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China’s One-Child policy is an epic disaster. Why does it have so many cheerleaders?

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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A few weeks ago Vice President Joe Biden made, by his standards, a minor squall when he visited China and held forth on the country’s One-Child policy. Biden didn’t endorse One-Child, exactly, but said that he would not “second guess” it. He wasn’t the first Westerner to look favorably upon the regime. Tom Friedman once mused that One-Child “probably saved China from a population calamity.” The Associated Press lauded it recently as a “boon” to Chinese girls. Others believe One-Child to be so admirable that it ought to be replicated on a global scale. Financial Post columnist Diane Francis, former Planned Parenthood director Norman Fleishman, and Ted Turner—among others—have all said that the entire world ought to adopt China’s One-Child policy.



It’s hard to know what’s at the root of all this admiration. Part of it may be a reaction to the gauche American habit of having children. Push environmentalists hard enough and eventually they devolve into overpopulation hysterics. Or perhaps appreciating One-Child is, like following professional soccer, just a way of peacocking moral superiority.

But the more charitable (and likely) explanation is that people who claim to admire China’s One-Child policy simply don’t know very much about it. Like where it came from. Or how it actually works. Or what it has really done to China’s demographics. Joe Biden may not be willing to second guess One-Child, but many Chinese demographers are doing just that because they are terrified by what it has done to their country. The people who care most about One-Child—the Chinese—spend a lot of time these days not praising the policy but trying to figure a way out of it. Because it turns out that One-Child wasn’t so much a policy as a trap.

The One-Child policy didn’t officially go into effect until September 25, 1980, but it was a long time in the making. Between 1950 and 1970, the average Chinese woman had roughly six children during her lifetime. In the West, this was viewed with alarm, as various Malthusians, from Margaret Sanger to the Ford Foundation to the Club of Rome to Paul Ehrlich, became increasingly haunted by the specter of overpopulation—especially in Asia—in the postwar era. 

China was, for a while, indifferent to these worries. Malthus was viewed as an enemy of the people, rejected by both the Soviets and the Chinese revolutionaries. Both species of Communists viewed the idea of overpopulation as a “false alarm.” But as the Cultural Revolution ground onward, the Chinese gradually became concerned about a problem that population growth presented to their fight for prosperity: Economic gains are easier to see when they aren’t diffused over an increasing number of people.

Beginning in 1970, the government began urging a course of “late, long, few,” instructing women to wait until later in life to have babies, put longer periods of time between births, and have fewer children overall. In a decade, the country’s fertility rate dropped from 5.5 to 2.7. (In order for a society to maintain a stable population, it needs a fertility rate of 2.1. Any higher and population grows; lower and it shrinks.)

As this sea change was taking place, a Chinese scientist named Song Jian was taking an interest in demography. Song was an engineer by training—he got his start in the Ministry of National Defense working on missile technology—and this role protected him during the Cultural Revolution. When the shooting finally stopped he was one of the few academics not in the gulag or the ground. The party came to rely on his work, which increasingly concerned demographics.

In 1975, Song went on a junket to the Netherlands, where he met a mathematician named Geert Jan Olsder. (The story of their meeting is well told in Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection.) Olsder specialized in game -theory and was assigned by chance as Song’s host. It was a bit of serendipity: Olsder had recently worked on a game theory problem concerning population. As he explained to Song, he and his colleagues determined that the key to demographic stability was controlling the number, and timing, of births. Song would go on to incorporate Olsder’s theoretical work into his own, which, in turn, shaped the formulation of One-Child. The reason game theory and complicated math were needed is that the One-Child policy is more complicated than it sounds.

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