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Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Effect of One Child Policy in China-Maj Gen Nitin Gadkari


In the second week of May 21, China released their census figures for the last decade. covering a period from 2010 to 2020. The census report was widely awaited by many due to a report earlier in Financial Times, that stated : China’s population is declining for the first time. While it had been growing at a negative growth rate for three years, but it’s sliding below its existing numbers was a shock. The census report however has negated that report and its numbers show only a negative growth rate. I have analysed very briefly the impact of the single child policy of china which is at the base of this controversy. Hope you will find the article informative.

Effect of One Child Policy in China

A few days back, China came out with its census report of the last decade. There was a noticeable delay in its announcement. The possible reason for the delay may be; the government was pondering, how much to reveal and how much to hide. At the bottom of all the anxiety is the 35 years of Single Child Policy, which has led to skewed demographics in China, and which has caught the attention of the world. In 1979 the Chinese communist party (CCP) brought out a rule that affected mostly the majority Han population in China such that its repercussions would reverberate for another 75 years for the Chinese nation. The one-child policy stemmed from the reality that China had become the most populous nation in the world around the late 70s when its population was a little under a billion. China had started a family planning program in the 60 s, but the famine followed by the cultural revolution stymied its implementation. As the Chinese economy shifted from agriculture to industrial bias, the fear of inadequate growth in light of a prospective population explosion led the CCP to implement the one-child policy. While the measure worked in controlling the population, it resulted in unexpected problems for the state. Decades later, in the interest of restoring the demographic balance, in 2016, the Chinese government abolished the order, and couples were allowed to have two children if they wanted, and now it has been increased to three children. The one-child policy has left many scars on the Chinese demographic and social spectrum. The effects of which have become a matter of great interest to the rest of the world. The question on everyone’s lips is, “Did China err in introducing such a draconian policy?” There are no easy answers to this question as research and data are insufficient to measure the balance sheet of the losses and gains. While examining some of the ill effects that China has to endure, this paper focuses on the perceived effects on the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) of the erstwhile one-child policy in China. 


The Chinese succeeded in their primary objective of halting the growth of their population. In better words, they could control the population explosion in their country. The growth rate measured by the fertility rate/birth rate came down from 2.7 in 1979 to 1.7 average until the policy was reversed. In reality, it had dropped below that number; today, it is at 1.3. As per statistics, this capped the population growth and robbed China of almost 400 million people over the full extent of the policy. Even today, China remains the most populated country in the world which is over 1.4 billion population. India follows close behind, touching 1.3 billion. Statistic wise China has been able to cap its population numbers. Capping the population was the biggest gain of the One-Child Policy. While the primary objectives were met, the Chinese government did not anticipate the concomitant effects.


The pitfalls were the result of the change in the demographic structure of Chinese society. For 35 years, due to the policy of repression, Chinese society is reeling with the after-effects of the one-child policy, resulting in adverse spin-offs. These spin-offs have the potential to affect the Chinese economy and the social fabric adversely. The major areas of negative impact are

·      The work force available,

·      The skewed male-female ratio,

·      Care of the old and retired community,

·      A pampered young population.

Structure of the Population in China 

The result of the one-child policy has directly impacted the quantity of the young population available as a workforce for the Chinese economy. The word economy is synonymous with varied sectors such as private industry: manufacturing, and services. Government jobs, business entrepreneurs and industry workers. All these constitute the man behind the machine in an economy. The two graphs below represent the population curve of China through present and future decades

Population of China in 2020

Population of China in 2050

The two graphs show how the working population (20 to 65 years) is going to reduce from 450 million to 350 million (approx.) and the retiree population (Over 65 years) increasing from 85 million to 250 million (approx.) from the year 2020 to 2050. The growth of veterans is the crux of the problem for the Chinese economy. While their working hands are reducing, the mouths to feed are increasing. Unfortunately, fewer working hands are to feed increasing retirees as the taxes would be paid by fewer for the government’s increasing health services. This skewed equation could play spoilsport for the Chinese economy. China is worried that the least of the working population will coincide with China’s 100th  anniversary , i.e. 2049. A landmark by which China has to translate itself to the most influential nation on the earth.

