Henrik Bjorn (1997)

Mag.art. Ethnography & Social Anthropology

Exam.art. East Asian Area Studies

Fieldwork financed by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik

It is commonly believed that the one-child policy in rural China is more of a failure than a success, and that villagers uniformly resist the policy of the state. This may be true for some localities, however, as this fieldwork will demonstrate; this is certainly not the case everywhere.


With a population of 1.2 billion, relief from pressures on the land and the food supply is of vital importance for China. The effective implementation of the one-child policy is therefore having high priority with the Chinese Government as it is seen as a long-term necessity for development that will ensure the gains of economic reform not being jeopardized by population growth.

The conflict of interest between population control and the desire for more children is much more severe in rural, and especially in poorer regions, than in urban China. In rural China, where daughters traditionally marry-out and welfare/old age schemes are almost non-existent, the birth of several sons is generally hoped for in order to ensure old age and the continuity of patrilineal families.

As the formerly so extensive control of the Communist Party weakens as a consequence of reforms, its ability to curb population growth could be expected to diminish. It is commonly believed that the one-child policy in rural China is more of a failure than a success, and that villagers uniformly resist the policy of the state. This may be true for some localities, however, as this field research will demonstrate; this is certainly not the case everywhere. In the case of this study, the one-child policy has even been implemented more and more effectively over the recent years, through what can best be described as Maoist mobilization mechanisms.

Furthermore, it will be shown that the social and human consequences of the one-child policy are far-reaching. This case will demonstrate that the policy is revealing and impacting on rural gender relations, changing the social status and prestige of local Communist cadres, weakening the social coherence of local communities, and has led to increased female participation in the migrant labour force that the rural reforms has freed from the land.


Fieldwork, with its point of departure in the social anthropological study of everyday life and social interaction of a single village, was conducted from June to August 1996 in a village in Sanjiang County in Guangxi Province. The research was based on earlier fieldwork and established relations with Chinese counterparts, as previous fieldworks had been conducted in the County in 1992-1993 (lasting ten months) and 1995 (lasting two months) in co-operation with the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences. The fieldwork was supported by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Fredrik’s Foundation.

The field research consisted of four types of investigations: a) participatory observation and qualitative interviews with permanent residents in the field-work village, b) “control-purpose visits” to neighbouring villages, c) interviews with returned migrants and migrants working in the cities, and d) interviews with Chinese social science researchers in the cities of Shanghai and Nanning. Furthermore, quantitative as well as qualitative data from previous long-term fieldworks have been used. All data have been collected by use of the Chinese language.

A central problem of idiosyncratic case studies, such as this, is to which extent they represent, in this case, “the implementation and social effects of the one-child policy in rural China” and whether the drawing of the necessary generalized conclusions can be done. The people of the poor mountainous Sanjiang County are for example mostly classified as be-longing to different minority nationalities. Yet, the top-down Chinese bureaucracy guarantees a very large extent of generalization as national policies have been, and are being, implemented in a largely uniform fashion throughout China.

Still, it is argued here, local authorities are today having a much larger room for manoeuvre in their implementation than in the pre-reform days, so we should be cautious about sweeping generalizations based on case studies – especially different levels of economic development seems to lead to different implementations of the one-child policy.

Interestingly, some researchers has it the other way and reason that state intervention has increased with the reforms. Well-known is Vivienne Shue, who in her book The Reach of the StateSketches of the Chinese Body Politic (1988) argues that during the Mao Era, the cellular structure of society allowed cadres to weave protective webs over their village kingdoms. Jonathan Unger has in a review article “State and Peasant in Post-Revolution China” (1989) strongly challenged Shue and argues for, along with most China scholars, that state intervention has decreased after the reforms.


In Maoist China birth control was rejected and considered as opposed to the interests of the nation. It was ideological wrong to acknowledge the fact that population growth was eating up hard-earned economic gains. Around 1970, although not as an officially formulated policy, a change occurred and contraception became in practice widely accessible in rural China. But it was not until Mao’s death in 1976 that the question of birth control was openly discussed. Finally, in 1978, with the epoch-making third plenum of the 11th Central Committee, which brought economic modernization to the forefront, the principle of birth control was inscribed in the Chinese constitution. In 1979, the one-child policy was introduced.

