The power of one
Born in haste, dragging on past its sell-by date, China’s one-child policy was never meant to last forever. When it was launched in 1980, China’s leaders promised these painful family restrictions would be temporary. “In 30 years, when our current extreme population growth eases, we can then adopt a different population policy,” read the announcement from the Communist Party Central Committee.
In fairness, Chinese leaders were not alone in their fears of a population time bomb. It was an idea du jour of the 1960s and 1970s, like bell-bottoms and est therapy. After World War II, population numbers had crept up everywhere, not just in China. People made love, not war, and babies, predictably enough, followed. Conservationists and ecologists began sounding the famine alarm.
In 1968, Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich’s unlikely bestseller, The Population Bomb, dramatically proclaimed that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over,” and “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.” No preventative measures would avert “a substantial increase in the world death rate,” he wrote.
In 1969, the United Nations launched the UNFPA, or Fund for Population Activities (renamed the United Nations Population Fund in 1987), with the objective of curbing population growth in third world countries.
In 1972, the Club of Rome, an organisation of prominent academics and politicians, published The Limits to Growth, which, like The Population Bomb, argued that economic growth was ecologically unsustainable. Using Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer simulations, the Club of Rome came up with several scenarios gaming out the distribution of global resources among the world’s hypothetical population. Most predictions were gloomy, and some expected global collapse around the mid- to end of the twenty-first century.
The battle to control global population – particularly those darker-skinned bits of it – kicked into high gear, with a significant amount of Western aid funnelled to population control activities.
For a brief period, India had a forced sterilisation programme, an unpopular move that led to Indira Gandhi’s removal (though she later regained power); South Korea had a “Two’s Too Much” campaign, and even the tiny island nation of Singapore – whose population today is smaller than New York City’s – had a “Stop at Two” campaign. As a child, I grew up with stories of those propaganda drives. One poster, I remember, featured many hands reaching for one loaf of bread.
This was the world into which China emerged after a decade of isolation following the Cultural Revolution. It was in a unique position. While places like India and Indonesia also imposed population curbs, only China had both the authoritarian political structure and the social and cultural readiness to push through these ideas on a grand scale. While Western scientists like the Club of Rome were expounding theories of population control as intellectual exercises, Chinese scientists were prepared to put these ideas into practice on a real population, with few to no fail-safe mechanisms.
The country had been so beaten and demoralised, its intellectual capital so sapped by the Cultural Revolution, that the idea of rationing children, in the same way coal and grain were rationed, made sense.
There was also no adequate political mechanism for those affected to signal their outrage when the full brunt of the one-child campaign kicked in – unlike in India, for example. China also had no deep-seated religious beliefs on birth control or abortion to root out.
In retrospect, the country was fertile ground for reducing fertility.
The mathematician and the rocket scientist
There is evidence that some Western ideas on population reduction found root in Chinese soil.
In 1975, Song Jian joined a Chinese delegation to the Netherlands, where he met a young Dutch
mathematician called Geert Jan Olsder. “He seemed like a regular guy, very friendly,” recalled Olsder, who is still bemused, years later, by his inadvertent role in China’s population movement.
Over beers that day, Olsder told Song about a paper he’d co-written. It laid out a problem: how to prevent overpopulation on a fictional island. Olsder and his colleagues had come up with “an elegant mathematical solution,” which he recounted to Song.
“In hindsight, he seemed to perk up at this point,” said Olsder. “His eyes lit up.”
Olsder thought he was talking to a fellow academic. He had no idea Song was one of China’s super-scientists, an elite band whose military work had protected them during the Cultural Revolution, when all other intellectuals had suffered greatly. After the Revolution, they were virtually the only technocrats who emerged with their intellectual and social capital intact.
The Russian-trained Song was a ballistics missile specialist and a special protégé of Qian Xuesen, the brilliant cofounder of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, who had quit the United States in disgust after several humiliations during the McCarthyite Communist witch hunts. Qian, of course, was welcomed by China with open arms. He went on to lead China’s rocket programme and mentor acolytes like Song, who would play a major role in the one-child policy rollout.
