Foreign Policy Blogs

Impending Change for China’s One-Child Policy?

One Child Poster, Yunnan Province. Image: Flickr, Arian Zwegers.

One-Child Policy Poster, Yunnan Province. Image: Flickr, Arian Zwegers.

Recent media excitedly report on the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) contemplation of abandoning its decades-old “one-child policy.” However, the official press agency, Xinhua, merely wrote that the PRC is still “deliberating” on studies and whether to “relax” the policy or not. Xinhua reported the spokesman for the National Family Planning Commission as maintaining that “China must adhere to the basic state policy of family planning for a long period of time.” Indications of dissatisfaction with the policy within the PRC are making their way into the media, but the policy has long been reviled.

Earlier this year, Xinhua reported the planned merger of the PRC’s Family Planning Commission with the Health Ministry “aimed at better upholding the basic national family planning policy.” The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, charged with overseeing the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), actually made this recommendation in 1984 in its Concluding Observations on the PRC as a measure for reducing infant mortality rates.

The PRC is facing an economic and workforce crisis as its population ages and from the effects of the one-child policy. This is perhaps the main reason why there are reports of greater reform; the one child policy has precipitated perhaps the greatest, most enduring human rights catastrophe suffered in Chinese history. Despite this, the Platform for Action developed at the 1995 U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women aimed at empowering women and revisited at five-year intervals, was held in Beijing and consistently directly addresses only the most extreme features of nationally mandated and enforced family planning policies as intrusive as those of the PRC.

All Girls Allowed, a Christian-faith based group advocating against the PRC’s one-child policy, has documented the numerous, disastrous effects of the policy through statistics and compilations of firsthand reports. The scale of the policy’s enforcement is enormous, its full effect not yet entirely appreciated.

The basic operation of the program prohibits Han Chinese in urban areas from having more than one child, under punishment by fine, coerced or forced abortion or sterilization, or, the inability to officially register the child’s birth, preventing access to a host of mundane necessities like education, health care, and formal employment. Enforcement varies by region, and exceptions (usually permitting two children) exist for rural residents and members of some fifty-five ethnic minority groups. A recent relaxation of the policy created an exception for couples who are both only children. Second children born outside mainland China and possessing citizenship other than Chinese are also exempt from penalties.

The program violates binding principles of international human rights law applicable to China. The sui generis authority of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are offended in spirit and letter, notably in its references to the “special protection” to be afforded mothers and its direction that “[a]ll Children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.”

China has ratified three major binding instruments of international human rights law, all containing articles violated by some aspect of the one child policy: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (e.g.,. Article 24 on the rights of children at birth), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (e.g., Article 10 on family, motherhood, and children), and the majority of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. At the same time, limitations inherent in the diplomatic interactions of the community of states have prevented naming and shaming, and no enforcement mechanism has found a violation.

Signs that greater policy reform may be on the horizon can be found in stories as relayed by the Laogai Research Foundation, where perpetrators of forced abortions and other crimes are being held accountable and punished while victims are being offered compensation. International pressure could be greater, and a greater concert of statements and policy positions like that of the European Parliament’s Resolution of 5 July 2012 could help accelerate that change.



Marc Gorrie

Marc C. Gorrie holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, a JD from Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, and an LLM in international human rights law with a specialization in international labor rights law from Lund University (Sweden). He is a port welfare worker and ship visitor for the Seamen's Church Institute in Ports Newark and Elizabeth, NJ, where he also collaborates on an educational program on the Maritime Labour Convention directed at port chaplains and welfare workers. He recently contributed to an EU project on legal education and law school curricula in the Gambia, and has held a research fellowship in legal ethics, lectured on federal Indian law and American legal ethics, and worked as a disability advocate.