The one-child policy is therefore closely linked to and initiated at the same time as the rural re-forms of the 1980s, the rural reforms being characterized by de-collectivisation, increased mobility of the work force, rapid development of rural industry and the growing importance of market mechanisms. The enforcement mechanisms of China’s one-child policy are in strong contrast to other post-Maoist mechanisms. The post-Maoist reforms are generally characterized by decreased state intervention in rural areas, de-radicalization and demobilization which has opened for a transition to a “post-revolutionary phase” with political normalization, normalized decision-making procedures and institutionalised party-rule.

The radical one-child policy with its emphasis on collective values and individual sacrifices for the common good, possess in many ways the characteristics of the political movements and mass-mobilization campaigns of the Mao Era. It is an important exception to the general demobilizing tendency. Therefore, at present two enforcement mechanisms of political rule (mobilized and demobilized respectively) are co-existing. As somewhat of a paradox, birth control, which was strongly opposed in the Maoist era, is now being implemented using Maoist enforcement mechanisms.


In rural Guangxi Province the “one-child policy” is some-times a “two-child policy” and sometimes a “one and a half-child policy” (only if the first child is a girl you can have a second try), depending on nationality status and level of economic development of the region. Generally speaking, the poorer the area the more children allowed for by the authorities, the arguments being that the risk of early deaths of children are greater and that sons are more needed to take care of parents in old age as there are less possibilities for savings.

In Sanjiang County, which has a “two-child policy” (for the sake of simplicity the term “one-child policy” will be used throughout the paper), the attempt by the Chinese Government to control the population consists of the following basic elements: the birth quota, later marriages, permission and payment for use of the local birth quota, implanting of IUD after first child, spacing between first and second child, mandatory sterilization after the second child, mandatory abortion, and various “carrots” and “sticks” such as bonuses to those who comply immediately and sanctions against those who do not (note that this as a community-based control system so the premise is that the targeted population actually remains in the local communities). After a description of these basic elements, it will be explained how the actual mechanisms of implementation/enforcement works.

The birth quota

In Chinese, the term usually used for the state control of childbearing is “birth planning” (jihua shengyü). Central for the planning of the population is the national birth quota, which is extended through the administrative system down to village quotas. In this way the provincial Government divides its birth quota into prefecture quotas, which are divided into county, township, and finally administrative village quotas. Following this system the administrative village has a certain number of birthrights at its disposition each year. The Village Birth Planning Office, which has to be headed by a woman, priorities births. Newly married have first priority, just as couples that had a girl first time will have high priority for second births – this despite the fact that state-run campaigns propagate the equality of girls and boys.

Later marriages

The age of marriage has through legislation in 1980 been raised to 20 years for women and 22 years for men, which is not easy to control as the age written in birth certificates is often changed. As a first step of the close monitoring by the authorities, a marriage certificate (approximately 6 Chinese Yuan) will have to be obtained shortly after the marriage from the township authorities. If not obtained, fines will be imposed.

Permission and payment for the use of the local birth quota

A couple will now need a permission to use the village birth quota to have the first child. The cost of the “permission for birth” fee was, until mid-1990s, approximately 300 Chinese Yuan, which was a very large sum of money after local standards that might have caused postponement of childbirth for some couples. Around 1995 the fee was abolished, probably because it was considered “unfair”.

Implanting of IUD after first child

Within one month of the birth of the first child the mother is obliged to have an IUD implanted at the township clinic. Again, fines will be imposed on her family if she does not comply.

Spacing between first and second child

Through spacing the birth of a second child will be postponed. In Sanjiang County, the period between first and second child is four years. When the four years have lapsed the couple will have to ask for permission for a second child (and until mid-1990s pay one more 300 Chinese Yuan “permission for birth” fee). When this permission is obtained from the Village Birth Planning Office and shown to the Township Clinic, the IUD can be removed (free of charge). The clinic is in this way a part of the control system and will be held responsible if it removes IUDs from women not holding the proper permissions.

