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‘A Brutality Born of Helplessness’

Overblown Western Fears of a ‘Population Bomb’ Helped Birth China’s One-Child Policy

When China finally scrapped its one-child policy after more than three decades of brutality, almost no one lamented its passing. But Paul R. Ehlich, a Stanford-educated biologist and author of the 1968 fear-baiting classic The Population Bomb, was upset. On October 30, Ehrlich took to Twitter and in a comment on the decision, wrote (in all caps): “GIBBERING INSANITY - THE GROWTH-FOREVER GANG.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone clinging to the one-child policy and hoping it would remain in place. The merciless birth limits formally launched in 1980 turned procreation into politics, pitted neighbor against neighbor, and resulted in countless forced abortions and sterilizations. Baby girls were aborted by couples desperate for male heirs; others were given away to childless relatives or put up for adoption. Couples who defiantly kept their “illegal” children were financially crippled by fines, lost their jobs, and in some cases had their property taken away.

The one-child policy has accrued a 35-year legacy of cruelty, but at its inception, it was considered the best in a host of bad options.

But the uncomfortable exercise of putting oneself in Ehrlich’s doomsday mindset helps shed light on why China adopted the tragically misguided policy in the first place. The one-child policy has accrued a 35-year legacy of cruelty, but at its inception, it was considered the best in a host of bad options. Thomas Scharping, a German scholar who has done exhaustive research on the origins of the policy, calls the one-child limit a “brutality born of helplessness.”

Under Chairman Mao Zedong, China rejected the population panic spreading in the west. But after he passed, his successors shifted course and embraced it wholesale. The panic in the west was best exemplified by Ehrlich, among the most outspoken of the western doomsday forecasters of the late 1960’s, who had warned that hundreds of millions were set to die from starvation due to overpopulation. A regular guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Ehrlich once warned the talk show host that America was in for a catastrophic population wake-up call that would be similar in impact to Pearl Harbor. In 1969, Ehrlich told an environmental conference in San Francisco: “Our first move must be to convince all those we can that the planet Earth must be viewed as a spaceship of limited carrying capacity.” He argued that the population in the United States ought to be reduced by 50 million.

In the wake of the post-World War II baby boom, Ehrlich’s apocalyptic visions easily gained traction. The United Nations declared 1974 World Population Year and that summer, representatives from 137 countries gathered for the first global meeting of government officials to discuss population policy. The meeting was held at the Sala Palatului, a massive Soviet-style concert and conference hall in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Battles lines were quickly drawn: wealthy world powers advocated aggressive population control measures, while developing nations felt the overpopulation threat was being exaggerated and were resentful of attempts to set a world population limit.

The population debate resulted in strange bedfellows, with the Vatican and the Soviet Union and China all resisting the push for population targets. The Vatican and several Latin American countries balked for religious reasons, while the Communists resented the idea of manpower as a liability rather than an asset. They also saw in the debate a replay of time-worn habits: colonial and imperialist countries trying to meddle in the governance of the third world.

And indeed, the United States was pushing for limits that it saw would never impose on itself. Caspar Weinberger, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, at the time, was there at the global meeting advocating replacement fertility as a target for the planet, essentially 2.1 children per couple, to be achieved by the year 2000.

In the opposing camp stood Huang Shuze, China’s deputy health director and loyal attendant to strongman Communist Chairman Mao Zedong. Huang presented Beijing’s views on population to the conference with no-holds-barred Maoist moxie. He told the delegates that Western superpowers were raising a “false alarm” over an alleged population explosion, and painting a “depressing picture of the future of mankind.”

“The creative power of the people is boundless, and so is man’s ability to exploit and utilize natural resources,” Huang said. “The pessimistic views spread by the superpowers are utterly groundless and are being propagated with ulterior motives.”

But China performed a 180-degree turn between the time of the Bucharest meeting and the next major U.N. conference on population in Mexico City in 1984, ten years later. Mao had died, and his successors were determined to make up for the late chairman’s failure to embrace family planning. People who had advocated for family planning in Mao’s era suffered consequences. The U.S.-trained economist Ma Yinchu, who argued in 1957 that a two-child policy was best for China, lost his job as a university dean for his “rightist” views. But as Mao aged and weakened, there were low-key but highly successful efforts by other top leaders to encourage smaller families. The non-coercive “wan, xi, shao” or “later, longer, fewer” campaign that preceded the one-child policy had dramatically curbed China’s fertility without fines and punishments. In the post-Mao era, China decided “wan, xi, shao” wasn’t ambitious enough.

China’s goal, which it had set in 1980 as it embarked on a headlong push toward prosperity, was to push per capita income from about $700 at the time to about $2,880 by 2000 (calculated in 2015 dollars), but that seemed unattainable without curbing births. The “Four Modernizations” economic program devised by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping would never work if China’s population remained unchecked. It was decided: The government had to take active responsibility and aggressive institutional control of the national fertility situation.

And overpopulation was considered a man-made problem that man should fix.

And overpopulation was considered a man-made problem that man should fix. As sociologist Susan Greenhalgh writes in her 2008 book Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China, Deng and his colleagues considered the failure to staunch population growth as “one of Mao’s greatest mistakes.” With his death, they had, Greenhalgh wrote, “not just an opportunity but a moral obligation” to correct that error.

During a trip to the southern Chinese province of Sichuan in 1980, Deng signaled that a firm decision on method had been made: “We must definitely keep propagating that every couple only has one child.” He warned darkly, “There is no hope for the Four Modernizations, should this lever be broken. It is of major importance for the national economy.” As a result, “we cannot make concessions here.”

Yet research shows that China’s biggest drop in fertility happened in the 1970s with the “wan, xi, shao” campaign, before the one-child policy was even launched. The experience of other Asian neighbors also suggests that economic development would have continued to lower China’s fertility. In other words, the policy wasn’t necessary.

And yet once it was set, it became intractable. Even when data showed that Chinese cities that had been allowed to experiment with two-child policy pilot programs had low fertility and a more balanced sex ratio, the government didn’t budge.

As the demographic scholars Wang Feng, Cai Yong, and Gu Baochang wrote in a 2012 editorial, the one-child policy “showcases the impact of a policymaking process that, in the absence of public deliberations, transparency, debate, and accountability, can do permanent harm to the members of a society.” As Ehrlich’s many dire predictions failed to come to pass—England did not cease to exist by 2000, for example—he faded from the headlines. But when an Ehrlich-style fear of a “population bomb” came to China, a place whose mandarins brook little dissent, it tragically produced policy that was to remain stubbornly unchallenged for decades, and would drive the country’s family planning regime well into 2015.