One of the main puzzles of modern population and social history is why, among all countries confronting rapid population growth in the second half of the twentieth century, China chose to adopt an extreme measure of birth control known as the one-child policy. A related question is why such a policy, acknowledged to have many undesirable consequences, has been retained for so long, even beyond the period of time anticipated by its creators.
With the world’s population growth rate now at half its historical peak level and with nearly half of the world’s population living in countries with fertility below replacement level, we can look back at the role politics played in formulating, implementing, and reformulating policies aimed at slowing population growth (Demeny and McNicoll 2006; Robinson and Ross 2007; Demeny 2011). In this context, an examination of China’s unprecedented government intervention in reproduction offers valuable lessons in appreciating the role of politics in the global effort of birth control in the twentieth century.
Aside from the rise and fall of Communism, family planning programs along with the Green Revolution could be considered two of the most consequential social experiments of the twentieth century. These two experiments differ, however, in both content and approach. The Green Revolution was aimed at feeding the population, while family planning programs were designed to curtail its growth. The Green Revolution was technological, economic, and global, while family planning programs were social, political, and often country specific.
Nowhere in the world did politics and policies figure more prominently in the effort to control population growth than in China. The policy of allowing all couples to have only one child finds no equal in the world and it may be one of the most draconian examples of government social engineering ever seen. In this essay, we cast China’s one-child policy in the changing global context of population policymaking, we revisit the supposed necessity of such a policy by examining the claim that the policy was responsible for preventing 400 million births, and we discuss the reasons such a policy, with all its known negative consequences, has been allowed to stay in place for more than thirty years since its inception.
Editor’s Note: this paper first appeared in Population and Development Review, published by the Population Council.
Mao Zedong did not see the value of reform and opening up. The China part of Nixon’s 1967 Foreign Affairs article suggested an implicit bargain that provided the conceptual basis for China’s new direction after 1978. That bargain was if China focused on domestic development and didn’t threaten the security of its neighbours, the United States would help.
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.