Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Matt Ridley: China's one-child policy was inspired by western greens

As China’s one-child policy comes officially to an end, it is time to write the epitaph on this horrible experiment — part of the blame for which lies, surprisingly, in the West and with green, rather than red, philosophy. The policy has left China with a demographic headache: in the mid-2020s its workforce will plummet by 10 million a year, while the number of the elderly rises at a similar rate.

The difficulty and cruelty of enforcing a one-child policy was borne out by two stories last week. The Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who directed the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony in 2008, has been fined more than £700,000 for having three children, while another young woman has come forward with her story (from only two years ago) of being held down and forced to have an abortion at seven months when her second pregnancy was detected by the authorities.

It has been a crime in China to remove an intra-uterine device inserted at the behest of the authorities, and a village can be punished for not reporting an illegally pregnant inhabitant.
I used to assume unthinkingly that the one-child policy was a communist idea, just another instance of Mao’s brutality. But the facts clearly show that it was a green idea, taken almost directly from Malthusiasts in the West. Despite all his cruelty to adults, Mao generally left reproduction alone, confining himself to the family planning slogan “Later, longer, fewer”. After he died, this changed and we now know how.

Susan Greenhalgh, a professor of anthropology at Harvard, has uncovered the tale. In 1978, on his first visit to the West, Song Jian, a mathematician employed in calculating the trajectories of missiles, sat down for a beer with a Dutch professor, Geert Jan Olsder, at the Seventh Triennnial World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control in Helsinki to discuss “control theory”. Olsder told Song about the book The Limits to Growth, published by a fashionable think-tank called the Club of Rome, which had forecast the imminent collapse of civilisation under the pressure of expanding population and shrinking resources.

What caught Song’s attention was the mathematical modelling of population that Olsder did, and on which The Limits to Growth was based. He was unaware that the naive extrapolation embraced by the Club of Rome, and produced by what they called “the computer”, had been greeted with scepticism in the West. Excited at the idea that mathematical models could be used to predict population as well as ballistic missiles, Song went back to China and started publishing the pessimistic prognostications of The Limits to Growth,along with demands that something must be done to slow the birthrate.

He also fell under the spell of the Club of Rome’s patron saint, Parson Malthus, the population pessimist of 1798. “When I was thinking about this, I took Malthus’s book to research the study of population,” said Song in a recent interview. Malthus, remember, thought we should be cruel to be kind to the poor, lest they have too many babies: we should “facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede” hunger, war and disease, he wrote. He urged that we “court the return of the plague” and “particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations”. [Update: out of context I realise I'm being a bit unfair to Malthus here. He urged later marriage and that if this could not arranged, then these more drastic measures should be taken. He did, however, think that higher child mortality would reduce population growth.]

It turns out that Malthus was exactly wrong about that. The best way to cut population growth is not to ensure that babies die, but to stop babies dying: then people plan smaller families. Even China’s birthrate had halved in the seven years before Song had his epiphany, thanks to improved public health, and it would have fallen even faster in the next decade as China began to grow economically. But Song wanted to put his “control theory” into action and set about persuading those in power to put him in charge. By the end of 1979 he had won the ear of Deng Xiaoping and, with the help of mathematical bamboozling, had vanquished his opponents.

General Qian Xinzhong, appointed to act on Song’s ideas, commanded the sterilisation of all women with two or more children, the insertion of IUDs into all women with one child (removal of the device being a crime), the banning of births to women younger than 23 and the mandatory abortion of all unauthorised pregnancies right up to the eighth month.

What was the reaction in the West to this unfolding atrocity? The United Nations Secretary-General awarded a prize to General Qian in 1983 and recorded his “deep appreciation” for what the Chinese Government had done. Eight years later, even though the horrors of the policy were becoming ever clearer, the head of the United Nations Family Planning Agency gushed that China had “every reason to feel proud of its remarkable achievements” in population control, and offered to help China to teach other countries how to do it. You can still hear Western greens, steeped as they are in the Malthusian myth, praising the policy.

Professor Song, now in his eighties, has stuck to his guns and recently described worries about the ageing of the Chinese population as unfounded. But by 2011 he had been sidelined and the reformers of the policy had gained the upper hand. Already the policy was not being strictly implemented in rural areas and the wealthy were being allowed to “buy” a second child. A long battle between Song and the reformer Peng Peiyun seems to have been won by the latter.

As far as I can tell from the Club of Rome’s website, the think-tank has yet to acknowledge its role in sparking the horror of the one-child policy, or even to respond to Susan Greenhalgh’s revelations. It is still publishing pessimistic tracts and demanding more “governance” to head off Malthusian doom. Malthus himself was, says his epitaph in Bath Abbey, noted for “his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety”. But his mathematical naivety has provided despots and tyrants with an excuse for being cruel.

Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, an acclaimed author who blogs at


Unknown said...

This article is titled “China’s one-child policy was inspired by western greens” yet within that article there is not a shred of evidence or a single fact, argument or reference to any evidence that supports the title’s claim. All Matt Ridley gives is an account of how a Chinese missile scientist, a Dutch mathematician, a book commissioned by the Club of Rome and the Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834), may have set off a chain of events that may have contributed to the formation of the one child policy. However, had Malthus and the Club of Rome never existed, it seems unlikely that the Chinese authorities would have failed to notice that a rapidly increasing population might be a problem at a time when they couldn’t feed their existing population.

The reality is that the One Child policy tells us a lot about the ruthless and authoritarian nature of the regime that initiated and implemented it and nothing whatsoever about the ideas or proposals of “western greens”.

In fact the reality is that the article and title tell us a lot more about Matt Ridley and his prejudices than it does about China and the One Child Policy.

For as long as I can remember the consensus amongst western experts, and political commentators from the left or right including “western greens” is that population increase is best ‘controlled’ by better eduction (particularly of girls and women), increased availability of contraception, improved infant mortality and general increases in quality of life and security. Individual free choices will then result in a more or less steady population. This is an oversimplification and different groups will have different priorities and views about how these targets can be achieved but to suggest that “western greens” bear any responsibility for China’s One Child Policy is simply risible and illustrates yet again the intellectual bankruptcy of Matt Ridley’s articles.

Matt Ridley – failed banker and rightwing neolibertarian:

Matt Ridley and “The Anglosphere’s long shadow”:

paul scott said...

This President Xi is basically another sod in the China turf.
Recently he has just been over to Thailand to attempt to tempt the PM there [ sister of the Dictator Thaksin, exiled, and a puppet to the dictator], to sell Thailand’s future at 7% interest rates.
Thaksin wants a 2 trillion baht loan from his homeland China. From this he would take 10%, that is 200 billion baht, and that is about 70billion $US.
With this money he will control the country of Thailand, mainly the Military and Police, and establish a Republic with himself as President.
It is presently a Kingdom, and there has been no proper transition to democracy

China is still the great leap backward, and as most business people say.
“Never Trust China”