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On September 25, 1980, the Chinese Communist Party announced that, with very few exceptions, couples in China could have only one child. Since then, the one-child policy has meant that millions of babies have perished and that the country faces economic and social disaster. The Chinese population is aging so rapidly that care for the elderly will impose a crushing burden on the economy. And because the 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 did this insane idea come about?
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 the Population Council, a US-based NGO that promotes birth control. With this background, she won the confidence of many high-ranking government officials involved in forging the one-child policy. Her detective work yielded a surprising answer.
Most Westerners attribute the one-child policy to Communism. But this is only partially true. Certainly, without the harsh discipline imposed by the Party, implementing the policy would have been impossible. However, population control is not an inherently Communist idea. Karl Marx despised Thomas Malthus.
And 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 1950s and 1960s, the slogan was just “later, longer, fewer”—later marriages, longer spaces between children, and fewer of them—not “stop at one.” Mao Zedong himself 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.
The Illusion of Precision
So who was responsible for the idea? 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. His particular expertise was cybernetics, and, unlike many of his colleagues, he was able to travel overseas.
In 1978 he met two Dutch birth 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 was not limited. Song found their work compelling, and he set to work developing a population model for China.
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 confidently offered them 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 the mathematical control of childbearing utterly compelling. Song once confided to a group of American population specialists that because he was a mathematician, anything he said would be believed.
Bolstered by Bogus Statistics
If Greenhalgh’s narrative has a hero, it is a Red Guard turned Party intellectual named Liang Zhongtang. Liang was a humane man and foresaw today’s problems. “One-childization” would impose terrible social costs upon the peasants, he said in 1979. Within several decades there would be 150 million “gloomy and lonely old people” in China, and the country would become a “breathless, lifeless society without a future.”
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. 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 predictions 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 would be] the most ideal way to solve our country’s population problem.
Obviously this reporter had never heard of “garbage in, garbage out.”
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 become skewed.
The New Theology
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 and 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 of the threat that scientism poses for human rights. •
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