What is China’s one-child policy? Does it apply to foreigners?

Photo by Sean McGrath

China’s family planning policy (or ’one child policy’, as it’s known, particularly in the West) was established in 1979 to reduce China’s population growth, although concerns about the country’s aging population led to it being modified in 2011, and again in 2013, to allow for more than one child in certain circumstances.

Fundamentally, the policy still limits couples to one child. It is not an all-encompassing law because it has always been restricted to ethnic Han Chinese living in urban areas. Citizens living in rural areas and minorities living in China are not subject to this law. Below is a breakdown of the various rules by which it operates.



China’s one child policy is restricted to Han Chinese citizens, who make up the vast majority of the Chinese population; Chinese citizens of ethnic minorities in China are not subject to the law. 


Mitigating circumstances

However, Han Chinese couples can have two children in the following cases: 

  1. The only child has non-genetic disease or disability that means they cannot work. 
  2. Either parent is (or both of them are) a single child.
  3. The couple was not able to conceive a child after five years of marriage, were identified as infertile by medical agencies, and subsequently adopted a child. However, the woman then – against all odds – found herself pregnant.
  4. The married couple were themselves once married to other people, and had a child with them. In all provinces, an individual who had a child in a previous marriage can have another child in their next marriage, provided their partner does not have a child. However, in some provinces a newly married couple can still have a child together even if both of them have a child with other people. It does not matter who has custody of the first child.
  5. People in rural areas whose first-born child is a female.


Nature of Chinese citizenship

Residents of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan are not subject to the law, even if they are Han Chinese and live on the Chinese mainland. However, ‘overseas Chinese‘ are still beholden to the law. Obviously, those who have renounced Chinese citizenship and taken another nationality are no longer affected by the one-child policy.


Location of parents

Different areas may have different rules about numbers of children – very rural areas, where children are needed to work on farms, will allow parents to have two children regardless of ethnicity. 


Location of existing children

If a couple’s child or children settle overseas (having obtained the right of permanent residency there – a green card is good enough, it doesn’t have to mean their kids have given up Chinese citizenship), the couple is classed as having no children. This means that they can have one or two more children, as per the rest of the one-child policy. 

If their existing child or children live on the Chinese mainland then obviously the usual rules apply as normal – they can either have no more children or just one more, depending on their circumstances.


If one of the parents is a foreigner

Even if a Chinese mainland citizen marries a foreigner, the couple are still subject to the one-child policy, as outlined above, so long as the Chinese mainland citizen retains his or her PRC citizenship. 


Useful Chinese words and phrases

计划生育 jìhuà shēngyù Family planning
生育 shēngyù Give birth to
一孩政策 yīhái zhèngcè One-child policy
生二胎 shēng èrtāi Have a second child
汉族人 hànzú rén Han Chinese
少数民族 shǎoshù mínzú Minority
头胎 tóutāi First-born
华侨 huáqiáo Overseas Chinese
外籍华人 wàijí huárén Expatriate Chinese
定居 dìngjū Settle
永久居留权 yǒngjiǔ jūliú quán Right of Permanent Residency
涉外婚姻 shèwài hūnyīn Mixed marriage


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