Misreading Malthus – The Life and Death of Family Planning Policy in China

An era has ended – the Chinese government has capitulated on its near-half-century-long attempt to restrict the growth of its population. Following the release of results from the most recent decennial census, the CCP has told families that having as many as three children is permissible – this from the same organization that promoted in 1978 the slogan “one is best, two at most”. Hand-wringing has already begun as to whether this relaxation will end up having any positive effects. I find it more curious why China’s government embarked on this quixotic errand in the first place.

The writer Sui-Lee Wee has been the New York Times‘ reporter of choice in covering this topic. In a recent series of stories covering the census and its policy impacts, she has updated and typified the discourse around Chinese family planning – focused on the mothers of today either stymied in their desire for more kids or completely overwhelmed by the cost of rearing their single child, Wee’s writing offers the perspective that the Party’s fretful back-pedaling on population planning will end up too little, too late.

That the Party should be worried at all is noteworthy – their fear validates at least in part a sort of pat wisdom now commonly shared about the hegemonic prospects of modern-day China, namely that China as a country got too old before it became rich.

Western countries are not unconcerned about similar matters. South Korea & Japan are quite a ways ahead of the Americans and Europeans in terms of staring down the barrel of the developed country demographic transition, worrying about plunging birth rates among alienated city dwellers. But at least the OECD countries are rich; China, as The Economist notes, still only has per-capita income about one-quarter of the US’.

This is a tension not totally explored in Wee’s stories – in centering the individual women whose lives were and are altered by the policy, this approach paints a valuable picture of daily life in modern China. Yet at the same time, this close portraiture understates the larger dimensions of the one-child policy, its logic, its implementation, and its effects. In fact, I can’t find any more useful way to conceptualize the 1CP other than as the one of the most tremendous acts undertaken by a totalitarian state upon its own citizens in the whole brutal 20th century.

The basic chronology of family planning is worth noting here: Mao is dead in September 1976. Following a short period of intramural combat, the reformists under Deng Xiaoping take power at the December 1978 party plenum.

Moving in parallel to the power politics in the Politburo, a group of scientists and doctors concentrated in Tianjin began to circulate writings through 1978 which asked the state to embark upon a formal policy of population control. A short CCP document advocated “one is best, two is most” the same year, and though it remained merely a party suggestion, some provinces began then to implement 1CP.

In 1980 it became law at the highest levels of policymaking, with a September Open Letter from the Secretariat of the Central Committee announcing “one-child per couple” to its people. Loopholes opened rather quickly – in 1984, the CCP allowed local governments some leeway in administration of the 1CP, mostly to relax requirements for the most rural localities.

And yet in this basic form it endured for more than thirty years. Xi Jinping took the premiership in 2013 and moved as part of his reform plan to loosen family planning policy, declaring in 2014 that couples in which one party was an only child should feel free to have two. In 2015, a two-children policy became the law of the land.

That the one-child policy arrived so late in the difficult history of the People’s Republic is jarring; the whole point of Deng’s regime was to remove the heavy yoke of Maoism from the administration of the country. It was in the fall of 1978 that the pioneering reforms in Xiaogang began, and early in 1979 that the Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen was opened.

Deng pledged “reform and opening-up” at his ascension at the December plenum. His plenipotentiary in Shenzhen, Yuan Geng, became famous for the phrase “time is money, efficiency is life” (时间就是金钱,效率就是生命). The new socialism with Chinese characteristics was a tremendous success, with real gross output rising twelve-fold and extreme poverty being eradicated.

All the while, however, Deng’s lieutenants in the provinces were enforcing 1CP with zeal. This dynamic is typical of Chinese political economy, where the key to a successful political career is leading a provincial government to outperform its targets and peers. The human toll was terrible: official party estimates claim some 400 million births were prevented by the policy.

