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China’s Population Policy: A Failure and a Test

Students at Ayi University, a training program for domestic helpers, practice on baby dolls during a course teaching childcare in Beijing, China, December 5, 2018. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

After a census showing that China’s 1.41 billion population had only increased by 72 million since 2010, the Chinese government made changes to its population-control policies to allow married couples to have up to three children.

The palace intrigue that led to the decision, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, indicates that the Chinese government views population decline as a major problem. Xi Jinping himself chaired the meeting of the Politburo that produced the decision:

Traditionally, such decisions have come out of broader Communist Party policy conferences. Some demographers had expected a loosening or even a lifting of birth policies at the end of the year at a roughly annual gathering of the top few hundred party officials.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Yi Fuxian, a U.S.-based researcher and longtime critic of China’s population policies. “It signals how concerned Xi Jinping is.”

He has reason to be concerned. China’s population policy is one of the best examples of the weakness and failure of central planning. Based on the best information available at the time and the opinions of experts around the world, China instituted strict population-control measures to limit most families to have only one child. The policy then stuck around for much too long and now presents a serious threat to Chinese society.

After the Mao era was over in the early 1970s, Chinese-Communist thinking on population policy changed. Mao stayed in nationalist-revolutionary mode his whole life; he wanted ever more Chinese people. But after he died, the Chinese government decided to be more scientific. After consulting the experts at the time, they made the decision to implement the one-child policy.

The Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth in 1972. Building off of 1968’s The Population Bomb by Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich, The Limits to Growth said that continuing population growth would lead to increased poverty because humans would deplete natural resources too quickly. The report has sold 30 million copies and was written by some of the top researchers in its day.

In a 2005 article for The China Quarterly, anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh describes the process that led to the adoption of the one-child policy. The Chinese Communist Party pursued population-control policies to fulfil its desire for more technocratic governance after Mao’s death in 1976. Because of the Cultural Revolution, most top social scientists had either fled the country or been killed. All of China’s top scientists worked for the military.

In 1978, Song Jian, a missile scientist who had gained the trust of the governing elites, went to Helsinki for the Seventh Triennial World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control. That completely normal-sounding group was composed of Western scientists who had bought the Club of Rome’s arguments about the need for population control and believed that population growth could be managed according to precise mathematics. Greenhalgh writes that the Congress “was infused with the spirit of scientific certainty, progress and messianic fervour about the potential of control science to solve the world’s problems.”

Song brought that certainty back to China. Using the high-powered computers available to the military, he created population models that claimed to show exactly how China’s population would grow from 1980 to 2080. Based on Song’s work and his considerable political skill, the Chinese government adopted what could be called “The Limits to Growth with Chinese characteristics.”

Greenhalgh writes that Song used similar justifications as the Club of Rome, i.e. that “by degrading [China’s] ecosystem, population growth would eventually destroy the resources necessary to sustain human life.” But Song added China-specific arguments to get politicians’ attention. He warned that too much population growth would prevent China from achieving the “four modernizations,” which were part of the CCP’s economic planning at the time, and that by curbing population growth, China would be seen as a responsible actor on the world stage taking the lead on combatting a global crisis.

Song and his team of Chinese scientists advised the government to lower fertility by over 50 percent in five years. Starting in 1980, the brutal enforcement of the one-child policy was the result. Based on the advice of China’s top scientists, who had sinified the work of the West’s top scientists, the Chinese government made a decision to restrict the fertility of its population in a way that’s without precedent in human history. Textbook streamlined, top-down, scientistic, authoritarian decision-making.

Naturally, there were unintended consequences. Now that China needs to increase its birthrate, the Chinese government is having a hard time persuading its people to have more children. The government lifted the one-child policy in 2015, allowing any married couple to have up to two children. Despite raising the limit, the 2020 census showed that the number of births fell again — for the fourth straight year.

The trends look bad in every age group. From the Journal:

The census also showed a sharp rise in the percentage of Chinese aged 60 and above, to 18.7% of the population as of the end of 2020, up from 13.3% in 2010. The portion of Chinese citizens aged between 15 and 59, representing the size of its working population, stood at 63.35% in 2020, down from 70.1% in 2010.

The failure of the one-child policy has been conclusively demonstrated. Now comes the test for the Chinese Communist Party: Will it be able to turn around its population trends? The survival of the regime may depend on it. China watchers argue over whether increased Chinese aggression is evidence of strength or weakness. The ability of the CCP to respond to its population problem could be a good test to see who’s right.

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