Skewed Gender Ratio

Even as per the latest census 2020, there is a 37 million difference in males and females. When reduced to hundreds, this ratio reads as 106:100 that is for every 100 females; there are 106 males in China. This figure is bad but better than India, where the gender difference is 54 million: 108 males to 100 females. But this ratio is worse in the marriageable age between 15 to 24 in China. In this group, the ratio is as skewed to 116: 100; that is, for every 116 boys, there are only 100 girls available. It means a substantial population of the male population would not find a life partner. It has disturbed the marriage equilibrium in China. Such a skewed ratio also has associated problems. Excessive drinking amongst frustrated young males, increase in suicides amongst the younger generation. The practice of reverse dowry has further disturbed the equilibrium. Marriage has become an expensive business for boys as fewer girls mean more dowry to secure her hand. All these fallouts have created dissensions in society. And these are more prominent in the countryside and villages from where the majority of the PLA troops come.

Health Care for the Old

China’s healthcare system is still primitive by western standards. The growth of old/veteran population puts burden on the government coffers. The dilemma is: there are less productive hands and more healthcare needs. In an economy where growth rates are not rising astronomically due to many external factors, availability of funds remains a big concern.  The alternative that stares at the face is: money be diverted from either development or national security portfolios to healthcare. China’s rising ambitions does not allow alignment to this thought process.  This is a huge future challenge for China.

The next effect of spoiled young population is covered under effect on PLA.

Effect of One-Child Policy On PLA

The premise that the PLA is affected negatively due to China’s one-child policy is neither a myth nor a reality. Some arguments exist on both sides of the divide. The western countries have taken the writings of some Chinese authors to prove their point that the PLA is suffering on account of the ‘Little Emperors’ syndrome. The term denotes spoiled grown-ups who have been pampered by their parents and grandparents during their growing up age on account of being a single child. There is no comprehensive research carried out to study the effects, and if at all there are, the results are not available in the public domain. Yet, we can use some writings and some findings to deduce some conclusions. 

Reduced Manpower:  This is more of a myth. It is argued that in times to come when the working population drops to its minimum levels, the PLA would still have the ability to pick and choose, and they would be the first in the line. Given the reliance of the CCP on the PLA, it is unlikely that the shortfall of the able manpower would fall upon the PLA. What is, however, more likely; is the effect of migration that has been a phenomenon of the economic difficulty resulting from the single child policy in more impoverished regions. The 2020 census brings to notice large scale migration from poorer to more prosperous regions in search of better economic prosperity. Such migrations reduce the pool from which the PLA can draw its recruits. The urban youth tend not to renew their contract with the PLA after the mandatory two-year period. Easy and prosperous jobs lure the youth away from the rigours of army life. 

Chocolate Cream Soldiers

The term is used for soft soldiers who are not happy with the tough army life or the terrain they function in and, least of all, fighting wars. Today, the PLA has 70 % of its soldiers who have been born under China’s one-child policy. The term ‘little emperors’ was coined by an Australian Monash University in 2014 while studying the traits of the PLA soldiers. The International Business Times dated 02 May 2014 quotes an interview from South China Morning Post where it describes the difficulty of a single child soldier of the PLA, who confesses to crying every night after training due to his inability to cope up and miss his home and his girlfriend. There have been reports in the PLA daily paper quoting PLA officials admitting to the possibility of young recruits feigning illness to miss the tough training sessions. The Quartz, a US-based online paper in its edition of 06 Feb 2014, states that PLA reportedly runs programs to toughen up spoiled soldiers. Dean Cheng, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, attributed China’s focus on psychological warfare to the fact that many of its soldiers are only children. While scientific studies have inherent limitations, commanders and isolated newspaper reports have also been general observations indicating a more significant problem. A CLAWs article dated 27 Dec 2017 by Pragya Surana states that “Scientific studies show that single children born after the implementation of the forced planning policy were less altruistic and trusting, timider, less competitive, more pessimistic and less conscientious than the Chinese who were born before the policy. A Chinese military study carried in Guizhou in 2004 was published in Chinese: ‘Liu X, Huang X. Survey study on the psychology health conditions of the only-child soldiers. Health Psychol J. 2004;10:65–66.’. The results are cryptically given, it states: “Conclusion; The mental stress of the only-child recruits was stronger than that of the non-only-child recruits, the reason was related to its wrong coping style and obtaining less out-home social support.” The Rand Corporation report of 2015: ‘China’s Incomplete Military Transformation; Assessing the weakness if the PLA’ also brings out the weaknesses which have crept into the PLA on account of the Little Emperor syndrome. While the report is full of shortcomings of the PLAs, compared to the US army, it points out that the standards for recruitment have been lowered to accommodate more recruitment from the single child era. Also, special training programs are run to align the weaklings to the harsh life of the Armed forces. The report also comments, the tendency to not take decisions at lower levels and pass on the onus to senior hierarchy has crept in the PLA, which does not augur well for operational initiatives taken at lower NCO levels, which is critical for winning tactical battles. 