This is a shocking acknowledgement in its own right, and yet it loses its vigor upon recognition of the crimes committed along the way. Reports abounded of infanticide after unexpected pregnancies, most victims girls. Preferences for boys among Chinese families led to a black market where girls commanded low prices. One NGO claims that the average Chinese woman could expect to have several abortions through her child-bearing years, many of which forced on them by the state.

The tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were spurred by one of the 20th C.’s worst madmen trying to enforce rule by personal cult over the planet’s longest-lived and largest civilization. And yet in 2020, the number of births actually matched the nadir of the great famine in 1961. What possibly could have driven the CCP to implement such a policy?

The Foundations of the One-Child Policy in Midcentury Catastrophism

The Chinese government’s goal since liberalization has been to become rich and powerful – less than a year into his reign, Deng was already referring to this as the goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会), a slogan which has endured through Xi’s massive reworking of CCP ideology.

Keeping this goal in mind makes the 1CP even less sensical than it might seem prima facie. To make your society richer, you can increase the amount of workers or you can make more valuable the work they do. This is mere mechanical accounting: keeping per-capita incomes equal, levels of gross domestic product increase with population, as do rates of economic growth increase with rates of increase in population.

We have to conclude that China’s leadership in the late 1970s was convinced of a more radical idea: that unchecked population growth would actually block them from the successful completion of their goals. This is indeed what happened, and stranger still, most of the intellectual force of this notion came from the advocacy of one scientist, Song Jian.

Song, who yet lives, was trained as a missile scientist in the early 1960s. He survived the Cultural Revolution only through the personal intervention of Zhou Enlai, who named him to a list of fifty indispensable scientists. At the dawn of the Deng era, Song was part of a small cohort of scientists asked to convert from the study of military science (principally missile technology) to the study of economic growth.

Key to the history of the 1CP is a trip to Helsinki taken by Song in 1978, where at a conference of the International Foundation of Automatic Control, he was introduced to the ideas of a book called The Limits to Growth. The book, which first appeared in 1972, was the result of a collaboration between an NGO called the Club of Rome and a group of MIT scientists they commissioned to develop a model for long-term resource use. The basic conclusions of the book were alarming:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

The Limits to Growth, pg. 23-24

Underpinning these conclusions were a set of models which displayed the exponential rate of increase of human population and consumption, and in contrast, the linear rate of increase of resource availability, namely food and industrial metals. Acknowledging the imprecision in their forecasts, the team responsible wrote, “precise numerical assumptions about the limits of the earth are unimportant when viewed against the inexorable progress of exponential growth.” (p. 51)

In order to forestall the worst consequences of this dynamic, Limits to Growth recommends “a nongrowing state for human society,” one in which “the birth rate equals the death rate”. The book even goes so far as to warn its readers against waiting for natural phenomena which might ease population pressures to occur, writing, “we cannot say with certainty how much longer mankind can postpone initiating deliberate control…Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible.”

Song Jian returned to China equipped with Limits to Growth and began working on population control diligently. “In the West, the Club of Rome work had provoked an outcry from social scientists concerned about the application of cybernetics’ mechanistic models to the solution of human problems. Song apparently did not encounter such critiques,” writes Greenhalgh in her 2005 article on Song.

Moreover, population control was a topic ripe for the picking by an ambitious and brilliant scientist – “throughout the 1970s population was a weakly institutionalized sector, with few institutions or standard operating procedures for processing policy issues. In this context, policy entrepreneurs [like Song] would have room to exert appreciable influence over the policy outcome.”

Song was able to use his privileged place as an “indispensable” defense scientist to access Western science like in Limits to Growth and also to become a leading voice in a narrow field. His approach worked – after about a year of workshopping, he presented his paper to a leading journal in January 1980, equipped with the recommendation that adopting a one-child policy was an “extremely urgent strategic duty”. By February 1980, the Central Committee was talking population targets, and in March they allowed Song to go wide with his research in the People’s Daily. From there, there was no looking back.

