Born a girl during China's One Child Policy
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Girls born under the One Child Policy share their experiences of familial rejection and isolation.

Born a girl during China's One Child Policy

by Carla Sunwoo See Profile
Melbourne VIC, Australia
18th Jan 2019
Born a girl during China's One Child Policy

Children are often the centre of their parents’ universe. This especially rings true in China where for the last 30-odd years, most parents had just one child to dote on. As sole heirs and the future of their families, kids born during the One Child Policy (1979 - 2015) were often dubbed “little emperors”.

Last year, an article that went viral in China titled “A Monthly Salary of 30,000 RMB [±4490$] Is Not Enough for a Child’s Summer Vacation” relected this perfectly. The story highlighted the lengths that Chinese mothers would go to make sure that their children would be enrolled in a summer program even if they couldn’t afford it.

But not all children born under the policy were treated in this way. In fact, coupled with restrictions and the cultural preference for boys, many little girls grew up feeling unwanted. Their tales of childhood come complete with secret births, being denied social identity numbers and too often, feeling rejected by their own family.

During the One Child Policy, it’s estimated that around 400 million births were prevented through measures like forced intrauterine contraceptive procedures and abortions. Even when they were born, depending on the family’s financial situation and position on daughters, a girl could ended up abandoned or killed.

30-year-old Jay is one of the fortunate girls whose family didn’t abort or abandon her, despite them desperately wanting a boy. Born in Dongguan, Jay’s birth was carried out in secret. Along with being registered as a stranger’s daughter so she could receive medical treatment and education, she spent a portion of her childhood living with her grandmother.

She now lives in Sydney with children of her own. To this day, she isn’t sure if she was born in a hospital or a secret location. She does, however, remember her fascination with pregnant women as a child.

“I used to think that pregnant women sitting outside their shops looked so cute, so I paid attention to them,” she said.

Jay noticed a pattern with these women.

“Eventually, they’d get bigger then their shops would be closed with a notice of breach from the government and you would not see them again.”

Jay believes that most of these women went to give birth in secret and probably had to send their kids away, unless they could arrange bribery through family connections.

Although there were certain exemptions for having more than one child, this didn’t guarantee the birth of a son, which meant wealthy couples had to keep trying and incur penalties.

After two daughters, Jay’s parent finally had a boy.

“I was four or five and my family incurred a 100,000 RMB (equivalent to $20,000 AUD) fine. That could get you a house back then.”

The family paid more fines over the years when corrupt government officials thought they could swindle more out of their situation. This was by far the better option for those who could afford the fine and children.

This is in stark contrast to the ordeal Jay’s aunty went through to have a second child without having the means to pay.

Jay remembers her aunty, who came to stay with the family when she was 8 months pregnant. She couldn’t afford the penalty and was trying to lay low until her due date.

“I remember one day, the government officials came and took her away. When she came back, she was no longer with child.”

Even when you did pay the fine, it didn’t necessarily equate to smooth sailing for the family.

Mrs. Jia from Sichuan remembers when she had her second child, a son, 28 years ago.

“I had to hide my pregnancy and right after giving birth, I walked to the bureau of population control to show that I wasn’t pregnant.”

Eventually, thanks to her family’s connections, she was able to pay a fine of 1,800 RMB ($365AUD) to legitimise her son. Even so, this didn’t stop the village officials collecting from her time and time again. Each time government officials would pay Mrs. Jia a visit, they would take any livestock or valuables with them each time.

As a mother of two boys herself, Jay is astounded that even with such risks, parents still chose to have more kids in order to have a boy.

“I always felt like the odd one in my family,” Jay said.

Looking back on her childhood, Jay has many memories that felt peculiar at the time but have now come together to form a narrative of her life. One that particularly stands out is when she met an old man who was supposedly her “father.”

“He was an old friend of the family and since he didn’t have any wife or kids, he allowed me to be listed as his child so that I could go to school,” she said.

That was the last time that Jay saw her “father”.

Lillian, 23, from Sydney, is another child born during the policy.

“From the day that I was born, my grandparents didn’t like me because I was a girl," she explained.

Although she was her parents’ firstborn, they always wanted a son to carry on the family name. Eventually when Lillian turned 7, her parents saved enough money to pay the $20,000AUD fine and had a boy.

From the first day of her little brother’s arrival, Lillian saw how differently her family treated him.

“As a kid he would hit and bite me but my parents told me that I should tolerate it.”

Growing up, Lillian envied the kids who were only children because they weren’t compared to their siblings.

The difficulties she encountered growing up as a girl in China made Lillian work harder to prove that “[she] could be just as good as a boy.”

“I always wanted to show my mum and dad that I could do everything beyond their expectations.”

She currently works as an accountant at one of the big four firms and is helping her parents apply for a visa so that they can move to Australia.

“They finally see a value in me and now they are really proud of me."

In 2015, the One Child Policy was abolished in favour of a two child policy.

Ironically, after three decades of restriction, couples aren’t jumping at the chance of having kids. China’s birth rate has dropped by 3-5% and experts say that one of the reasons is the decline of population of childbearing aged women.

This is problematic for a nation whose elderly population will exceed the combined total of Germany, France and Britain by 2050. In fact, there are talks that the government may intervene to promote families to have more children.

It’s a slippery slope because once the government starts proactively encouraging couples to have more kids, they will by default be admitting that the One Child Policy was unsuccessful.

Although she believes that the Chinese government went too far by controlling the lives of citizens and their desire to have children, Jay also feels that her home country did the best with what they had.

That said, she disagrees with the tactics they deployed. Rather than restriction, Jay thinks education could have been a more effective policy.

“It’s funny because now naturally, couples don’t want kids. Maybe if they explained that bringing up children is a difficult and costly affair in a competitive economy, it would have naturally stopped people from having them.”

Although it was tough growing up with a ‘little emperor’, Lillian says she is now glad that her parents decided to have her brother.

“It’s so nice to have a sibling and my little brother really looks up to me,” said Lillian.

While many in her family still consider boys superior, Lillian has noticed that over the years, her parents have changed their stance.

“Compared to their friends, they’ve become a lot more open minded and now they realise boy or girl, it doesn’t matter.”

Learn more about Lifeline Australia’s translating and interpreting services (TIS) which provides free Chinese interpretation assistance to anyone in Australia.

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Carla Sunwoo

About Carla Sunwoo

Carla is a former journalist and current content producer who believes that everyone has a story to tell. Born in South Korea and growing up in New Zealand and Australia, she is especially interested in issues to do with cross-cultural identity and communities. As a journalist in South Korea, she covered topics ranging from K-pop to North Korean defectors. Along with her love of reading, coffee and learning more about the world, she is a tad obsessed with beagles.

More from Carla Sunwoo


Melbourne VIC, Australia
18th January 2019