September 18, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

China Suffers 30 Years of Misguided Malthusian Idea

China has had a “one-child policy” for 30 years this week.  This policy has caused untold grief for many families desiring children, and has resulted in unexpected demographic problems – such as aging of the population, not enough brides for young men, and enormous numbers of abortions.  Two articles in Science this week explored the convoluted reasoning that resulted in history’s biggest social experiment, and asked, what are the prospects for abolishing the policy, or at least relaxing it?  After all, this regrettable “case of ideology trumping science” sprang out of “a wave of neo-Malthusianism” that captivated government officials in the days of Chairman Mao – a view of population demographics that had influenced Darwin (01/15/2009) – but has largely been discredited today (12/09/2009 bullet 3, 12/12/2008, 06/05/2007, 03/17/2003).  Unfortunately, the inertia of the policy has only added to the horrific consequences.
    Dutch reporter Mara Hvistendahl wrote a detailed historical account of China’s one-child policy in Science,1 and added a short article about some of the personalities that influenced it.2  Her main article dove right in with a list of the consequences:

Elementary schools converted into nursing homes.  Lonely only children coddled by parents and grandparents.  A generation in which men seriously outnumber women.  China’s one-child policy may have slowed population growth in the world’s most populous country.  But it has also produced a rapidly aging population, a shrinking labor force, and a skewed sex ratio at birth, perils that many demographers say could threaten China’s economy and social fabric.
    As the most spectacular demographic experiment in history, the one-child policy is unprecedented in its scope and extremity.

As with many social experiments, the policy began with seemingly good intentions.  Chinese leaders were led to believe they faced a monumental population explosion and food shortage unless the birth rate were reduced.  It began in Mao’s reign with public persuasion, trying to nudge families to marry later and have fewer children, but by the time of Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, it became a mandate.  “One child per family” soon led to horrors like birth police dragging weeping pregnant women to the abortion clinic:

To implement the policy, the government beefed up its birth planning infrastructure, adding thousands of workers and launching propaganda campaigns.  Enforcement was flawed from the beginning: The central government assigned stringent birth quotas to local governments but left them to shoulder a portion of the costs.  Some local officials intent on meeting targets forced pregnant women to abort and sterilized men against their will.  Others issued offending parents outrageous fines to recover program costs.
    The drive sparked a backlash, fueling discontent among peasants.  It also led to a rash of female infanticide among Chinese hoping to make their sole child a boy—a prelude to sex-selective abortions that later became widespread.

The Chinese government patched but did not abandon the policy in the face of these consequences, leading to “a clunky policy that is comparable in complexity to the U.S. tax code.”  When ultrasound machines became available later, many couples desiring sons used them to selectively abort female fetuses, leading to the skewed sex ratio that has left many Chinese men out of the marriage market.  In addition, the pension population has risen as the labor force has dwindled.
    It makes no sense.  While it succeeded in drastically curtailing the birth rate, it’s bad science and it’s terrible social policy.  How on earth did the Chinese government get led down this path?
    Hvistendahl indicted Malthus in the justification for the one-child policy, but it wasn’t just Chairman Mao that was mesmerized by Malthus in the 1970s – it was the western world, too:

He [Mao] wasn’t alone in worrying about population growth.  In Western countries, too, public health breakthroughs and falling mortality rates had led to a fear of overpopulation, sparking a wave of neo-Malthusianism that culminated in the controversial 1972 report The Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome, an international group of scientists.  Doomsday projections found their way to China.  “Developed countries spread Club of Rome thinking to the developing world,” says Liang Zhongtang, an economist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences who participated in deliberations over the one-child policy.
    In China, neo-Malthusianism resonated with a government intent on boosting economic growth.  The aim was to manipulate population dynamics under the planned economy.

Problem: Mao had already decimated the population through his ideologically-caused famines during the Cultural Revolution.  Solution: he could blame the famine on overpopulation.  “Poor central planning had helped cause food shortages,” she euphemized, “but now attention focused on population as the culprit, and Chairman Mao Zedong, who had once encouraged large families, shifted course.”  By deflecting criticisms of the famine to a new culprit (too many mouths to feed), he simultaneously found a new way to manipulate the populace under his Marxist “planned economy”. 
    In her second, shorter article,2 Hvistendahl told the story of how Song Jian, a prot�g� of American defector Qian Xuesen (see 12/10/2009) who had become Mao’s trusted science advisor, was entranced by a Dutch game theorist.  At a meeting in the Netherlands, “over beers at a pub,” Geert Jan Olsder used questionable statistics based on game theory to convince Jian that China needed to drastically cut its birth rate to avoid catastrophe.  Jian, a military scientist who wasn’t even a demographer, took Olsder’s equations back to China enthusiastically.  He came up with calculations that “dazzled policymakers, making the policy appear to be good science.”  It wasn’t.  Jian Song made ““wild projections of a population explosion” based on “unreliable data”; nevertheless, his appearance of scientific credibility “wowed Chinese leaders” and propelled them toward measures to “avert catastrophe”.  As a result, the “policymakers responded with an extreme plan” to combat the mythical threat: restrict all couples to one child per family, and maintain it for 20 to 40 years.  That was 30 years ago – September 25, 1980.
    Now that we know this, why not just abolish the policy?  After all, it was never intended to last forever, and the unforeseen consequences are now obvious in hindsight.  Unfortunately, Hvistendahl explains with frustrating candor, the inertia is too great.  Reformers are attempting to raise awareness and argue that it’s time to abolish the policy, or at least relax it in certain areas, but are finding that the policy has become sacrosanct to many bureaucrats.  “As of 2005, the family-planning bureaucracy had swollen to 509,000 employees, along with 6 million workers who help with implementation,” she stated.  “Those stakeholders are ‘risk-averse,’ says Wang [Feng, a UC Irvine demographer].  ‘They pay no cost for doing nothing.”  The Chinese culture also tends to value stability and continuity.  The reform advocates sound like heretics.
    Another consequence of a whole generation raised on the one-child experience has surprised advocates of reform.  They are finding that people have become emotionally consigned to the idea of having only one child.  It’s all they have ever known.  All their friends have only one child.  In a test city that relaxed the policy, researchers found that many women did not intend to have a second child, even when it was permitted.  So in spite of negative demographic consequences facing China’s elderly, bachelors, work force, and the sustainability of its population – all based on flawed math and science and ideology – a majority of the couples in a province who were given, once again, the opportunity to have families with siblings, responded, with no disagreement from the bloated bureaucracy, “one child is best.”