Misreading Malthus and the Errors of Degrowth

But let us return for a moment to the work that undergirded Song’s push – in Limits to Growth‘s contrast between exponential human growth and linear resource growth, readers should be reminded of the work of one man: Thomas Malthus. Indeed, the Club of Rome does that work for us, counting him among their antecedents, as well as such notables as Plato, Aristotle, and John Stuart Mill.

Malthus was the author of a remarkable work which appeared in 1798 called An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he discussed his thoughts on exactly that, why population rose and fell and what it meant for national wealth. Early on, he explains his thesis in terms of differing growth rates:

Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, &c. and subsistence as—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, &c. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13; and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent.

Malthus, Chapter II

Sound familiar? The rest of it remains a strikingly modern read – keep in mind that Adam Smith had only published Wealth of Nations about twenty-five years prior – and full of great discussions. Today, however, Malthus’ name is deployed almost exclusively in the service of discussing the above dynamic. This phenomenon sometimes is called the Malthusian Trap, one where poor societies are unable to become rich, as rising incomes lead to higher populations, which then necessarily lead to lower incomes in the future.

Until the Industrial Revolution, Malthusian dynamics like these did retard the ability of societies to achieve launch velocity and become what we think of today as developed nations. What’s important to note here is that even in his work, Malthus recognized this as a natural dynamic, an ebb and flow of society. Malthus has been received in modern times by the Club of Rome and others as an advocate for population control, but this seems drastically, unbelievably wrong to me. He was not pushing in a normative sense for policymakers to intervene and stop the cycle before it took its natural path; he was instead documenting a general phenomenon about human life in a descriptive way.

He says as much a little later:

The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased…The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease; while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great, that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land; to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage; till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened; and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.

This sort of oscillation will not be remarked by superficial observers; and it may be difficult even for the most penetrating mind to calculate its periods. Yet that in all old states some such vibration does exist; though from various transverse causes, in a much less marked, and in a much more irregular manner than I have described it, no reflecting man who considers the subject deeply can well doubt.

Malthus, Chapter II

The “periods” of Malthus’ “oscillation” represent the key to his whole theory – increases in population don’t lead to some Mad Max style disaster zone; they lead to rising food prices, which induces a rational response by the next generation of parents to wait a little longer before having kids. This is a far cry from Limits to Growth‘s urgency. The only rub for Malthus is that he thinks the length of these cycles is too hard to discern – “difficult even for the most penetrating mind,” as he puts it.

Luckily, modern economists and their analyses turn out to have rather penetrating minds themselves, and a recent paper from Bouscasse, Nakamura, and Steinsson updates the literature on pre-industrial growth cycles. “Our estimates imply that Malthusian population dynamics were very slow,” the authors write. “[A] doubling of real incomes led to a 6 percentage point per decade increase in population growth.” This dynamic held from the Black Death through to 1650, after which things changed – the economy transitioned “from Malthus to Solow,” and increases in productivity couldn’t possibly be swallowed by increases in population: England was getting more productive too quickly.

The Club of Rome read Malthus to say that unless populations were reduced, poverty would result. They had it all backwards. What’s worse, this belief was based in the worst intellectual error one can ever commit: confidence in predictions about the future. Yes, they were right to be concerned about climate change, although it appears Exxon was not too far behind them, on much better evidence. Other parts of the book stress about chromium consumption, which does not rank very highly in a recent study’s concerns about resource usage. They worried also about the potential for the Mexican population to reach 130 million by 2060. Mexico contains 127 million people today, and I am willing to bet that the addition of 3 million more will not suffice to bring on civilizational collapse.

Song Jian and his colleagues bet the farm on a policy motivated by the errant reasoning of doomsayers like the Club of Rome. The strength of modern society is in its ability to constantly transform, to always seek a new answer to an old problem. Growth is an inescapable good – this is the crux of industrialization, and just as there was no reason to doubt this dynamic had changed in 1978, there is still no reason to think so now, though saying so raises the hackles of a minor debate about sustainability and population control now ongoing in the US.