“Mathematicians presented a paper demonstrating that the government’s goal of zero population growth by 2000 could not be reached. It was not what the authorities wanted to hear”
Through Qian’s patronage, Song was given access to top-level political-military leaders. Over the next few years, he and colleagues Li Guangyuan, Yu Jingyuan and Tian Xueyuan would use Olsder’s and other European scholars’ research as a basis for creating a formula for controlling China’s birthrate. Unlike Olsder, they did not view this merely as an intellectual problem. They sought real-world application.
Song and company’s mathematical formulas would clash with Liang’s human-centric proposals at the 1979 population control symposium in Chengdu.
Oil blasts in the pot
The Chengdu conference was a milestone, for this was when various academics unveiled their proposals for how to curb China’s masses. It’s unclear at this point how it shaped the events that followed. While some historians believe the conference marked a turning point that weighed decisively in favour of the missile scientists’ radical one-child proposal, others believe Communist leaders had already locked in their decision at this point, and Chengdu was just so much scholastic sound and fury. But the discussions at Chengdu showed that alternative points of view existed. The one-child policy was not the only solution on the table, though it was the most extreme.
A team of mathematicians from Xi’an Jiaotong University presented a paper demonstrating that the government’s goal of zero population growth by 2000 could not be reached. It was not what the authorities wanted to hear, and the paper disappeared from view. Liang got worse treatment when he voiced concerns over the one child proposal. Li Xiuzhen, director of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, dismissed his viewpoint, saying, “It’s unlikely that problems are really that serious.”
“Chinese people have long been used to listening to one voice at one time,” said Liang. “When they suddenly hear something different and critical, it’s like oil blasts in the pot.” Liang was unusually courageous in his candour, for there were many China scholars who had suffered adverse consequences for voicing opinions contrary to the Communist Party’s.
“By 2100, China’s population may have declined to 1950 levels, about 500 million, a startling reversal for the world’s most populous nation”
Two decades before, Peking University president Ma Yinchu had killed his career that way. Ironically, Ma, who argued for population curbs in 1959, is now credited as the father of the one-child policy. Unfortunately, Ma’s ideas were contrary to those of Chairman Mao. His erratic stance on population control would vacillate between “more is merrier” and “less is more.” Ma had the bad luck of pushing for curbs at a time when the Great Helmsman was in the “more is merrier” camp. Ma was summarily removed from his position as head of one of China’s top universities. It would be 20 long years before he was politically rehabilitated, around the time Liang unveiled his objections to population curbs.
At Chengdu, Liang would clash with the rocketmen, who impressed the crowd with their complex calculations, making Liang’s projections seem like caveman scribbles in contrast.
Li Guangyuan represented Song’s team at the conference. He was in his mid-thirties, a talented speaker and a graduate of the well-regarded Chinese University of Science and Technology. Li spoke of his team’s use of cybernetics – the science of control and communications in complex machine systems – to make calculations of China’s future population. For the scholars – many of whom didn’t even have access to personal computers at the time – this was “something so mysterious and unheard-of to most people,” remembered Liang, “the atmosphere at the whole conference was kindled.”
China’s rocket scientists argued that even with a two- or three-children-per-family quota the population would continue to balloon. According to their projections, even with “the most drastic policy measure, one child per couple, the population would keep expanding for a full quarter century,” wrote Susan Greenhalgh.
Soon after the conference, Liang remembers Li Guangyun asking him, “How did you calculate the population numbers in the next 20 years?”
“With my pen,” said Liang.
“That’s so slow! It’s much easier if you use the computer. For example, it takes less than an hour to calculate the population statistics in the next century, and it’s absolutely correct!” cried Li, according to Liang.
A few months later, Song’s group’s findings began to make their way into the mainstream media. At the same time, in many internal conferences the one-child policy was interpreted as the only solution to China’s population problems. On 25th September that year, the Communist Party published an open letter to its members asking them to voluntarily limit their family size to one child. Thus began China’s most radical and longest-running social experiment.
Liang returned from Chengdu disappointed and depressed. He bitterly resented what he saw as the arrogance of these scientists, “asking more than 700 million people of China to use their lives to practise their inadequate calculations, in a condescending gesture.” He raged at how scholars, “using science as a disguise to stoke the fire,” became cheerleaders for the central government’s plan. It would be 20 more years before a group of reformers would emerge, academics who would try to use the tools of logic and research to undo the one-child policy’s Gordian knot.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.