1.  Mara Hvistendahl, “Demography: Has China Outgrown The One-Child Policy?” Science, 17 September 2010: Vol. 329. no. 5998, pp. 1458 – 1461, DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5998.1458.
2.  Mara Hvistendahl, “Of Population Projections and Projectiles,” Science, 17 September 2010: Vol. 329. no. 5998, p. 1460, DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5998.1460.

Chairman Mao was one of the most evil men the world has ever seen.  The influence his beliefs and actions had on hundreds of millions of people yearning to breathe free is beyond appalling.  And this story is not the worst of the nightmares traceable to that evil, evil dictator.  When his policies led to a famine that killed tens of millions of Chinese (because he trusted the science charlatan Lysenko), he didn’t accept responsibility for any of it.  Hvistendahl says, “attention focused on population as the culprit, and Chairman Mao Zedong, who had once encouraged large families, shifted course.”  The people would now suffer for his mistake with the “most spectacular demographic experiment in history,” the one-child policy adopted by his successor.  Mao died in luxury, accompanied with wine, women and song, as his victims starved and rotted in hard labor camps.  He never took any responsibility for murdering 77 million of his own people (11/30/2005), but paraded his big-brother visage throughout the country, forcing his subjects to adore him like a god.
    He was no god; he was a devil.  Mao justified his political horrors with “scientific” ideology.  He venerated Lenin, Stalin, and Darwin, building a political apparatus – and guiding the most populous nation on the planet – around their views.  Darwin, in turn, was strongly influenced by the know-nothing Thomas Malthus, a preacher of sorts dabbling in a subject he did not understand.  It resulted in Darwin’s vision of a secular world uncared for by God, a world of natural selection, a cruel world of struggle and hunger and death, pitiless in its indifference to the suffering of the individual.  Too bad Malthus was not good at math and economics.  Who told him population grows exponentially but food supply grows linearly?  Nobody.  Malthus made it up!  Who told Olsder that game theory proved China would have a population catastrophe?  Nobody.  He made it up!  These big liars and their willing dupes have the blood of millions on their hands.
    This story is a lesson not just to China watchers but to the whole world.  The consequences of flawed ideas can be far-reaching, emotionally wrenching, and cruel.  They can be matters (literally) of life and death.  The true stories that could be told by Chinese couples deprived of their natural rights to life, liberty and family are too horrible to contemplate.  Can you hear their cries?  Can you see their tears?  The conclusion piles insanity on cruelty: political inertia, propaganda and indoctrination have made this horrendous demographic experiment very difficult to stop.
    If China’s people had been given the liberty to enjoy their natural rights endowed by their Creator, it’s likely there never would have been the feared population bomb.  (It didn’t happen in Europe and America, despite the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich.)  People with freedom to explore their potential, especially those taught to value work and improve their lives and society, become wealthier (wealth generation, remember, is not a zero-sum game; the scientific findings of Faraday and Morse, for instance, created millions of new jobs).  Free people develop technology and science and better medicine.  Free people don’t have to depend on lots of children for their future, hoping that a few infants might survive the perils of childhood diseases to assist them in old age.  If anything, in Europe and America, the problem is that birth rates are too low.  It’s the repressed poor in third world dictatorships that tend to have high birth rates.
    Yesterday was Constitution Day in America (see US Constitution Initiative website and the National Archives Charters of Freedom).  If China, desiring to modernize in the 1970s, had followed the example of the American Constitution, with its foundation of individual liberties granted by God, its people could have avoided so much heartbreak and terror.  Unless we learn the hard lessons of this story, we are doomed to see even worse horrors from any big government bent on an agenda trusting the bad ideas of Darwin and Malthus.  Never assume that past dictatorships have exhausted the horrors in the Darwin Pandora’s box.  A new documentary, What Hath Darwin Wrought, has just come out.  Watch the trailer, and spread the message, before a world government picks up where China left off.

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