Illegitimate Birth of the One-Child Policy

For 35 years the one-child policy loomed large in Western perceptions of China, and news that Beijing will now permit all couples a second child has prompted a spate of commentary. The policy’s origins, however, are not widely known. Perhaps they are felt to be self-evident. This draconian measure might seem to have been a stereotypically Chinese response to a crisis of overpopulation, shaped by Asiatic traditions of state supremacy and implemented with Maoist brutality. But that description is almost entirely wrong.

First, the one-child policy wasn’t Maoist. It was proposed in 1979, three years after Mao Zedong died. It was adopted the following year under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, the modernizing pragmatist. Mao had been hostile to population control; he contributed to the policy only indirectly, by leaving the social sciences in a damaged and demoralized condition.

Second, it is debatable whether China was having a population crisis in the 1970s. The population was large and rising, true, and concern over the gap between the needs of the population and the productive power of the economy was growing. Today it is obvious that the economy needed to be organized along different lines, but back then Deng’s turn toward the free market still lay in the future, and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party seized upon population as the problem. By 1975, population-control targets had been added to the Five-Year Plan.

The policy of the 1970s, however, was a mild one of exhorting Chinese to have fewer children, spaced farther apart and later in life. Propaganda rather than coercion powered this program, and it was remarkably effective. The best guess, based on imperfect data, is that both the birth rate and the rate of population growth were halved between 1971 and 1978.

So why was an accelerated and harshly coercive program of population control imposed at the end of the decade? Where did this idea come from? Susan Greenhalgh, an American anthropologist who traveled in China while working for the Population Council in the 1980s and early 1990s (and later took a chair at the University of California at Irvine), devoted years of research to the question. She found a surprising answer. The one-child policy was not, fundamentally, a Chinese idea, but rested on thinking that had been hastily and uncritically imported from the West.

Such population experts as China possessed in 1978 believed, as I’ve indicated, that their country needed to reduce the birthrate gradually. They urged a respect for the culture of rural families that would restrain policy in this area. Some hinted that, after the man-made disasters of the Mao era, it behooved the government to proceed with caution. But their counsels did not prevail in the halls of power. The one-child policy was successfully advocated and, with respect to its numerical targets, designed, by a small group of aerospace engineers who knew nothing about population studies but who enjoyed enormous prestige on account of the military importance of their research.

It is not an oversimplification to say that the one-child policy was adopted on the recommendation of a weapons scientist in the state ministry of aerospace development named Song Jian. Song, an expert in guided-missile technology, had a doctorate from Moscow, a strong mind for mathematics, and a talent for self-promotion. He and his associates had been protected from harm during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and enjoyed access to whatever resources they needed.

In 1978, shortly after Deng had asked China’s defense scientists to help solve the nation’s economic problems, Song was attending a conference in Helsinki on cybernetic control theory when he happened to meet the Dutch authors of a paper that applied quantitative systems analysis to the human population of a fictional island.

It sounds odd, but remember the context. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, population growth occupied a place in the Western media space similar to that occupied by global warming today. The alarm had been spread to a mass audience through the writings of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. This was around the time, too, that computer simulation gave rise to the new science of “system dynamics” and endowed predictions with a new but often spurious patina of precision.

Countries without coercive population control, but that experienced urbanization and an increase in prosperity at the same time as China, followed a similar trajectory of declining fertility.

To Song, the equations in the Dutch paper offered power—power over what his leaders had defined as a population problem, and power for his hard science to prove it was superior to the soft social sciences. He found in The Population Bomb (1968) and The Limits to Growth (1972), which he picked up in Helsinki, a set of tables, images, and metaphors that he would reproduce in China (without attribution) as the judgment of modern science on human population. When he set up his model around assumptions taken from alarmist Western literature, the “optimal solution” that emerged was to reduce the fertility rate immediately to one child per woman.

And remarkably, Deng—who desperately wanted to align his administration with modern science—was sold. It appears that Song did not realize that the findings of the Club of Rome were contested by many Western scientists. He was in a hurry, and his successful career had made him extremely self-confident. Greenhalgh notes two characteristics of his approach: “the relegation of social and political questions to the margins” and “the adoption of highly simplifying assumptions or model constraints.” Both “had clear precedents in the Dutch work.” However, Song went further than the Dutch in disregarding the wishes of citizens as autonomous actors, arguing that women’s fertility could be precisely (and if need be, abruptly) programmed by the state thanks to “the PRC’s unique social systems.”

The rest is history. A birth-planning bureaucracy more than half a million strong was created to enforce a policy that, by 1983, included mass sterilizations and forced abortions as well as ruinous fines for a second child and, in some districts, home demolition for a third. Female infanticide became common among peasant farmers who needed sons in order to survive. An entire generation grew up at the small end of a 4:2:1 proportion (four grandparents had two children, who had only one child). Xue Xinran and a million anecdotes describe these “little emperors” as lacking empathy and resilience.

Even if one concedes that it was a good thing for the birth rate to slow, the epic violence had probably been unnecessary. Countries without coercive population control, but that experienced urbanization and an increase in prosperity at the same time as China, followed a similar trajectory of declining fertility.

The provenance of the One-Child Policy inspires several thoughts:

  • It shows the perils of a technocratic mindset in an age of specialization. Abraham Maslow said that to the man who has only a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. This could be an epitaph for Song Jian and his differential equations.
  • It casts doubt upon claims that China’s authoritarian system selects a meritocratic elite who will make the best decisions. The one-child policy was promoted by the best and the brightest.
  • It underscores the value of institutional safeguards in protecting the autonomy of the individual. From at least the time of Plato’s Republic, intellectuals have yearned to enforce their ideas of how everyone should live. A healthy society checks that impulse by the presence of multiple centers of power, by the time-honored observance of procedural constraints, and ultimately by people’s capability for self-defense. These protections were stripped from Chinese society after 1949. Dutch ideas that no one could have put into practice in Amsterdam were actually carried out in Beijing, where there could be no resistance.
  • Finally, it reveals the ambiguity of the term “Western values”:  Immanuel Kant, or B.F. Skinner? No matter how morally-checkered the history of the West, we like to think that its core values have been a respect for human dignity and personal freedom, and that these have been the West’s gift to the rest of the world.

Perhaps so—but our intellectuals have transmitted other values, too.