Reflections from one of China’s planned generation

Yeyang Su speaks about the personal and relational aspects that are silent in China’s family-planning policy deliberations.


On October 29th 2015, China announced that it would amend its family-planning policy by increasing the one-child restriction to two children. Already, a lot has been said about this on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. As one of the one-child generation, I would like to add my voice to the conversation.

I was born in a medium-sized coastal city in the early 1980s. Growing up, I was told stories about how my dad was originally disappointed that I was born a girl and how he nearly sent me away when my mom was pregnant again. I stayed. My mom had to terminate her second pregnancy, which is said to have been a boy. After the termination of her second pregnancy, my mom was given an intrauterine device for birth control.

The first of these two stories is still jokingly mentioned at our family gatherings to mock men’s preferences for boys, as my girl cousins and I have proven that girls are equal to boys, at least in education. But, the stories about the unborn and about what women had to go through – often by themselves – in order to comply with the one-child policy are typically silenced.

Grandma with me and cousins

Yeyang Su with her Grandma and cousins in the mid-1980s

In 1957 economist Ma Yinchu proposed regulating population growth in China in response to the dramatic increase in population size since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. Ma cautioned: “the country would face tremendous difficulty feeding its people.” Yet family-planning did not become a national policy until the late 1970s.

Since then, this policy has been an intrinsic part of China’s development project. The restriction of “one child per family” was written into China’s Constitution in 1982, together with the concept of “improving population quality.” A mixture of regulatory measures – including a propaganda campaign, peer and community pressure, constraints on employment, economic incentives, reproductive-health surveillance, sterilisation, and forced abortion – were developed to effectively implement the policy. My parents’ generation endured the worst hardships, and many women became the family-planning workers responsible for enforcing the policy on their families, friends, and community members.

Over the past thirty-five-years, social, cultural, and economic factors have resulted in some variation across the size of Chinese families. For example, peasants and non-Han Chinese married couples are now allowed to have a second child without much trouble. For an urban Han-Chinese couple to have a second child, however, they have to pay a social-compensation fine as a contribution to the family-planning subsidy fund (which is used to help support the “rule-abiders” with the cost of raising their one child). In addition, urban residents who work for a public institution must leave their job if they want to have a second child.

One exception to the above rules is when a couple’s only child develops a fatal or incurable disease. In such cases, the couple is permitted to have a second child who would either be born to help rescue the first child (saviour sibling) or to help the family in preparing for the inevitable death of their first child. More generally, however, the emphasis on “quality” children and the rising cost of child rearing has meant that most urban Chinese couples voluntarily adhere to the one-child policy.

What does it feel like to grow up as an “only” child? Though we are crowned and studied as “the little emperors”, we have also become the most disciplined generation. Family and social expectations constantly remind us that our fate is not in our hands, but belongs to the family and to society. From employment opportunities, marriage prospects, reproduction practices, to obligations to care for aged parents, our role as “quality” citizens is a matter of societal concern.

China’s newly amended family-planning policy to permit all married couples to have two children is part of its development agenda. The aim is to resolve demographic and economic challenges posed by an ageing population, a reduced labour-force, a skewed sex ratio, and low fertility rates which are perceived as partially resulting from the one-child policy. Meanwhile, Chinese feminists object to the ways in which women’s uteri continue to be watched and potentially controlled in patriarchal ways by their husbands, their in-laws, and the state.

As I recall the intrusive action forced upon my mom and many women in her generation, I know that their worries are well grounded. It is time for Chinese women to speak up, to claim ownership of our bodies and free the fate of our children.


For more on this topic see: One of a “Planned” Generation by Yeyang Su.


Yeyang Su is a Ph.D Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex in the Centre for Bionetworking.

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