How do these Characteristics and Traits Translate to affect the PLA?

The points mentioned above have severe ramifications for the PLA. They impinge upon its operational capability. Since 70 % of the population of the PLA belongs to this category, thus, it cannot escape its effects. The plus point about this generation is that PLA gets adequate tech-savvy manpower to man its modern weapon systems, which is in line with its transformation and modernisation.

On the flip side, many drawbacks confront the combat arms of the PLA. First and foremost is the possibility reduced pool it has to choose from for its recruitment primarily on account of the migration to urban and developed areas .

The training curriculum of the single-child generation needs specific tailoring as the Psychology part of the trainees require as much molding as their physical or tactical skills. Attrition rates are not known as they are not in the public domain, but they are high per the Rand report. Attrition is not a linear phenomenon; it has unintended repercussions. They affect the compatriots’ morale and lead to either depression or more attrition amongst the trainee population. It is hard to know its overall effect on the PLA cadres, yet it would be fair to assume that an average PLA recruit’s general state of mind would be subjected to more stress and strain as has been borne by the study conducted in Guangzhou. PLA has not fought a major war since 1979, it is hard to measure its ability to fight intense battles. Galwan type skirmishes only reiterate what is loosely spoken; the lack of PLA’s fighting skills. The recent stress on realistic training emphasised by none other than Xi Jinping also adds weight to the argument about PLA’s weaknesses. It is not surprising that recent news reports by state media and PLA Daily have gone overboard in reporting the nature of the realistic training the PLA is undertaking. Such training has been part and parcel of the Indian Armed Forces yearly training calendars for decades. 

One of the most noted ramifications of the new generation recruits and their traits has been the lack of initiative. The lack of desire to take initiatives at junior levels translates into looking over your shoulder for orders. In tactical battlefields, this tendency can be disastrous. Initiatives at their levels carried out by junior leadership have resulted in major victories that have been proved in the Kargil conflict for the Indian Army. The race to the Kailash range heights and beating the PLA soldiers to the top resulted in a major strategic victory for the Indian Army in the Pangong Tso Lake standoff. While the initiative was taken at the Brigade Commanders level, it was executed by Junior leaders. The PLA would be mulling over these issues while looking at what went wrong in Eastern Ladakh last summer. 

Own View Point

The findings of behavioural experiments or opinions are like exit polls, which can go wrong, as happened to one leading TV news channel in the Bengal elections. Hence, there is a need for caution in looking at their results. There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the behaviour pattern of the single-child generation is worse than their predecessors or from a product of a two-child family. Also, the single child generation is still at the junior NCO or officers’ level. It is hard to estimate the effect on command and leadership traits from their behaviour. It would be safe to assume that PLA has drawbacks that are hereditary. To underestimate your enemy is unwise, as stated by Chanakya and SunTzu. It is widely believed that the political hierarchy of the CCP is well aware of the weaknesses of the PLA ranks, and they are taking remedial actions to offset this disadvantage. The trimming of the PLA numbers and replacing men with machines is a step in that direction. It is quite possible that in future conflicts with India, PLA may not look for a fight that involves physical assault by troops or hand to hand combat, where PLA’s weaknesses could come to the fore. They would fight a non-contact battle to destroy by use of firepower in an informationised manner. Thus, the PLAA would not be leading in battle; firepower through every means available would do the needful. Hence caution should be the keyword while looking into PLA’s weaknesses regarding the single child policy. 


The single child policy has been an unmitigated disaster for the Chinese planners. Unintended consequences overtook the good intended. While the measure taken met the primary objective, the resultant effects were far worse than the original sins. The Chinese must be repenting the policy enforced 35 years back, which is why it is now reversed. Most demography scientists think that while damage is done and its effects would last till 2050 if not more. The government could still put policy rectification to bring China back to demographic normalcy. But opening up the door to bear more children is not an answer. Given the current set of policies, China’ population would never correct the downward spiral graph. Would technology be a substitute? It’s a difficult question to answer. The PLA would continue to bear a part of this cost either directly or indirectly. Yet amongst all other instruments of the state, PLA would recover the fastest as it has already encapsulated policies that look at overcoming the disadvantages.

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