The abolition of China’s one-child policy brings to an end one of the most futile and inhumane experiments in top-down social engineering the world has seen.
I say futile because it did not work. China’s birth rate roughly halved in the decade before the policy was introduced, then fell not at all in the next decade. A less coercive policy would probably have slowed China’s population growth just as much, if not more — as it did that of other countries in Asia.
I say inhumane, because the policy was implemented with great cruelty. Mandatory sterilisations, mandatory abortions, mandatory insertion of intra-uterine devices, the outlawing of births to mothers under the age of 23, the imprisonment of those who fled to give birth elsewhere, the fining of whole communities for failing to report illegal births — these were features of the implementation of the policy.
But there is a disturbing fact that the world has not yet faced. The policy’s origins lie not in oriental culture, nor even in Marxism, but in western environmentalism. As the sinologist Susan Greenhalgh has documented in her book Just One Child, the one-child policy’s father got the idea directly from reading two of the western environmental movement’s founding texts, which he came across while at a conference in Helsinki in 1978.
Mao Zedong, despite being one of the worst butchers in history, took a relatively permissive approach to population control. His “Later, Longer, Fewer” slogan encouraged lower fertility through delaying marriage, spacing births and stopping at two. In just seven years after 1971 this — together with improving living standards — brought the birth rate down from 31 to 18 per thousand people. Then under Deng Xiaoping, the policy changed after a guided-missile designer named Song Jian attended a technical conference on control systems in Helsinki.
While there, he came across two bestselling books: The Limits to Growth and A Blueprint for Survival. The first of these was published in 1972 in America by the Club of Rome, a talking shop of the green great and good, and it used control system theory to project ecological disaster as a consequence of global population growth and resource exhaustion.
The second book was published in Britain in the same year to push the ideas of the Club of Rome, to warn of the inevitable “breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet, possibly by the end of the century” and to “give rise to a national movement to act at a national level, and if need be to assume political status and contest the next general election”. It was co-authored by Sir Edward Goldsmith (uncle of Zac) and signed by a galaxy of knights and panjandrums of science.
A Blueprint for Survival reads today like a rant by an embarrassingly extreme member of both Ukip and Greenpeace. It demands that governments “declare their commitment to ending population growth; this commitment should also include an end to immigration”. Song Jian was struck that the book recommended reducing Britain’s population from 56 million to 30 million. “I was extremely excited about these documents,” he later wrote.
Mr Song went back to China, published the main themes of both books under his own name, gaining rapid promotion for himself and his allies, and argued that Deng’s regime must act decisively to depress its population trajectory, as if it were a guided missile, lest the Chinese economy become ecologically unsustainable.
Championed by vice-premier Wang Zhen, Mr Song proposed a prescriptive and forcible one-child policy and, at a conference in Chengdu in December 1979 he confronted and defeated his critics, who argued that coercive population control might prove inhumane. Deng was persuaded, the policy was adopted and an army general was put in charge of implementing it.
The one-child policy has attracted occasional praise from the green fringes of the left, and especially from the United Nations. In 1983, giving an award to the general who ran it, the UN secretary-general expressed “deep appreciation” for the way in which China “marshalled the resources necessary to implement population policies on a massive scale”. In the run-up to the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, greens such as Jonathon Porritt repeated the myth that the policy had prevented 400 million births and that this was a valuable contribution to emissions control.
In fairness, most western environmental organisations no longer urge coercive population control. But they have yet to face up to their own movement’s serious flirtation with explicit recommendations of coercion in the 1960s and the influence these had on China. Garrett Hardin, in his much admired 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” said we must accept “the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed”.
President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, published a book jointly with the celebrity ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich recommending that a “planetary regime” be “given responsibility for determining the optimum population for the world and for each region for arbitrating various countries’ shares within their regional limits”.
More generally, the itch to order people about explains the environmental movement’s occasional admiration of China. As Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times in 2009, in congratulating China on its solar-power investment: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people [sic], as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” The Club of Rome’s aim, as expressed in 1974, was that “now is the time to draw up a master plan for organic sustainable growth and world development based on global allocation of all finite resources and a new global economic system”. “Democracy,” it opined in 1993, “is no panacea.”
Yet in fact, as a few lonely voices argued even in the 1960s, the solution to the population crisis lay in prosperity, not coercion. In country after country, once people were healthy and wealthy enough that most of their children survived and had a chance to get educated, then they planned small families so they could invest in each child. Health, wealth, education and freedom (plus of course contraception) proved the best form of birth control. Such a voluntary demographic transition, not brutal dirigisme, is what has halved the world population growth rate in the past half century.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com. This article was first published the Times.