China’s population control visionary
Ma Yinchu was born in 1882 in Zhejiang, China. The son of a small business owner, he was inclined towards scholarship. After earning an undergraduate degree at Tianjin University, he studied at Yale, subsequently earning a PhD in economics and philosophy from Columbia University. He returned to China and helped found the Shanghai College of Commerce and the Chinese Economics Society.
While politically astute, Dr Ma’s ill-timed criticism of the Kuomintang government led to house arrest. However, upon the victory of Mao’s People’s Liberation Army in 1949, his career was revived. For the next decade, fortune smiled on Dr Ma through the patronage of his friend Zhou Enlai, Chairman Mao’s right-hand man. The Communist government appointed him president of Zhejiang University, and soon after he was appointed president of the prestigious Peking University.
As the leading academic in the People’s Republic, Dr Ma was feted by Party officials and touted as a scholar-statesman who would help lead China to reclaim its pre-industrial revolution status as a global power to be reckoned with – this time under the leadership of the Communist Party.
In 1957 Dr Ma was invited to address the Fourth Session of China’s First National People’s Congress. On that occasion he introduced his New Population Theory, explaining to the gathering of Party luminaries that China’s rapidly increasing population would hinder the economic development of the People’s Republic and urging that the government control fertility to reduce population growth. Dr Ma told the Congress “The State should have the power to intervene in reproduction and to control population.”
Dr Ma’s idea of state family planning was well-received by the People’s Congress. But it soon became clear that not everyone was on board. While many in the Party welcomed the further intrusion of government into family life, others were suspicious of anything limiting the future number of Party faithful. In a centrally planned economy suffused with Marxist ideology, more workers were central to achieving a “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
Also, even though thoroughly Communist, there was a strong undercurrent of Chinese nationalism in the ruling elite, with whom plans to limit the number of Chinese did not sit well.
By 1960, the Party decided that Ma’s ideas about population were subversive, based on Western “Malthusian” thinking, and incompatible with Chinese socialism. He was removed as president of Peking University and “disappeared” from public discourse.
In 1966, China’s draconian Cultural Revolution began. Millions perished in mass killings and purges of anyone suspected of capitalist or “traditionalist” tendencies. Even Confucius was repudiated. During this time the infamous “Gang of Four” rose to power, led by the fanatical Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao.
Needless to say, in the midst of this murderous ideological fervor, there were numerous permutations of the Party line. By 1973, as the Cultural Revolution’s grisly toll mounted, impatience had risen as China’s economy faltered. Elements of the Chinese leadership again came round to Dr Ma’s way of thinking, and the government initiated the wan, xi, shao campaign (later marriage, longer spacing, and fewer children). This birth control initiative sought to encourage families to limit offspring to two children. As is the case with totalitarian systems, government encouragement inevitably became state coercion.
In 1979, three years after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, China’s infamous one-child policy was instituted. Dr Ma, then 97 years of age, was rehabilitated. The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party extended a formal apology to him, and he was named Honorary President of Peking University. He was hailed as the “father” of the one-child policy, which was officially incorporated into the Chinese constitution in 1982, the year that Ma Yinchu died at 99.
The success of the most massive and coercive social engineering experiment in history cannot be disputed. By the 1990s China’s fertility rate had fallen to 1.2. Millions suffered untold heartbreak, as government-mandated contraception and abortion were weaponized to enforce the one-child law. A sad side-effect of this was sex-selective abortion (since banned).
Traditionally, Chinese sons are expected to support their parents in old age, making male babies more desirable. Thus, in 2001, 117 boys were born for every 100 girls. In 2010 the BBC reported a 119:100 ratio. In some rural provinces, ratios were reported at or near 130:100.
In 1997, 40 years after presenting his New Population Theory to the People’s Congress, Chinese television aired a nine-part documentary on Dr Ma’s life.
Eventually, however, the government realized the error of its ways. In 2016 the Party line officially changed to a two-child policy. Many families able to have a second child did so, raising the national fertility rate to 1.58 in 2017. This proved only a temporary boost. China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported a 1.49 rate for 2018 and 1.47 for 2019.
China is now an ageing society, as the percentage of elderly (age 60 and above) has surpassed the percentage of children (age 15 and under). The elderly percentage rose from 10.45% in 2005 to 18.1% in 2019. The government projects that by 2050, one-third of the Chinese population will be age 60 and over.
In 2019, 14.65 million births were registered in China. There were 10.03 million in 2020, a 15% decline attributed to the Covid pandemic. China’s working age population has decreased by well over 3 million each year for the last decade.
In April 2021 the People’s Bank of China (PBC) released a working paper calling for China to raise fertility in order to remain competitive with the US: “For [China] to narrow the gap with the United States in the past four decades, it relied on cheap labor and huge numbers of people... What will we rely on in the next 30 years? This is worth our thoughts.”
The paper continued “We should not hesitate and wait for the effects of existing birth policies… The birth liberalisation should happen now when there are some residents who still want to have children but can’t.”
According to the PBC’s Cai Fang, “When the total population enters negative growth (after 2025), there will be a shortage of demand.”
Citing UN data, the PBC projects a population decrease of 32 million over the next 30 years and suggests permitting “three births and above” per family, and a “good reproductive environment.” Given China’s recent history of “family planning,” it is supremely ironic that the report concludes with “Our country must clearly recognize the changes in the situation...”
When central banks speak, policy follows. Beijing’s rulers know that the one-child policy was a colossal mistake.
Today Dr Ma is venerated in China as an economist, philospher, demographer and scholarly influence in the Communist revolution. His former residence in Hangzhou is the Ma Yinchu Museum. There are Ma Yinchu Fellowships for Population Studies. He is reverently referred to as “Uncle Ma” in children’s textbooks.
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