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China's Former 1-Child Policy Continues To Haunt Families

The legacy of China's one-child rule is still painfully felt by many of those who suffered for having more children.
The legacy of China's one-child rule is still painfully felt by many of those who suffered for having more children.

Updated July 4, 2021 at 7:06 AM ET

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions that may be disturbing.

LINYI, China — Outside, rain falls. Inside, a middle-school student completes his homework. His mother watches him approvingly.

She is especially protective of him. He's the youngest of three children this mother had under China's one-child policy.

Giving birth to him was a huge risk — and she took no chances. She carried her son to term while hiding in a relative's house. She wanted to avoid the "family planning officials" in her home village, just outside Linyi, a city of 11 million in China's northern Shandong province, where the policy's enforcement was especially violent.

What was she hiding from? What could the family planning officials have done to her? She demurs, her voice growing quiet. "All we can do is go on living," she says. "There is no use in trying to make sense of society."

A mother and a grandmother take care of a child in Beijing on Jan. 1, 2016. Married couples in China in 2016, were allowed to have two children, after concerns over an aging population and shrinking workforce ushered in an end to the country's controversial one-child policy.
Fred Dufour / AFP via Getty Images
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A mother and a grandmother take care of a child in Beijing on Jan. 1, 2016. Married couples in China in 2016, were allowed to have two children, after concerns over an aging population and shrinking workforce ushered in an end to the country's controversial one-child policy.

Her son is part of the last generation of children in China whose births were ruled illegal at the time. Anxious that rapid population growth would strain the country's welfare systems and state-planned economy, the Chinese state began limiting how many children families could have in the late 1970s.

The limit in most cases was just one child. Then in 2016, the state allowed two children. And in May, after a new census showed the birth rate had slowed, China raised the cap to three children. State media celebrated the news.

But the legacy of the one-child rule is still painfully felt by many parents who suffered for having multiple children. For some, the pain is still too much to bear.

"It has been so many years, and I have let the pain go," the mother of three says, eyes downcast. "If you carry it with you all the time, it gets too tiring."

A mother's quandary

One night in August 2008, the mother made a fateful decision. Her body was giving her all the telltale signs that she was pregnant — again.

She already had two children and had gone through four abortions afterward, to avoid paying the ruinously high "social maintenance fee" demanded from families as penalty when they contravened birth limits.

Medical staff massage babies at an infant care center in Yongquan, in Chongqing municipality, in southwest China, on Dec. 15, 2016. China had 1 million more births in 2016 than in 2015, following the end of the one-child policy.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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Medical staff massage babies at an infant care center in Yongquan, in Chongqing municipality, in southwest China, on Dec. 15, 2016. China had 1 million more births in 2016 than in 2015, following the end of the one-child policy.

But this time she felt differently.

"I had already had two children but my heart just did not feel right," says the woman, now in her 50s, who works part time in a canning factory. NPR isn't using her name to protect her identity because of the trauma she suffered. "I thought this is it — if I do not have this child, my body will not be able to have any more."

Officials in her village were actively policing families under the one-child policy. Enforcement of the policy had begun to loosen by the early 2000s, as horrific stories of forced abortions and botched sterilizations caused policymakers to rethink the rule. But starting in 2005, the authorities began enforcing the policy with a renewed ferocity in Linyi.

So the mother went into hiding to carry her son to term. One night, family planning officials approached her husband, intending to pressure him and his wife into ending the pregnancy. He used a pickax to drive them off and was imprisoned for that for half a year.

An old friend of hers, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, knows full well what she and tens of thousands of other women in Linyi city went through.

Chinese parents, who have children born outside the country's one-child policy, protest outside the family planning commission in an attempt to have their fines canceled in Beijing, on Jan. 5, 2016. For decades, China's family planning policy limited most urban couples to one child and rural couples to two if their first was a girl.
Ng Han Guan / AP
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Chinese parents, who have children born outside the country's one-child policy, protest outside the family planning commission in an attempt to have their fines canceled in Beijing, on Jan. 5, 2016. For decades, China's family planning policy limited most urban couples to one child and rural couples to two if their first was a girl.

"The doctors would inject poison directly into the baby's skull to kill it," Chen says, drawing on recordings he made of interviews with hundreds of women and their families in Linyi. "Other doctors would artificially induce labor. But some babies were alive when they were born and began crying. The doctors strangled or drowned those babies."

The terror of such enforcement of birth limits was widespread in Linyi, even if residents were not themselves planning on giving birth.

"Officials would kidnap you if you tried to have two children. If you were hiding and they could not find you, they would kidnap your elder relatives and make them stand in cold water, in the winter," remembers Lu Bilun, a resident.

Lu says the harassment became so savage that elderly residents of Linyi became afraid to leave their homes out of fear they might be kidnapped. Lu says he paid a 4,000 yuan fine to have his second son in 2006 (about $500 at the time), after hiding his wife for months. "This was not your average level of policy enforcement. It was vicious," he says.

Chen, the lawyer, mounted a class action lawsuit on behalf of Linyi's women. The suit led to an apology from the authorities in Linyi and a reduction in the kidnappings, beatings and forced abortions.