Mandatory sterilization after the second child

Within one month of the birth of the second child it is the free choice of families to decide whether it is the mother or the father that is going to be sterilized, which in almost every case is the mother despite the fact that it is a much smaller operation when performed on men (a discussion of families’ decision of who is going to be sterilized will follow later). As sterilization requires several days of recovery the local Government gives, as a bonus, a small amount of money to compensate for lost ability to work (approximately 60 Chinese Yuan) to those who comply immediately.

Mandatory abortion

If a woman becomes pregnant without permission, the authorities will strongly insist on abortion (sometimes very late in term). Abortions are rarely necessary, as almost everybody follows the procedures outlined above. Only in very rare cases are women physically forced to sterilizations and abortions.

In case the sterilization was not successful and the woman becomes pregnant, she and her family can choose between getting the child and being fined (approximately 1,000 Chinese Yuan) or having an abortion (which in this case is voluntary). A directive written on the wall of the office of the Administrative Village Headquarters made this detail of the policy clear to the villagers: “after the first child IUD, after the second sterilization, and after the third sterilization and a fine“.


Besides the fines and fees mentioned above, there are two additional sanctions, which are: allocation of less agricultural land to the household and no access to official employment.

Less allocation of agricultural land

Although the establishment of a “household responsibility” system was in place all over China in the beginning of the eighties, the question of permanent ownership to the land is still not clarified. Despite the fact that central authorities in Beijing have prolonged the tenure of land contracts for farmers to 30 years, most farming families are subject to changed land sizes in periodic “reallocations” (in the studied village reallocations took place every third year) by local cadres to take into account births, deaths and in/out marriage of daughters. The local authorities in Sanjiang County will allocate no agricultural land from the production group to an illegally born child until its fourteenth year.

No access to official employment

As cadres are expected to be role models, everyone that in the past has had excessive children has been sacked. Cadres include in this sense everybody who receives a salary from the Government such as primary school teachers, sales-persons etc. Furthermore, to promote a vision of cadres as role models, Sanjiang County decided in 1990 that all male cadres above 45 years should undertake vasectomy.


At village level the stakeholders in the comprehensive implementation of the birth control policy are work teams (enforcers), local cadres (monitors) and the mobilized villagers (self-controllers).


The mass mobilization enforcement mechanisms of the one-child policy in rural China are basically top-down. Local cadres (i.e. village level officials) are usually having problems implementing the one-child policy as they are related by kinship to other villagers. As a consequence, work-teams are sent down from higher administrative levels to enforce the implementation (the very notion of work teams is having very strong Maoist connotations in rural China). Work teams usually consist of county and township cadres (always from another township). They will fine those that have had excessive children and make sure that one person (man or woman) from those couples who had already had the allowed number of children will be sterilized. When the policy was initiated all women up to 49 years of age (which is defined as the upper limit for female fertility) had to undergo tubaligation. In the fieldwork area work teams were sent down twice a year, each time staying for about a month.

Work team salaries related to performance

To ensure an effective implementation, the salaries of work-teams have been related to performance. This practice is also somewhat in line with the Maoist policy by goal rather than rule by law, which has otherwise been the claimed aim of China since the start of the reforms of the early 1980s. If the work teams are not able to reach certain success criteria (i.e. low birth rate) they will simply not receive their full basic salary. Furthermore, in the area of fieldwork, successful work team members were, in addition to their basic salaries, allowed to keep 30% of collected fines for themselves personally, thus creating an incentive system. As a consequence of this, work team cadres were eager to fine, and on their part villagers complained that some fines were arbitrary, negotiable and “unfair”. In this sense, many one-child policy fines can be seen as “informal taxation”, which has become widespread in China after the reforms.


The local cadres act as important intermediates between state and local society. The task of the local cadres, who are natives of the villages and who are themself peasants (with a minimal official salary), is the day-to-day implementation of the policy. Furthermore, a large proportion of the local cadres are, since the early 1990s, popularly elected, as opposed to the full-time national cadres of the work teams. As a consequence, the local cadres lack the leverage to persecute one-child policy offenders, and in fact their job is better described as that of monitoring. They perform the job in close co-operation with the Women’s Federation, who are better informed of women’s private matters, and liaison with the township clinic that performs IUD implants, sterilizations and abortions. The information (legal/illegal marriages, legal/illegal childbearing, and whether IUD implants and sterilizations have been performed) obtained through this monitoring is shared with the work teams, which are then responsible for the actual enforcement.