One side of this debate calls itself degrowth, and exhorts us for the good of the planet to abandon economic growth, arguing that the current model of perpetual increases in GDP is merely unsustainable. “Huge chunks of our economy are totally irrelevant to human wellbeing. We must ask ourselves; do we really want to pursue aggregate growth if it’s going to put our planet — and our civilization — at such extraordinary risk?” asked Jason Hickel, its foremost prophet, to CNBC.

My reaction is that all this has been tried before and found to fail. As above, economic growth requires either more people or richer lives. Degrowth, therefore, can really only come from one of two things: fewer people, or poorer lives. I find this degrowtherism to be cowardly, uninventive, a pearl-clutching sky-is-falling fatalism about what we can expect from future technology.

Instead we need to take a different tack, and recognize the limitlessness of human ingenuity. Andrew McAfee wrote admirably about how we’re already solving the problems degrowthers say we’ll never solve. Elsewhere, writers like Matt Yglesias, Lyman Stone, Elizabeth Bruenig, and Noah Smith, among others, have taken up the pen, advocating not for fewer children or smaller economies, but larger nations full of revitalized population centers, bursting with new ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit to take down the challenges of climate change in a positive way.

Malthus’ Last Trick: The Demographic Transition

Ultimately, the voices of those authors are needed because even without encouragement, the growth of the human population is slowing down. Sure, in developing countries, we expect a boom in population to continue until well into mid-century. But demographic transition has occurred in rich countries without fail, leaving large populations of retirees supported by smaller bases of prime-age workers.

This is the great doom of population control efforts, one the Chinese government unwittingly walked into. Their population growth was going to slow down anyway as the country got richer. 1CP only hastened the transition and made the increase in dependency ratio much more rapid – whereas in 1980, one prime-age Chinese worker had to support the income of 1.47 retirees, today that figure stands at 2.5 retirees to every worker. In the US, the same figure is 1.8 retirees to every worker.

At its core, the Malthusian dynamic describes the response of families to the cost of child rearing. In pre-industrial societies, that was easy to understand – kids were mouths to feed, and so Malthus could ask of the desirous but penniless family man, “May he not see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread that he cannot give them?”

Today, the pressures on parents are much different, but no less potent. The continued decline in the US birth rate, for example, is sometimes explained as a free and equal choice by women to live childlessly. “There turn out to be a large number of surveys asking about fertility preferences,” Lyman Stone wrote in rebuttal of that idea, “and no matter how creatively it is sliced and diced, no matter what data source is used, women have fewer kids than they say they want, desire, intend, expect, or consider ideal—for themselves or for society on the whole.”

Eric Levitz, writing for NYMag, continues the line of reasoning: “in meritocratic, capitalist societies, middle-class expectations for the amount of time and financial investment a child requires have grown so high, only a radical economic reordering can make larger families feel broadly attainable.”

This same attitude turns up in Sui-Lee Wee’s articles about the changes to family planning. She quotes a 26-year-old Beijinger as saying, “No matter how many babies they open it up to, I’m not going to have any because children are too troublesome and expensive…I’m impatient and worried that I won’t be able to educate the child well.”

Wee phrased it more strongly in another article – ending family planning policies “could also founder amid broad cultural changes. Anxiety over the rising cost of education, housing and health care is now deeply ingrained in society. Many Chinese simply prefer smaller families”.

In seeking to head off a mostly imagined civilizational collapse, the side effects of the one-child policy proved to have the greatest staying power of all. For their latest trick, the Chinese government will have to find another way out.

One thought on “Misreading Malthus – The Life and Death of Family Planning Policy in China

  1. You certainly hold to the techno-utopian bias, extolling the “limitlessness of human ingenuity.” That’s just nonsense – any reading in the darker sides of humanity’s quest to destroy natural resources shows the definite limits to “growth.” Check out r/collapse if you want the opposite to your side of thinking.


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