Summer in the Field: Women, Work and Politics in China’s New Era of Family Planning

Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China. Photo by Joshua Fernandez via Unsplash.

By Si Wu

China’s one-child policy, one of the most well-known state policies, impacted hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens for decades. Through this policy, the Chinese state played a direct role in one of the most personal and intimate decisions an individual can ever make. Although not intended, the policy reshaped gender norms by reducing fertility rates, allowing women to step outside their traditional reproductive roles and allowing for greater focus on daughters. The policy was reversed in 2015, with important implications for gender equality.

While many other scholars have examined the impact of nation-wide policies or laws on women’s economic status, dynamics of the end of China’s one-child policy and its impact on women’s and men’s labor market participation remains a subject of debate. My work takes a critical perspective by exploring how state intervention – in this case, the end of China’s one-child policy – can have unintended gendered consequences and implication for power dynamics.

China’s demographic change went through several phases since the founding of the country. When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, it had approximately 540 million people. The Party’s approach to population planning and development at the time was heavily motivated by Marxist-Leninist ideology. Influenced by Mao Zedong’s idea of “more people, more power”, China’s population reached more than 800 million three decades later. Since then, there have been many discussions among Beijing’s academic and political circles on demography, but it wasn’t until Deng Xiaoping’s leadership that the one-child policy became an official rule in 1979.

The impact of the one-child policy is multifaceted, with positive and negative consequences. Among the positive effects, it encouraged greater focus on daughters, which contributes to significant social benefits for women by reducing fertility rates and enabling them to pursue roles beyond their reproductive duties. Historically, Chinese families with multiple children often chose to invest more heavily in sons. But with the absence of brothers, families with only one daughter could now devote their full attention to the female child. Consequently, the policy enhanced gender equality by facilitating women’s advancement in various professional fields. Conversely, negative consequences of this policy include its lasting impact on China’s demographic structure, on aspects such as its aging population and imbalanced sex ratios.

As part of the Summer in the Field Fellowship Program sponsored by Boston University Global Development Policy Center, I travelled to my hometown in Guangdong province to conduct fieldwork on the lasting impacts of the one-child policy. Guangdong province is unique in China’s political economy, given its geographical location and the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou. In the 1980s, SEZs were the first places to demonstrate the plausibility of foreign investment and exportation; and they are often popular destinations for migrant workers.

One of my main goals was to investigate whether policy intervention, such as the end of the one-child policy, reinforces gender norms in Chinese society, particularly in terms of employment. The relationship between institutional structures and central administration policies and its impact on men’s and women’s employment has important implications for gender equality, social stability and economic development.

Preliminary observations in Guangdong province indicate that China remains a gendered society. Women, particularly those of lower socio-economic status, are disproportionately represented in vulnerable employment sectors characterized by low pay, lack of insurance benefits and poor working conditions, such as domestic service, cleaning, childcare, elderly care and nursing. These jobs offer little room for career advancements and are susceptible to major economic shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Most women still bear the responsibility for household chores, including cooking, cleaning and childcare. Conversely, men are more likely to hold leadership positions or be in higher-paying roles, like those in computer science or information technology. These social norms and labor market biases persist under China’s new birth planning policies, further limiting women’s chances to develop sustainable and marketable skills. From an employer’s perspective, there may be perceived risk associated with hiring women. It is important to note that, given the complex structure of China’s economy, these dynamics are complex and contingent on various factors, such as class dynamics, the type of enterprise and geographic locations.

During my fieldwork, another crucial task was to examine China’s welfare state initiatives – specifically, the involvement of Chinese bureaucrats in adjusting and implementing their birth planning measures and advancing gender equity following the end of the one-child policy. China, the world’s most populous country, will soon be overtaken by India in terms of population. The country is experiencing a rapid demographic decline as it had its first negative population growth in 2023. It is evident that Chinese bureaucrats are establishing administrative means to tackle this issue. For instance, the China Family Planning Association, a mass association responsible for family planning, maintains branches in every province. At the municipal level, the Population and Family Planning Bureau, such as the one in Zhuhai, oversees local family planning initiatives. The Health Commission of Guangdong Province also plays a role in healthcare and family planning.

To boost birth rates, provincial and municipal governments in Guangdong have gradually introduced incentives including housing policies, tax deductions and reproductive health services. How these incentives will be enforced by frontline bureaucrats is an open question and is likely to depend on the social, economic and political context.

The end of the one-child policy may have created an opportunity for state-led mass organizations, such as the All-China Women’s Federation (全国妇女联合会 or 全国妇联, in Chinese; abbreviated as the ACWF, or the WF when referring to its local branches), to exert their influence. The ACWF, a women’s rights organization in a country characterized by its male-dominated political makeup, stands out as a case for study. The presence of this organization in other communist states adds to its significance as a subject of research. Scholars, however, have found that the local WFs have their institutional problems such as political marginalization and bureaucratic work ethic. Other recent law reforms in China centered on family planning and marriage, such as the Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国民法典), further complicates gender dynamics in the country. While findings on the ACWF remain preliminary, I conclude that political reform is needed for such mass organizations to promote gender equality in China’s new era of family planning.


Learn more about the Summer in the Field Fellowship Program.