The plight of China’s family planners

Society & Culture

With the loosening of China’s one-child policy, the vast bureaucracy that once enforced it faces an uncertain future and anger from the public.

Propaganda poster from 1986 /Source: Stefan R. Landsberger Collections

The beginning and end of the one-child policy

It has been more than a year since China abolished its decades-long one-child policy and replaced it with the loosened one that allows all couples to have two children. The shift of the government’s pivot, from curbing fertility rates to encouraging newborns, resulted in the birth of more than 18.46 million babies in 2016 — the highest annual number since 2000. But as the new policy started to bear fruit, one group of people have struggled to redefine themselves in the new two-child policy era — the family planning officials, notoriously known as “the abortion army.”

In the early days of China’s revolution, around the 1950s, Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, was an adamant advocate of having as large a population as possible. Deeply influenced by the Soviet Union, Mao firmly believed that an abundant labor force could lead to higher national productivity, and therefore guaranteed China a brighter future with economic prosperity. In the years that ensued, China saw a steady growth of national birth rates, which in 1963 reached its peak of a staggering 7.50 births per woman on average. The baby boom placed a massive burden on China’s national resources.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, to relieve the population overload, the Chinese government started to reevaluate Mao’s idea and initiated its first attempt to control population growth by introducing the “Later-Longer-Fewer” (晚稀少 wǎn xī shǎo) campaign, which encouraged couples to marry later and have fewer children, with longer intervals between them. It was during this campaign that the country’s first group of family planning workers was hired. The campaign was not very effective — it was rather loosely organized, and the first batch of Chinese family planning officials did not use any coercive measures.

“Later-Longer-Fewer” poster

It was not until late 1979 that a strict nationwide one-child policy was first introduced. In September 1980, as the country’s population approached 1 billion, the State Council, China’s highest governmental body, issued an open letter to all Communist officials. It ordered them to limit themselves to one child only, while provinces and major cities passed laws and regulations to control birth rates.

Along with the introduction of the one-child policy on a national level, family planning officials in China witnessed a remarkable change in their duties, which shifted from mild persuasion to strict, sometimes even violent, coercion. They hunted down families that were suspected of violating the rules on childbearing, gave out fines, and forced women to have unwanted abortions and sterilizations.

Millions and millions of people in family planning enforcement

The one-child policy was enforced unevenly. In cities, the policy was most effective because urban residents faced heavy fines and even job loss if they had a second child without permission. High living costs in urban areas also deterred many couples from having two or more children in the first place. But in the countryside, where gender preference is deeply rooted, enforcement faced greater resistance, which led to widespread clashes between family planning workers and villagers.

Propaganda poster from 1974 /Source: Stefan R. Landsberger Collections

In an interview with, Du Lili (pseudonym), a family planning office director, recalled the early days when the major tasks of her job were to have contraceptive devices placed in women’s uteruses after they gave birth to their first child, and to force men to have a vasectomy after they had had a second child. “The villagers were even more scared of the arrival of the family planning workers than of the policemen,” Du told Another former official, Zhang Chen, who served in a local family planning branch for 10 years and was described by his former colleague as “too soft hearted,” said that he regularly lied when asked about his occupation.

Despite the public’s hostility, the number of family planning officials grew throughout the 1980s, as an army of policy enforcers was placed in every city, town, and village across the country. A 2005 report by the National Population and Family Planning Commission, which was renamed the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) and merged with the Ministry of Health in 2013, shows that by 2005, the total number of personnel involved in policy enforcement and general family planning work at the township level and above was over 500,000, with an additional 1.2 million village administrators and 6 million “group leaders.” To give an example, Xuzhou Prefecture in Jiangsu Province, home to a total population of 9.3 million, has 218 family planning organizations at various levels and 2,658 administrative staff on the township level and above. In Huangshan Prefecture in Anhui Province, 745 administrative family planning staff were once employed to oversee a total population of just 1.6 million.

Due in part to these family planning workers at various levels, the one-child policy is believed to have successfully prevented about 400 million births over the last 40 years. In a press conference hosted by the NHFPC in 2014, the director of the family planning guidance department, Yang Wenzhuang 杨文庄, hinted (in Chinese) that the policy had achieved huge success in restraining overpopulation since it was put into effect in 1982, but since China’s demographics are reaching a turning point where “the country’s working-age population is shrinking and the whole population is aging fast,” the government would gradually lean toward a looser birth control approach.

