son is a form of social security for the parents in the future.

This has resulted in many couples choosing to have an abortion, once they found out they we’re expecting a daughter. A lot of new-born girls in China have been adopted by families outside of China.

Today, this has resulted in more men than women below the age of 40. In all but one prefecture of China, there are more men than women aged 5 to 39 (born during the one-child policy). The gender imbalance is the greatest in Hainan and the Pearl River Delta. It’s also quite big in more rural provinces like Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Inner Mongolia and Yunnan. There are also some areas in eastern China near cities like Wuhan, Ningbo, Shanghai, Wenzhou, Quanzhou and Xiamen, where the gender imbalance is greater than most other areas in China. Dongguan is the prefecture with the biggest gender imbalance. There are 139 men for every 100 women in Dongguan of the people born during the one-child policy.

Societal effects of the gender imbalance

Overall, the one-child policy has resulted in a surplus of 32.5 million men in China aged 5 to 39. This gender imbalance, created by the one-child policy, makes it more difficult for men to find partners and start families. This has led to increased competition for partners, which in turn has contributed to social instability and tensions. This has contributed to a rise in bride trafficking, childless couples, and single-hood.

The fact that a large number of men are unable to find partners, has contributed to an increase in various health problems, including mental health problems and a higher risk of substance abuse. It also led to a rise in crime, including kidnapping and trafficking, as well as an increase in the number of women being forced into marriages against their will.

The gender imbalance has also contributed to a decline in the number of young people available to care for their elderly parents. Due to the lack of social programs and pension systems, it has created a burden for the elderly and reduced their quality of life.

Other effects of the one-child policy

The one-child policy did slow China’s population growth, but apart from the slowing population growth and the gender imbalance, the one-child policy has had more effects (both intended and unintended) on China.

The one-child policy improved the quality of life for women in China. The traditional gender roles between men and women weakened. Having fewer kids, gave women more time to receive a better education and have a career. It did lead to a larger participation of women into the workforce.

The policy also led to a significant increase in contraceptive use, including the widespread use of IUDs and sterilization. It also led to a significant increase in the number of female infanticides and abortions, as well as prenatal sex determination, as couples sought to ensure that their one allowed child was male.

The lower birth rate, has led to an increasingly ageing society. So much so, that China today has one of the lowest total fertility rates in the world and is the fastest ageing society in the world. This will lead to a decreasing workforce. China’s economy is still dependent on having a large and low-cost workforce. This will have detrimental effects on China’s economy and China is at risk of getting stuck in the middle-income trap. Meaning that China will grow old before it grows rich and will therefore be unable to make the jump from a middle-income to a high-income country for at least the next several decades.

Was the one child policy necessary?

The one-child policy is still very controversial. The enforcement of the one-child policy involved intrusion into the personal lives of citizens, leading to widespread criticism and controversy both inside and outside of China.

Many experts question whether the one-child policy was even necessary in the first place. Although it did achieve a decreasing growth in population, it has led to a lot more unintended negative effects on China and the Chinese people.

Critics argue that there were alternative solutions available to address population growth and environmental pressures, such as promoting family planning, improving women’s education and healthcare. The policy was implemented without sufficient data or analysis on its potential impact, leading to unintended consequences such as a gender imbalance and a declining birth rate. China’s birth rate was already dropping significantly in the years before the implementation of the one-child policy, which would have resulted in a slower population growth anyway. Due to the lack of sufficient demographic data at that time, policy makers could not notice those demographics trends.

Critics argue that the one-child policy was unnecessary because it failed to address the root causes of population growth and environmental pressures, and instead imposed significant costs on the Chinese people and the country. The policy was ultimately relaxed in 2015, as the Chinese government recognized the need to address the challenges posed by an ageing population and a declining birth rate. By that time however, the damage was already done.

Decades of the one-child policy has led to a preference for many Chinese couples to have one child or even no kids at all. Even though the one-child policy has been relaxed to a three-child policy, the birth rate is still low (and decreasing) and the gender imbalance of children born during the two and three-child policies, still exists.

The decreasing workforce and ageing society, are having negative effects on China’s economic growth today, but mostly in the decades to come. To turn the tide, the CCP has been trying to encourage young couples to have (more) kids. But this has had very little effect so far. Even if the CCP’s campaigns to increase the birth rate would work, it would still take at least 15 years before these new-born kids would lead to an increase of the size of China’s workforce.

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