“Four Generations of Change” : Outcomes of the One and Two-Child Policies – Musings from an Australian Perspective

This is not an extract from Li’s book, The New Chinese, but it is such an important development in recent Chinese history that I thought it deserved its own post. There are plenty of accurately researched articles about the policy’s history and about how it was/is implemented that can be easily found; this article will be more a gathering of threads together to explore what the One-Child Policy, and the recent revoking of it into a Two-Child Policy, means in an Australian context.

There are, of course, the well-hashed social problems that come out of being an only child. When author of Buy Me the Sky, Xinran, was interviewed on a local news program following the book’s release, I was darkly enthralled by her stories of Chinese children threatening suicide if their parents had another child, so accustomed they were to being a “little emperor” or “little empress” as they are sometimes referred to. But social science research finds fault with only children in both East and West: they supposedly have adjustment problems stemming from their inability to share, to consider others, etc. Yet the genuine truth is, I have never encountered an only child (once through to early maturity) that has displayed these foretold issues. While Chinese children in the past may not have lived at home with another sibling close in age, many of them spend large portions of their lives living on school campuses sharing dormitories, either in primary, secondary or university education. Depending on the school easily eight students could live for four years in a room slightly bigger than a standard bedroom. It’s a very different lifestyle to Australian students, where the vast majority of us never board and spend the entirety of our schooling (including university) living at home. Don’t forget about sharing bathrooms too. I grew up very close in age and friendship to my younger brother and “learnt to share”, however the thought of occupying a room with anyone else makes me uncomfortable and anxious. The longest I’ve done it for was for a three-week school camp. Without hesitation, I can easily say I’m less adjusted to social living than those millions of Chinese “ill-adjusted one-child” who have grown up together in closer quarters.

One tangible problem of the One-Child Policy is the 4-2-1 families. This is a description of the Chinese family model, where one child is the sole outcome of two parents and four grandparents. This places a lot of responsibility on the one child to meet their entire family’s expectations and wishes, and help them when they are elderly. It’s of critical importance today: the first generation born during the One Child Policy – the 80-hou – now have parents in their fifties, grandparents in their seventies. It’s not in Chinese culture to put parents into nursing homes. Instead, children are expected to look after them in their home or nearby. But couples in their 30’s have two sets of parents, potentially four sets of grandparents to provide for. There is a lot of pressure on these ‘one-child’ to do the right thing by their family, especially if those families have spent large amounts of earnings on that child’s education or overseas property. And what happens if this structure collapses, through an event such as incapacitation or death of the child at the bottom of the triangle? China’s current welfare system isn’t set up just yet to provide equal provisions to all.

The ‘family planning’ system has changed now. While there were plenty of cases where couples could have an exception to have a second child, now that choice is open to all. The policy has changed in an attempt to address China’s aging population, and skewed gender balance. A Canadian study in 2015 found that there was between 32 and 36 million more males in China’s population than would naturally be expected.

Allowing Chinese parents two children has had outcomes predictable and less predictable. The Australian and New Zealand dairy industry has reached new heights with ever more interest in foreign quality milk products. Less predictable has been the surge of donkey exports from Africa and Australia to China. An ingredient of a traditional medicine used to help regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle for pregnancy preparation, donkey skin is increasingly becoming a sought after commodity. Although perhaps not the best example of Australia’s industry boom thanks to China’s policy revision (plenty of animal activists would be up-in-arms about it, if it was more widely reported), there will likely be more Australian businesses who experience the benefits of a second child boom.


Photo taken in Haikou, Hainan, January 2015. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.