In fact, since the 1990s, given the continuously declining fertility rate in China, the central government has already introduced a series of regulations to loosen the old one-size-fits-all policy. For instance, most rural communities allowed families with one daughter to have a second child after four years — another attempt for a son. In addition, urban couples, starting from 2013, could have two children if either parent was an only child.

Propaganda poster from 1975 /Source: Stefan R. Landsberger Collections

Laid off and alienated: No sympathy for family planning workers

As China cautiously steered away from its one-child policy and eventually changed it to a two child policy in 2015, millions of family planning workers are trapped in an unenviable position: a much lighter workload means staff could soon be made redundant, while many of them feel marginalized as the government’s new agenda in reproductive health downplays the work they accomplished in the one-child policy era and undermines their current role in society.

In May 2016, to protest against the public’s low respect for their work and the possibility of being laid off, dozens of disgruntled family planning personnel in Gongan County, in central China’s Hubei Province, stood on the front steps of the local health and family bureau, holding red banners with white-lettered slogans that read, “The family planning policy still remains a state policy, give me the treatment that I deserve” and “Maintain the family planning authorities’ stability, give back my dignity.” (see image below)

One of the participants shared a string of protest pictures on the Chinese social media site Weibo, in hopes that their alleged misfortune would resonate with the general public. “I joined the front to combat population growth at 18. When the government mobilized us to take up this occupation, arguably the most difficult job in the world, I was told that I would be respected and beloved,” the official wrote (in Chinese). “Now my coworkers and I are suffering from disappointment and depression. How can I serve the people in this condition?” Another protester also took to Weibo to complain about the workers’ meager income, writing, “I devoted my youth to this job, but what I get now is a monthly salary of 1,950 yuan [$285].” confirmed (in Chinese) with Zheng Gejun 郑铬军, director of a local family planning office in Gongan County, that since 2006, family planning workers in towns and villages in Hubei Province were no longer recognized as administration staff of government-affiliated institutions. As a result, the average monthly salary of these workers only increased to 1,950 yuan ($285) in 2015 from 1,200 yuan ($175) in 2006 despite several protests they had staged in the past few years. Meanwhile, since 2006, about two-thirds of Zheng’s coworkers have been laid off.

The protest, however, didn’t receive much support from the general public. Instead, it provoked such a furious backlash online that the original post was deleted by the protester after generating hundreds of negative comments. “Shameless! How dare you protest your income after killing so many babies,” one commenter wrote (in Chinese). Many others called (in Chinese) these officials’ income “bloody rewards,” referring to the fact that the main source of their salary is the heavy fines that people paid for violating the policy, known as “social support fees.”

Similar conflicts have appeared in other provinces. In June 2016, the family planning bureau in Longnan County in Gansu Province was embroiled in an online fight with internet users (in Chinese). After posting an article on its official Weibo account to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Chinese Family Planning Association, the bureau was attacked by commenters for singing praises of the one-child policy. In response, the official in charge of the account said, “Even though the policy is a mistake, it is those who make the policy, rather than us, who should be blamed.”

Retraining: Looking after children and seniors

Despite deeply rooted aversion from the general public toward family planning workers, some efforts have been made to give them a new role. Earlier last year, Shaanxi Normal University and Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Program together launched a pilot program where 68 family planning workers received training on early childhood education. Some officials even found their responsibilities had completely reversed: According to the Global Times, in some communities such as Lu’an, in eastern China’s Anhui Province, neighborhood family planning committee workers have reinvented their jobs — shifting from “baby killers” to “reproduction advocates” — by paying door-to-door visits to persuade couples to bear more children.

Another solution welcomed (in Chinese) by many is to relocate these personnel to the elderly care industry, which now suffers from a severe lack of workers and growing demand. Among the supporters of this solution is former law professor at China Youth University Yang Zhizhu 杨支柱, who has been one of the loudest voices speaking out against birth limits since 2010 when the was fired from the school after he refused to pay the fine of 240,642 yuan ($35,074) for having a second child.

Without a doubt, if millions of family planning workers can be adequately retrained to take up any other jobs that do good for society — whether it is HIV prevention or early childhood education — they could make remarkable contributions to the development of China’s healthcare system. These officials occupy positions in the government bureaucracy from high to low, and have an excellent network of grassroots connections and knowledge of local families and communities, even in remote regions. But realizing such a transformation is not simple, and the government has not announced a budget or plan to retrain this group of people. Even more problematic: Will it be possible to build the public’s trust in family planning workers who have a long-established reputation for villainy?