The End of the “One-child” Policy: A Confucian Perspective

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China recently announced the end of the “one –child” policy of the past 35 years, removing the restriction on families to have only one child.

The National Health and Family Planning Commission of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) commented on the decision saying that the end of the policy will “increase labour supply and ease pressures from an aging population” further adding that “this will benefit sustained and healthy economic development”.[1]

With 1.4 billion people, the People’s Republic of China is the country with the largest population in the world. The CCP introduced the one-child policy in 1979 under Deng Xiaoping’s administration as a temporary measure to curb a surging population and deal with the increasing demand of water and resources.

Although it has been abolished, the one-child policy has changed generations of young Chinese families and the lives of millions of Chinese people.

Three Generations of Chinese Family
Three generations in a portrait of a typical Chinese family. One day the little boy in the middle might have to care for the needs of four. Retrieved here.

China, as a Confucian society, has always emphasized a strong reverence for elders. However over the last three decades, the one-child policy has increased the number of aged people to the point of turning upside-down the very fabric of society, with a small young generation caring for the needs of a much larger aging population.

The Confucian virtue of xiao (filial piety) entails respect for one’s parents, elders and ancestors. Fulfilling this duty is becoming harder for the younger generation in circumstances where such respect means supporting and caring for older members of the family within their daily life.

This is reflected in population statistics which show that the policy resulted in an estimated 400 million fewer being born. Currently, more than 20% of the Chinese population is over 55. The elderly population will increase by 60% in the next five years, while the working age population will decrease by 35%. This will not only create economic challenges, but will also affect the values of the young members of Chinese society.[2] [3] [4]

An infant on his grandad’s shoulders in Yunnan’s countryside in southern China. Retrieved from:
An infant on his grandad’s shoulders in Yunnan’s countryside in southern China. Retrieved here.

How can filial piety be upheld in today’s China?

Confucius said: “Filial piety nowadays means to be able to support one’s parents. But we support even dogs and horses. If there is no feeling of reverence, wherein lies the difference?” (Analects, 2:7)

This is indeed a significant passage indicating how filial piety should be upheld. Filial piety is one of the roots of all virtues in Confucianism and as the above passage explains, it is important to understand that it does not lie only in the economic support of parents and elders, but also in the spirit with which that assistance and reverence is shown.

As China embarks on a journey to re-establish a balance within the age groups of its population, will the current generation of young Chinese be able to uphold the value of filial piety taught by Confucius?

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