Monitoring local cadres are not always popular and sometimes they are even being physically attacked by villagers or having their properties destroyed (such as far away rice fields demolished under the cover of dark). As a consequence, the local cadres have lost some of the prestige (and power) that earlier followed with the job. This combined with the prospect of having to undertake vasectomy and the new opportunities in private business has had the consequence that it is no longer as attractive to become a local cadre.

But despite the occasional friction, the one-child policy is implemented in an astonishingly peaceful way, considering how intrusive this state intervention is in crucial family affairs and how severely the policy contradicts Chinese cultural traditions.


A huge slogan written on the wall of the co-operative shop to be clearly seen when approaching the village says: “To implement birth planning is our country’s basic policy“. The Communist Party seems to have had few problems convincing the peasantry of the necessity of the one-child policy seen from the perspective of the common good. In 1949, at the time of the revolution, the land per capita ratio in the village was twice as high as today, and with few alternative incomes in this mountainous region other than migratory work almost everybody (women and men) interviewed believed that the one-child policy is the only solution (and it is my judgement that they had no reason to lie). The appeal has been to put collective and national interests before self-interests. A typical statement would be an echo of the official line such as “China is too poor because we are too many people“.

In the early years of the one-child policy in Sanjiang County the implementation was not consistent. As a result there were many cases of “excess births” during the 1980s. Punishment for excess births was then a relatively small fine, combined with the above-mentioned rule of no land quota rights for the excess child until its fourteenth year. As a consequence many families chose to pay the fine and have their third child. At that time some resistance existed, and work teams had difficulties enforcing the policy. During my first field study in the village in 1992-1993, about a third of all the villages 319 households had three children or above partly as a result of an ineffective implementation of the early 1980s.

With the effective implementation of the late 1980s, the means being first of all relating work team salaries to performance and a rise in the size of fines, the insistence of the authorities on birth control seems to have been understood by the local population, and there have been very few attempts to violate the regulations. Force is rarely used but will certainly be used if found necessary and is latently present. The logic of the villagers seems to be that you will end up with that abortion or sterilization anyway, so protest and resistance will just prolong the pain and make everything worse. Also, health recovery bonuses are only paid to those that comply immediately.

Self-control by use of social pressure

The secret of the successful implementation should also be credited to a cleverly orchestrated mobilization of the villagers producing what could be termed “self-controlling behaviour”. Through the use of birth quotas, land quotas and mandatory sterilization social pressure has been created and a system of collective responsibility and self-control established. Besides the direct sanctions from the authorities, transgressors of the one-child policy will face at least four kinds of social pressures from the local community:

  • Social pressure from people waiting for their quota, as couples that give birth too early or give excess birth are using the quotas of other couples.
  • Social pressure from those who have already been sterilized, as they feel it is unfair if everybody is not treated equally. Leaking of information on other villagers to work-teams does take place.
  • Social pressure from production group members, as the more members a production group is having the less land to be divided between them at the tri-annual reallocation. Although only in the long-term as “illegal children” will not have land allocated until their fourteenth year.
  • Public self-criticism, as those who resist the one-child policy risk having their name, picture, written offence and self-criticism put on display.  Interestingly, judging from the self-critics given, it was men rather than women that resisted the one-child policy.


The reforms of the eighties brought in a relaxation of the former strict limitation on migration from rural to urban areas. Today, an estimated 150 million peasants have left their homes and are searching for jobs in more prosperous rural and urban areas – they are often described as the “floating population”. As a consequence it might become increasingly difficult to implement the one-child policy, as it is a control-system based on coherent communities.

In two cases from the studied village, couples whose both first and second child were girls, had left the daughters with some relatives and went without having undergone sterilization to the city to live as non-registered migrant workers. As a punishment work team tore down part of the families houses.


