The Consequences of China’s One Child Policy
By Linda Burkle, PhD
I have traveled to China twice to speak at conferences for Christians of the Chinese underground church. These conferences occurred in the evening for two reasons: most people work during the day, and there is protection from detection after dark. Although attendees included pastors, their wives, and a few other couples, most were single women. Each session ended with an opportunity for personal prayer. Everyone wanted prayer, but the single women overwhelmingly wanted prayer for a Christian husband.
I noted the prevalence of this particular prayer request with interest given that China’s one child policy has resulted in the largest discrepancy in the male -female birth ratio globally. Wang Peian, deputy director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, blamed a traditional preference for boys as the “fundamental reason for the phenomenon.” However, he also noted the following about the disparity:
“The gender gap only started to soar in 1982, when the nation started to strictly implement the birth control policy that allowed families to have only one child. The preference for boys over girls – boys could perform hard labour and were favoured in inheritance of land in rural areas – encouraged selective abortions that pushed the ratio of boys from 108.47 in 1982 to above 115 since 1994. It peaked nationally in 2004 with 121.2 boys born to every 100 girls, and some provinces even recorded ratios of 130. Demographers estimate that between 20 to 34 million more boys than girls were born in the past three decades.”
The one child policy was introduced in 1979 and modified in the mid-1980s to allow rural families to have a second child if the first was a girl. During this period, there were reports of forced abortions at all stages of pregnancies that violated the one child policy, causing an outcry among human rights advocates around the world. According to the government, 400 million births were prevented, whether by means of required contraceptives (most commonly an IUD surgically installed), sterilization, or abortion.
In late 2015, the government revised the policy, signing legislation that allowed married couples to have two children. According to a Wall Street Journal reporter, the reason for the change in policy was “too many men, too many old people, and too few young women.. . . If people don’t start having more children, they’re going to have a vastly diminished workforce to support a huge aging population.”
The one child policy has created a gender imbalance of people now ranging in age from five to forty. With such an abundance of males, one would guess that there would be ample marriage prospects for these Christian women. Where are the single men? They seem to be someplace other than in Christian congregations. In researching this matter, I discovered studies examining religious practices by gender to be quite rare, particularly relative to countries noted for persecution such as China.
The most comprehensive study I found was conducted by Pew Research Institute, which analyzed various religious factors (religious importance, worship attendance, prayer, belief in afterlife, etc.) across all major religions in 63 countries. For Christians in all countries studied, women were more likely to view religion as important and were more engaged in all aspects of religious practice. Most of the factors analyzed did not include Chinese data, but the few that did show only slight gender differences.
One factor the study did not account for was age. China has a growing older population which preceded the one child policy, and men over 40 years of age may be most prevalently represented in the data collected. Additionally, for religious and moral reasons, Christian couples may be less likely to abort first pregnancies based on gender preference, thereby having a higher number of female births than the general population. While in China, I did note several Christian Chinese couples with only one child—a girl.
Based on my observations, it appears there is a disproportionate number of single Christian Chinese women longing to be married, while concurrently there is an exploding sex trafficking industry catering to millions of Chinese male consumers. China leads the world for sex trafficking and bride kidnapping. Both domestic and foreign sex trafficking is flourishing, with women being trafficked from North Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, and as far away as Columbia.
The US Trafficking in Persons report explicitly links sex trafficking in China to the one child policy:
“The Chinese government’s birth limitation policy and a cultural preference for sons creates a skewed sex ratio… which may serve to increase the demand for prostitution and for foreign women as brides for Chinese men — both of which may be procured by force or coercion. In other words, the demand for trafficked women in China is directly related to a shortage of available women. This problem is especially notable in the more rural, poorer areas of China where large numbers of young women migrate to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities. This leaves whole villages with very few women. As a result, many men use marriage brokers to find them wives, whether from other parts of China or from neighboring countries.”
Beijing Today elaborates on the problem:
“Even the Chinese government acknowledges the problem and has expressed concern about the tens of millions of young men who won’t be able to find brides and may turn to kidnapping women, sex trafficking, and other forms of crime or social unrest. The situation will not improve in the near future. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there will be 24 million more men of marriageable age by 2020.”
What does all this mean? Is there an intersectionality of the Christian community’s demographics, the gender disparities produced by the one child policy, and the explosion of sex trafficking and related crime? I believe there is. Though my data is quite limited, it appears the Chinese church today has fewer younger Christian families with children and more elderly and single women. If this trend continues, it could adversely impact the future church in China, which has been continuously growing up to this point.
Additionally, given that China has now embraced a capitalist economy, many young Chinese, especially males, have become intoxicated by the entrepreneurial spirit and materialism. “The strengthening Chinese economy has meant a rocketing in the accumulation of private wealth, and a notable diversification of this money, with the wave of high net worth individuals spreading across major cities and coastal areas.” Specifically, the younger generations have more access to wealth acquisition and discretionary income than ever before under the communist regime—both of which provide little motivation to seek after spiritual things in general. Such wealth also provides the means to live a self-indulgent lifestyle with access to nefarious activities including sex trafficking, bride kidnapping, and related sex and gender exploitative crimes.
These dynamics are compounded by a rapidly-expanding aging population who rely on their child(ren) for provision and care. Increasingly, only children may be unable or unwilling to provide and adequately care for their elderly parents, exacerbating the multigenerational challenges produced by the one child policy. Perhaps China has learned a valuable lesson: social engineering has unintended consequences which will have a long-lasting negative impact on Chinese society for generations to come.
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.
 Scharping, Thomas (2003). Birth control in China 1949-2000: Population policy and demographic development. London: Routledge.
 Fong, Mei (15 October 2015),“China one-child policy”