Organized Panel Session
Since its enactment in 1979, the One Child Policy—which limited Chinese couples to one child each—has been the focus of publications in diverse fields. Yet, the majority of these works focus exclusively on the role of the Chinese state and give short shrift to the decades preceding the policy’s implementation. Set during and immediately after the Great Leap Forward (1959-1961)—a disastrous campaign to enact rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization— this paper investigates state efforts to control reproduction and exploit female labor power through the creation of smaller families, while highlighting the role individuals played in shaping their own reproductive futures. Provincial and municipal Departments of Public Health created plays, posters, exhibitions, and focus groups designed to weave birth planning into the local cultural fabric. Nevertheless, resource shortages, lack of medical expertise, scarce reliable and affordable contraceptives, contradictory messages from the state, and individual distrust or dislike of birth control presented serious obstacles to state family planning efforts. At the individual level, supply and demand for contraceptives were rarely in sync—some women actively sought birth control but could not obtain access while others were advised to use it and declined the offer. Furthermore, access to birth control differed according to class, education level, and geography, while family planning campaigns in many ways reinforced gender inequalities. This paper, then, reveals the tensions inherent in China’s early 1960s population policy as well as the ways in which state programs worked against and in concert with individual reproductive decision making.