Pixie Dust and Legends: What are the Origins of the “One Child” China’s Population Policy?





Often, I have the sensation that we live in a world of pure magic. That everything we think we know is the result of a fairy who spread some pixie dust on the real world, transforming it into an alternate reality where people can fly. Yet, it is so incredibly easy to convince people of more or less anything without bothering to bring any proof. A good example is the story that the Chinese government developed its “one-child” population policy as a result of the influence of the Club of Rome and their evil book “The Limits to Growth.” It is so common on the Web that it seems to be an ascertained fact. But, is it? Or is it just a legend? For more details on the influence of the “Limits to Growth” report on world policies, you can read the recent review of the whole story titled “Limits and Beyond”

When it comes to the Chinese “One-Child” policy, two statements seem to be commonly repeated on the Web. One is that it was an abject failure, the other is that it was inspired — or even driven — by the evil think tank called “The Club of Rome” and by their even more evil book titled “The Limits to Growth.” They are followers of the arch-evil enemy of the people, Thomas Malthus, the first would-be exterminator of humankind. 

If nothing else, this story shows how easy it is to transform facts into narrative. With a sprinkle of pixie dust, everything can be transformed into the archetypal fight between good and evil, which seems to be the basis of the current way of seeing the world in the West. It would be a long story to examine why Westerners see the world in this way (Simon Sheridan has some good hints, I think). In any case, the legend of an evil cabal that led the Chinese government to adopt the one-child policy  — and that it failed — is appealing because it provides us with a comfortable image of bad guys who are both evil and hapless. 
It is easy to find various versions of this story on the Web. A recent one was written in 2021 by Dominic Pino for the “National Review.” It shows how easy it is to use pixie dust to build a story that’s nearly completely fact-free. So, according to Pino, 

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.


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.

And therefore: 

The failure of the one-child policy has been conclusively demonstrated.

There is so much that’s wrong with these statements that you don’t know where to start criticizing them. The main point, I think, is how self-contradictory Pino’s evaluation is. If the objective of the one-child policy was to reduce the birth rate to stop population growth, then it worked: the Chinese population IS declining — so much that China now needs to increase its birth rate. Then, how can a policy that doesn’t exist anymore be “a threat to Chinese society”? A classic example of narrative unlinked to logic: these contradictions are just buried by the pixie dust liberally sprinkled on the story. 

Then, is there any truth in the idea that the policy was based on “the opinions of experts around the world”? Did the Chinese really seek advice from Western scientists? Pino refers to the work of “The Club of Rome” and its “The Limits to Growth” report, published in 1972, but what is the evidence? 
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
This sentence is lifted almost verbatim from an article written earlier on by Susan Grenhalgh (2005), but Pino adds a layer of pixie dust in transforming what was a completely normal congress that lasted for 4 days into a “group” that was “was composed of Western scientists who had bought the Club of Rome’s arguments about the need for population control.” 
Susan Greenhalgh, then, adds some pixie dust of her own by saying 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.” and that the congress was “tied to the well-known work of the Club of Rome,” including “a global systems model in which population growth was destroying the environment and required strong, even drastic, control.”
There is something badly wrong, here. There was indeed a congress of the IFAC in Helsinki in 1978. You can still peruse the proceedings of the congress and you’ll see that it was a regular scientific meeting, where 294 papers were presented and discussed. Only a few of these papers are available online, so it is not impossible that some of them mentioned or discussed “The Limits to Growth” study. But there was no presentation dedicated to population growth, nor there were members of the Club of Rome among the speakers (I asked the original authors of “The Limits to Growth” and they told me that they didn’t attend that meeting, nor that they know of anyone of their group attending). Of course, in the 1970s, control engineering was a new field and it had sparked enthusiasm among scientists. But the “messianic fervour” that Susan Greenhalgh mentions seems to exist only in her mind. There is no trace of anything that could be defined in that way in the proceedings of the meeting.
But, as usual, once you blow off the pixie dust, some shreds of truth start appearing.  In an earlier paper, Susan Greenhalgh describes how a top-level Chinese scientist, named Song Jian, had traveled to Europe in the late 1970s. Did he attend the 1978 Helsinki congress? His name does not appear in the proceedings, but he may well have been there. It is not clear whether or not he was directly exposed to the work of the Club of Rome. In a citation reported by Greenhalgh, Song Jan only refers to the book titled “Blueprint for Survival,” published in 1972. It was a study that followed lines similar to those of the slightly later “The Limits to Growth” but that didn’t use world models and had nothing to do with the Club of Rome
Greenhalgh proposes that, after getting back to China, Song Jian developed a model of the Chinese economy equivalent to “The Limits to Growth.” It is not impossible, but there is no evidence that it was ever done. It is clear from what she writes, that Greenhalgh has no training in the kind of modeling used for control engineering. All she shows as proof is this diagram from a 1981 paper. 

But this is not a world model. It is a much simpler extrapolation of population trends. Correctly, it says that for birth rates lower than about 2, the population tends to decline. The reverse occurs for higher birth rates.

In practice, Song had simply been exposed to a general view of the Western way of thinking in the 1970s and 1980s that saw overpopulation as a major problem and he developed some simple models to extrapolate population trends in China. It seems that it was on the basis of these models, the government decided that they had to do something to push the Chinese toward smaller families, and they did. In the end, the three political “blocks” of 1970s, reacted in different ways to what at the time was perceived as the overpopulation threat. In the Soviet Union, scientists knew about the “Limits to Growth” study and created their own versions of it. Not surprisingly, the Soviet governments didn’t pay any attention to them. In the West, instead, governments preferred to react in the way they knew best: they buried “The Limits to Growth” under a thick layer of pixie dust (aka “propaganda”) and then they ignored it.
In the end, though, no matter what governments did or didn’t do, the results were the same. The birth rate declined rapidly all over the areas that were called the “first world” (the West) and the “Second World” (The Soviet block and China). This trend was called the “demographic transition” and didn’t seem to need draconian actions by governments. All the countries that went through the transition are now facing problems of declining population. But all the countries of the world are facing the same transition, the African countries are just arriving a little later. 
So, you see? The story is rather simple: things went the way they had to go. No need for evil guys plotting to destroy humankind. That’s just pixie dust liberally spread over everything, as usual. 
h/t Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers
To know more about the origins of world models, and their relevance for us, nowadays, you can read the recent report to the Club of Rome titled “Limits and Beyond

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More