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How Does China Enforce Its One-Baby Policy?

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© Roy Hsu/Blend Images/Corbis

Most people have heard that in China, you're only allowed to have one kid. But does that apply to everyone? And how is that enforced?

How did this whole thing start?

When Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, he envisioned China as a superpower. A great nation would need lots of manpower behind its army and economy, so Mao encouraged the Chinese to multiply. The new communist government condemned birth control and banned imports of contraceptives, and the population almost doubled under Mao's reign.

This growth quickly strained the country's food supply, and in 1955, the government reversed course and launched a campaign promoting birth control.

Over the next two decades, during which China went through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the government flip-flopped on population control and ran propaganda campaigns promoting or condemning it, depending on their need for a labor force. The population rose and fell accordingly, but by the mid 1970s, it had leveled off, and China had a quarter of the world's people living on just 7 percent of world's arable land. Growth was just around the corner, with the majority of the population under 30-years-old and getting ready to have children. Another Mao-style population boom would have been disastrous, straining resources and threatening standards of living. Birth control propaganda wouldn't cut it, and the government sought a more forceful method of population control. In 1979 they introduced a policy that limiting some families to having only one child.

Does it apply to all 1 billion+ Chinese?

No. The one-child policy (or, translated from the Chinese name, "policy of birth planning") only applies to 40% to 63% of the population, depending on whether you're talking to China's National Population and Family Planning Commission or American academics. Specifically, the policy applies to urban married couples who are part of the nation's Han ethnic majority.

Who gets an exemption?

Wang Feng, a sociologist at UC Irvine who's studied the policy and its effects, says that the system of exemptions is about as complex as the American tax code. Among those who pretty much have blanket immunity to the policy are all non-Han ethnic groups, anyone living in Hong Kong or Macau, and foreigners living in China, .

Since the policy is enforced at the provincial level, other groups can get exceptions in certain areas. In some rural areas, families are allowed a second if the first is a girl or is mentally or physically disabled. Some provinces allow couples to have two children if neither partner has siblings, or if either is a disabled military veteran. After an earthquake devastated the province of Sichuan on 2008, the provincial government extended an exception to parents who had lost children in the disaster.

Some provincial exemptions can get a little bizarre. The New York Times reports that couples in  Zhejiang can have two kids if the wife has one sister and her husband lives with her family to help take care of her parents. The sister doesn't get an exception, though. Beijing makes an exception for couples where the husband’s brother is infertile and does not adopt a child and both husbands have rural residence permits. In Fujian a couple can have a second kid if the provincial population density is less than 50 people per .38 square miles, or one person per 11 acres at the time, or if each spouse farms at least an acre and a half of land.

How is the policy enforced?

Population and Family Planning Commissions exist at the national, provincial and local levels of government to promote the policy, register births, and carry out family inspections. Provincial governments are responsible for enforcing the policy and do so through a mix of rewards and punishments doled out by local officials. In most provinces, having a an extra child gets you a fine, the amount of which varies across provinces. In some places, the fine is a set amount (usually in the thousands of dollars), and in others it's based on a percentage of the violator's annual income. In some provinces, policy violators can also have their property and/or belongings confiscated and lose their jobs.

Couples who delay having a child, or who voluntarily follow the policy even if they're exempt, get some perks for playing along.  Depending on the province where they live, they may receive a "Certificate of Honor for Single-Child Parents," a monthly stipend from the government, special pension benefits, preferential treatment when applying for government jobs, free water, tax breaks, or bonus points on the child's school entrance exams.

Are there any loopholes or workarounds?

Nature always finds a way, and in China, money helps nature along greatly. In many rural areas and even some urban ones, couples can pay a fee to the local government and receive a permit to have a second, third or even fourth child.

Couples can scam the government, too, and hide extra kids by registering the birth under a false name or in a different province. If a province allows second children in the event of the first being disabled, couples might be able to stretch the definition of "disabled" in their favor. In Hunan, for example, some people got exemptions because of first borns with problems as minor as nearsightedness.

Has the policy been effective?

This graph of the country's birth rate certainly suggests so, and Chinese authorities claim the policy has prevented roughly 400 million births between 1979 and 2011. The government says that the population controls have kept air and water pollution down and lessened the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by some 200 million tones (versus the amount that would have been released with an unchecked population).

When the government introduced the policy in 1979, they were shooting for a target population of 1.2 billion by the year 2000. That year's census recorded just over 1.29 billion people, which is pretty close. But studies both from China and the U.S. have suggested that the official numbers may be an underestimate because of unreported births and other policy violations and manipulation by government officials.

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