The social and human consequences of the one-child policy are far-reaching. Besides contributing to increasing tension between the state and local communities, with local cadres caught in the middle, the policy is both revealing and impacting on rural gender relations, weakening the social coherence of local communities, and it has led to increased female participation in the rural migrant labour force.

The subordinate position of women is being revealed as reports from all over rural China shows that it is mostly baby girls that are being abandoned to poor lives in orphanages or being subjected to infanticide. Also, in some areas, by use of foetal-scanning technologies the sex of the unborn baby is being determined so that unwanted female pregnancies can be terminated. Furthermore, the subordinate position of women is very clearly being revealed by the fact that it is largely women and not men that undergo sterilizations, which are actually gender optional. Women are clearly the main targeted group and thereby the ones to take the unpleasant responsibilities.


One of the few decisions regarding procreation that are left to be decided by the families for themselves, is whether sterilization should be of the man or the woman. The clear preference for female sterilization could be seen in the light of the cultural ideas of patri-locality and patri-lineality, which place women in a subordinate role. The rationale might be, in case the children die, that men want to make sure that they will have a second chance to have children. Or, it could simply be that the men just want to leave the unpleasantness of sterilization to the women, which also reveals women’s subordination.

Despite the fact that vasectomy is just a minor operation, several male villagers told me that the very reason for choosing the women was that it was less of a dangerous operation for women. To support their argument they were able to tell me of the names of all the men who had died from vasectomy.

I had a chance to learn more of the local understanding of sterilization as when a man died a few days later I was told that this was another case of dying from complications of vasectomy. I noted this, and asked after a little while how old the man was? I got the answer 43 years, and asked again when the man had undertaken vasectomy? Eight years ago was the answer! It turned out that it was very unlikely that the man had died from complications stemming from vasectomy, he just happened to have undertaken vasectomy. So it seems that the death of men that have undertaken vasectomy are interpreted as related to the complications from the operation no matter how long time ago it was performed, while the death of sterilized women only will be seen as related to tubal ligation if the death occurs within a relatively short time of the operation. As a consequence, the male villager’s memory of women who had died from sterilization included very few, and this was used as an excuse for choosing women and not men.


“Gender”, as opposed to “sex” that relates to biological differences, should be seen as a social and cultural construction. This construction is dynamic and subject to change over time. Furthermore, gender should be seen as a construction that has been shaped by both women and men in common. Although women are structurally subordinate to men in the Chinese context of patri-lineality and patri-locality, women and men should not be seen as a strictly antagonistic pair. When speaking of inequality it is often most appropriate to speak of generational interests. On a level of practice it is in many ways the generational difference that marks inequality, as both women and men in the parent generation possess a common interest in securing their old age.


It is often assumed that the one-child policy is working for gender inequality. Obviously the free choice of a woman, whose bodily functions are being controlled, to decide when and how many children she wants to have, is being limited by the state, sometimes by force rather than persuasion. But on the other hand, husbands and older family members have traditionally made decisions regarding childbearing. As a consequence of the one-child policy, and this is an important point, which I was often told by women, women are no longer under pressure by husbands and older family members to have many children, one result of which is a better physical health of women.


As mentioned above, families have, as part of their economic strategy, started to let their daughters and not only their sons join the so-called “floating population” of migrant workers. Families have in this respect begun to treat their daughters in the same way as they would otherwise only have treated their sons. This has had both negative and positive consequences for the status of women. Women have obtained knowledge and an independent income through migrant labour and have been able to choose their husband outside the control of their families, but they have also been placed in a situation where they can easily be exploited both as labourers and sexually.


As a way of protecting their daughters against prostitution, unwanted pregnancies and other dangers of city life, they left the studied village in groups headed by local men, who were both the recruiters (as they had contacts to factories in more developed regions) and the protectors of the girls (the girls’ families often demand that the girls will not be allowed outside the factories in the evenings). This is important for the families, as girls with a bad reputation and premarital sexual experience will not easily get married if they return to their village communities. The system of having a protector can in this sense be seen as a kind of extended control on behalf of local communities.