Children ride a toy train at a shopping mall in Beijing, on Oct. 30, 2015. China's decision to abolish its one-child policy offered some relief to couples and to sellers of baby-related goods, but the government hasn't lifted birth limits entirely.
Andy Wong / AP
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Children ride a toy train at a shopping mall in Beijing, on Oct. 30, 2015. China's decision to abolish its one-child policy offered some relief to couples and to sellers of baby-related goods, but the government hasn't lifted birth limits entirely.

But the Chinese government punished Chen for his activism by imprisoning him, then trapping him for nearly three years in his home, in a village just outside Linyi.

In 2012, Chen escaped by scaling a wall and running to the next village, despite being blind and having broken his foot during the escape. There, he was picked up by supporters and driven to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He was able to fly to the U.S. after weeks of tense negotiation. Today, he lives in Maryland with his family.

The price of defiance

"The policy was wrong and what we did with Chen was right," says a neighbor of Chen, the lawyer who sued the city of Linyi. The man wants to remain unnamed because he believes he could be harassed again for speaking of that time.

In the 1990s, he says, family planning officials ambushed him in his home at night and beat him with sticks in an effort to convince his wife to abort their third son.

Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng attends a rally to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre June 4, 2019, at the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Chen had been persecuted and detained in China after his work advising villagers and speaking out official abuses under the one-child rule.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
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Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng attends a rally to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre June 4, 2019, at the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Chen had been persecuted and detained in China after his work advising villagers and speaking out official abuses under the one-child rule.

"Our country's leaders did not want us to have children and I didn't know why, but we could not do anything about it," he sighs.

He and his wife persevered and had three sons. They did not officially register the last two to avoid paying a fine, but the father says he still paid a bribe to family planning officials to avoid further harassment. These economic penalties depleted his life savings, a financial impact that compounded over the ensuing years.

The policy permeates through Chinese society in other, sometimes unexpected ways. Because many prioritized having a son over a daughter, orphanages experienced a surge in baby girls who were abandoned or put up for adoption. Single's Day, China's biggest online shopping holiday — akin to Black Friday in the U.S. — is a recognition of the many bachelors who are unable to find partners in a gender-skewed society.

"A very unbalanced population gender-wise has also led to a rise in property prices in major cities because families of men have bought apartments to make their sons eligible in a marriage market where there are millions of missing women," says Mei Fong, who wrote a book on the one-child rule. "These effects will be felt in the generation ahead."

A child walks near government propaganda one of which reads "1.3 billion people united" on the streets of Beijing, China, Tuesday, March 8, 2016.
Ng Han Guan / AP
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A child walks near government propaganda one of which reads "1.3 billion people united" on the streets of Beijing, China, Tuesday, March 8, 2016.

According to the census conducted last year, the population is aging and there are fewer young children and working-age people, a major demographic shift that comes with its own economic strains. That's pushing policymakers to consider raising the official retirement age — currently 60 for men and 55 for women — for the first time in 40 years.

Yet the authorities still only allow couples to have three children. Why won't China remove all caps?

"Despite all the overwhelming demographic evidence, they're saying, 'We need to control you,'" says the author, Fong. Anxious about already strained public education and health care systems, China's leadership is reportedly considering ditching limits entirely. It has been slow to completely dismantle its massive family planning bureaucracy built up over the past four decades. And according to an Associated Press investigation, it continues to impose stricter controls over births — including forced sterilizations — among ethnic minorities, like the Turkic Uyghurs.

Some demographers in China argue that instituting birth limits was necessary for keeping birth rates low. But Stuart Gietel-Basten, a demographer at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, cautions there is no definitive answer. "There is only one China and there is only one one-child policy, so it is kind of impossible to say the real effect of that was [of the policy]," he says.

Families were already having fewer children in the 1970s, before the policy took force in 1979. "The one-child policy was not the only thing that happened in China in the 1980s and 1990s," Gietel-Basten says. "There was also rapid urbanization, economic growth, industrialization, female emancipation and more female labor force participation."

A man and a child are reflected on a glass panel displaying a tiger at the Museum of Natural History in Beijing, Dec. 2, 2016.
Andy Wong / AP
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A man and a child are reflected on a glass panel displaying a tiger at the Museum of Natural History in Beijing, Dec. 2, 2016.

It was worth the cost

The fact that the children are alive at all makes Chen, the lawyer, feel his seven years in prison and house arrest were all worth it.

"I really feel happy. Even if I had to go to prison and endure beatings, in the end, these children were able to survive. They must be in middle school or high school by now."

The mother of one of these middle schoolers holds her son close. Part of the reason she demurred when first speaking to NPR was because of how dearly her family fought for his birth.

Her worries these days are more mundane. She wants to start preparing for her son's marriage — a costly endeavor as rural families expect the husband to provide a material guarantee for any future wife.

"That requires buying them a car, an apartment. No one can afford that," she complains.

Her job at a nearby canning factory refuses to hire her full time, she says, because she is a mother of three and needs to leave every afternoon to pick up her son from school.

And so, ironically, now that people are allowed to have more children, they are increasingly reluctant to, because of the high cost of child care and education.

"Women have it all figured out now — they won't have more kids even when they're told to have more!" the mother laughs helplessly.

"People act in funny ways," she says. "There is no point in controlling them."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.