The secret history of China's one-child policy
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Raining on their parade

Who is responsible for China's infamous one-child policy? Surprisingly, it is not 60 years of Communist rule. 
Michael Cook | 1 October 2009
Today China celebrates the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule. The Party is highlighting the nation’s huge and powerful military, its international influence, its towering role in the world economy, and its growing prosperity, at least in the large coastal cities. It has left behind the barbarities of Mao Tse-tung and has become a "civilized", "harmonious", "prosperous" and "democratic" country.

But one barbarity persists: the one-child policy. On September 25, 1980, the Communist Party announced that, with very few exceptions, couples were permitted to have only one child. Party officials insisted that the population had to be capped at 1.2 billion by the year 2000.

This policy has not only blackened China’s reputation as a human-rights abuser. It also is leading to economic and social disaster. China’s population is ageing so rapidly that care for the elderly will impose a crushing burden on its economy. And because Chinese have a traditional preference for sons, infant girls are often aborted or murdered, which means that as many as 15 percent of Chinese men will never find wives.

How was this insane idea endorsed by the government of the world’s largest nation?

This is the question raised by anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh in her valuable book Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China. Greenhalgh reads and speaks Chinese and used to work for a US-based NGO which promotes birth control, the Population Council. With this background, she won the confidence of many high-ranking government officials involved in forging the policy. Her detective work yielded a surprising answer.

Most Westerners attribute the one-child policy to Communist ideology and its top-down authoritarianism. This is only partially true. Without the harsh discipline imposed by the Party, implementing it would have been impossible. However, population control is not a Communist idea. Karl Marx despised his contemporary Thomas Malthus and the Soviet Union was clearly pro-natalist.

Until 1980, the position of the Chinese Communist Party was far from clear. Although birth planning was regarded as a solution to China’s economic problems in the 50s and 60s, the slogan was just "later, longer, fewer" – later marriages, longer spaces between children, and fewer of them -- not "stop at one". The Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong, flip-flopped on population control. He was quoted as saying both "of all things in the world, people are the most precious" and, shortly before his death in 1975, "it won’t do to not control population".

As late as 1974, Premier Zhou Enlai told the UN Population Conference in Bucharest that the notion of a population explosion was a capitalist plot: "Is it owing to overpopulation that unemployment and poverty exist in many countries of the world today? No, absolutely not. It is mainly due to aggression, plunder and exploitation by the imperialists, particularly the superpowers."

Mao’s pragmatic successor Deng Xiaoping was clearly in favour of reducing population growth, but he never publicly committed himself to a one-child policy.

So who was responsible for the idea? Although many people had a hand in creating this cruel policy, Greenhalgh claims that the single most influential person was not a Marxist ideologue, but a brilliant computer expert named Song Jian. Song was a missile expert who had survived the Cultural Revolution because China needed a strong military even during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. His particular expertise was cybernetics and unlike many of his colleagues, he was able to travel overseas.

In 1978 he attended the Seventh Triennnial World Congress of the International Federal of Automatic Control in Helsinki. There he met two Dutch control theorists who had contributed to the Club of Rome report, Limits to Growth. This was an influential computer model which forecast catastrophe if world population were not limited. Song found their work compelling and when he returned to China he set to work developing a population model for his own country.

Unfortunately, Song was completely unaware of the hammering which Limits to Growth was receiving in the West. Greenhalgh says that he imported what had been merely a scientific exercise in Europe and transformed it into a concrete policy proposal for use on a real population.

After the ideological lunacies of the Maoist era, Song’s supporters in the Communist Party were searching for scientific solutions to social problems. What Song offered them confidently was the illusion of precision. In their isolation from the West, these Chinese officials had never even seen computer modelling and graphs. They found ideas like "spaceship earth" and mathematical control of childbearing utterly compelling. Song once confided to a group of American population specialist that because he was a mathematician, anything he said would be believed. His models were real science, not social science or spurious ideology.

Marxist theorists were actually the most trenchant opponents of Song’s mechanistic approach, but in the wake of the disasters engineered by Mao and the Gang of Four, no one listened. If Greenhalgh’s narrative has a hero, it is a Red Guard turned Party intellectual named Lian Zhongtang.

Liang foresaw today's problems. "One-childization" would impose terrible social costs upon the peasants, he said in 1979. In several decades there would be 150 million "gloomy and lonely old people" and that China would become a "breathless, lifeless society without a future". "In the past," he wrote, "under the extreme leftist road, China’s peasants were subject to all kinds of coercion. We have made the peasants’ suffering bitter enough in the economic realm. We cannot make them suffer further [in the reproductive realm]."

Alas, Party officials were mesmerised by computer-generated population forecasts based on a range of birthrates – even though China's dodgy population statistics ranged from inaccurate to fictitious. In December 1979 the Party sponsored a conference on population theory in the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan province, where Song finally won over influential party officials after intense lobbying.

Greenhalgh cites a radio broadcast from early 1980 to show that Party officials were besotted with bogus statistics:

"This reporter saw numerous figures typed on paper by electronic computers – the first fairly detailed, reliable data and prediction that have been made of our country’s population growth in the next 100 years. This dazzling data clearly shows the different results of population growth according to different plans... Their data shows that... if we vigorously encourage every married couple to have one child... [and can] achieve this goal by 1985... [this is] the most ideal way to solve our country’s population problem."

Obviously this reporter had never heard of "garbage in, garbage out".

Greenhalgh claims that Chinese officials even foresaw China’s incredibly distorted sex ratio at birth, which today stands at about 120 infant boys for every 100 girls. They knew that if couples were forced to stop at one child, some would kill their daughters. However, discussion of this sensitive topic was stifled. Instead, birth planning officials wrote articles denying that the sex ratio would rise. Researchers told her that they had been instructed to avoid investigating this issue and that newspapers and journals would refuse to print anything they wrote about it.

So the real villain of China’s oppressive one-child policy is scientism, the belief that science and technology can solve all human problems. As Greenhalgh puts it, the Chinese of the post-Mao era had merely swapped one ideology for another. Today in China, she writes, "there is overwhelming acceptance of science as a new theology that can settle all problems, even political ones".

Does this sound familiar? In the West we are grappling with similar issues in areas like stem cell research or climate change. Scientists are often applauded as experts even if they are abysmally ignorant of ethics and blithely ignore the social implications of their policy proposals. Like the most dogmatic Marxists, they are capable of stripping human beings of their dignity as unique persons and treating them as nothing more than numbers and fodder for the economy. Greenhalgh’s research is a sobering reminder that obsequious reverence to shonky science has been responsible for one of the greatest human rights violations of the last hundred years.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | China, one-child policy, population control
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