Within local kinship-based communities the exchange of women through arranged marriages has been one of the central strategies to organize labour. The precondition is that families are able to control women and that sufficient sons and daughters are born to maintain gender roles and kinship-based exchange systems. This pre-condition is being eroded by the one-child policy. Due to the limited number of children these affinal (by marriage) networks can no longer be maintained. An important area in which elder women seem to have lost influence is their central role in the arrangements of marriages, which traditionally take place within affinal networks building upon the strategic relationship that married-in and married-out women have to relatives in their village/place of origin.

Moreover, the increased participation of women in the migrant labour force (caused by the one-child policy as the lack of sons to earn an income as migrant workers have forced families to let their daughters go) has led to a decrease in the traditional arranged marriages as unmarried women once out of the control of their kinship-based communities tend to find their own partners. Only women are having this opportunity for upward social mobility through marriage – in the studied village approximately 30% of all female migrant labourers got married while away from the village, for men it was 0% and they all returned to the village for marriage.


Due to the lack of children diversified family strategies distinguishing between roles of daughters and sons are no longer easy to uphold, thus enabling rural women to move from the domestic sphere and to take part in formal productive labour (both in local communities and in far away areas). Thus a shift of focus by researchers from a preoccupation with the role of women within the family toward an understanding of the complexities of women’s employment is necessary.

In this way the one-child policy has not only changed traditional marriage systems and lightened women’s burdens related to biological re-production but has also released women from the bur-dens of fulfilling traditional domestic roles. As time constraints are usually at the heart of women’s problems the one-child policy (fewer children) combined with the possibilities caused by reform (more alternative job opportunities) release women from heavy unpaid domestic chores and give women access to the formal productive sector. By participation in the formal economy through the production of cash-crops for a market rather than, for example, producing vegetables consumed by the household which is usually the women’s task (or by being able to do migratory work), women gain an independent income which might translate into increased participation in decision-making within the household and in a longer term in community matters.


If China’s modernization and economic growth is not to be delayed by population growth, the Chinese Government strongly believes it has no other choice than to strictly implement birth control. It has here been proved, that the one-child policy, at least in some cases, continues to be effectively implemented through what can best be described as Maoist mobilization mechanisms, where the local people is often themselves “true believers” in the necessity of the policy.

The one-child policy is being implemented through the use of harsh methods such as mandatory IUD implantations, sterilizations and abortions. The sanctions are first of all fines, but also less allocation of agricultural land, no access to official employment and an elaborate system of self-control, through social pressure in local communities, that makes physical enforcement superfluous – although local cadres, many popularly elected and related by kinship to other villagers, often will have to rely upon sent down work teams in order to enforce the policy.

It has been shown here that the social and human consequences of the one-child policy are far-reaching as the policy brings to light female subordination, such as the preference for female sterilization and for baby boys; impacts on rural gender relations, as kinship-based exchange of women has become increasingly difficult; changes the social status and prestige of local communist cadres, who will have to implement an unpopular policy; weakens the social coherence of local communities, with the role of the elder diminishing; and has even led to increased female participation in the migrant labour force that the rural reforms have freed from the land.

Despite that the one-child policy obviously limits the free choice of women, the policy is sometimes working for the advantage of women, as less children can be seen as a women’s gains, as women are more free to chose their own partner and as women are increasingly participating in the formal economy due to changed family strategies.

Contradicting common belief regarding the rural Chinese one-child policy, the policy has been very successful implemented in the fieldwork area, meeting very little resistance from villagers. But it is questionable whether it will continue to be possible to enforce the policy once economic stratification deepens both within local communities and between China’s regions. The very reforms the one-child policy was supposed to support might weaken its effective implementation. Due to post-reform migration to urban regions some villages have lost virtually all those young people the one-child policy is targeting. In the local communities the means to punish one-child policy offenders such as restrictions on official employment and economic sanctions are potentially losing leverage. This, as restrictions on official employment is likely to have less effect once meagre cadre salaries no longer competes with alternative income possibilities, and as an emerging entrepreneurial upper rural strata may be able to pay their way out – a development already being reported from richer parts of China where it sometimes takes the form of an expensive one-time negotiated fee to have an extra child. Therefore, the revival of Maoist enforcement mechanisms might only be short-lived.


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