35 Years Without Siblings

For 35 years, China had a national policy that restricted women from having more than one child 独生子女政策 (dúshēngzǐnǚ zhèngcè, One Child Policy). The policy was created in 1979 as a means to control population growth. One result of the policy is multiple generations of Chinese children growing up without siblings. However, many people born during the last 40 years have a brother or sister. How is that possible?


First of all, the One-child Policy applied to the Han ethnicity people in China, which is over 90% of the population. Women in the minority ethnicity groups in China did not have to follow the policy. Secondly, if there was something physically or mentally wrong with your firstborn, you could receive permission from the government to have a second child.

The policy itself was enforced on a local level where community officers could monitor families in their neighborhood. Different provinces and communities applied the policy with varying levels of strictness which accounts for some multi-children families. In large cities where living space was tight, the One-child Policy was strictly enforced. In rural agricultural communities, the policy was often less strictly enforced, letting farmers raise a family of future labor.

For families who had a second child without permission, the most common penalty was a large fine. In some cases, if the pregnancy was discovered early, the woman would be coerced to have an abortion. If a woman were working, especially in an office, she would lose her job if she had a second child. For two-income families living in expensive cities, the cost of raising one child was often enough of a deterrent from having a second child.


In reality, there were many ways to have more than one child. Women travelled abroad to give birth, claimed a child was actually a cousin, and had many more creative solutions to raising a larger family. The biggest challenge was getting a 户口 (hùkǒu, residence permit) for a second child. Without a 户口, the child was not a Chinese citizen and would be unable to receive benefits such as healthcare and education. Once the 户口 was obtained, the other risks were trivial.

This article is part of our new online Chinese course. An efficient way to learn Chinese language for working and living in China.