Published on:

A missile scientist and the “Limits to Growth”

As China’s one-child policy comes officially to an
end, it is time to write the epitaph on this horrible experiment —
part of the blame for which lies, surprisingly, in the West and
with green, rather than red, philosophy. The policy has left China
with a demographic headache: in the mid-2020s its workforce will
plummet by 10 million a year, while the number of the elderly rises
at a similar rate.

The difficulty and cruelty of enforcing a one-child policy was
borne out by two stories last week. The Chinese film director Zhang
Yimou, who directed the Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony in 2008,
has been fined more than £700,000 for having
three children, while another young woman has come forward with her story (from only two
years ago) of being held down and forced to have an abortion at
seven months when her second pregnancy was detected by the

It has been a crime in China to remove an intra-uterine device
inserted at the behest of the authorities, and a village can be
punished for not reporting an illegally pregnant inhabitant.

I used to assume unthinkingly that the one-child policy was a
communist idea, just another instance of Mao’s brutality. But the
facts clearly show that it was a green idea, taken almost directly
from Malthusiasts in the West. Despite all his cruelty to adults,
Mao generally left reproduction alone, confining himself to the
family planning slogan “Later, longer, fewer”. After he died, this
changed and we now know how.

Susan Greenhalgh, a professor of anthropology
at Harvard,
has uncovered the tale
. In 1978, on his first visit to the
West, Song Jian, a mathematician employed in calculating the
trajectories of missiles, sat down for a beer with a Dutch professor,
Geert Jan Olsder, at the Seventh Triennnial World Congress of the
International Federation of Automatic Control in Helsinki to
discuss “control theory”. Olsder told Song about the book The Limits
to Growth
, published by a fashionable think-tank called the
Club of Rome, which had forecast the imminent collapse of
civilisation under the pressure of expanding population and
shrinking resources.

What caught Song’s attention was the mathematical modelling of
population that Olsder did, and on which The Limits to
was based. He was unaware that the naive
extrapolation embraced by the Club of Rome, and produced by what
they called “the computer”, had been greeted with scepticism in the
West. Excited at the idea that mathematical models could be used to
predict population as well as ballistic missiles, Song went back to
China and started publishing the pessimistic prognostications
of The Limits to Growth,along with demands that
something must be done to slow the birthrate.

He also fell under the spell of the Club of Rome’s patron saint,
Parson Malthus, the population pessimist of 1798. “When I was
thinking about this, I took Malthus’s book to research the study of
population,” said Song in a recent interview. Malthus, remember, thought we should be cruel to be kind to the
poor, lest they have too many babies: we should “facilitate,
instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede” hunger, war
and disease, he wrote. He urged that we “court the return of the
plague” and “particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and
unwholesome situations”. [Update: out of context I realise I’m
being a bit unfair to Malthus here. He urged later marriage and
that if this could not arranged, then these more drastic measures
should be taken. He did, however, think that higher child mortality
would reduce population growth.]

It turns out that Malthus was exactly wrong about that. The best
way to cut population growth is not to ensure that babies die, but
to stop babies dying: then people plan smaller families. Even
China’s birthrate had halved in the seven years before Song had his
epiphany, thanks to improved public health, and it would have
fallen even faster in the next decade as China began to grow
economically. But Song wanted to put his “control theory” into
action and set about persuading those in power to put him in
charge. By the end of 1979 he had won the ear of Deng Xiaoping and,
with the help of mathematical bamboozling, had vanquished his

General Qian Xinzhong, appointed to act on Song’s ideas,
commanded the sterilisation of all women with two or more children,
the insertion of IUDs into all women with one child (removal of the
device being a crime), the banning of births to women younger than
23 and the mandatory abortion of all unauthorised pregnancies right
up to the eighth month.

What was the reaction in the West to this unfolding atrocity?
The United Nations Secretary-General awarded a prize to General
Qian in 1983 and recorded his “deep appreciation” for what the
Chinese Government had done. Eight years later, even though the
horrors of thepolicy were becoming ever clearer, the head of the
United Nations Family Planning Agency gushed that China had “every
reason to feel proud of its remarkable achievements” in population
control, and offered to help China to teach other countries how to
do it. You can still hear Western greens, steeped as they are in
the Malthusian myth, praising the policy.

Professor Song, now in his eighties, has stuck to his guns and
recently described worries about the ageing of the Chinese
population as unfounded. But by 2011 he had been sidelined and the
reformers of the policy had gained the upper hand. Already the
policy was not being strictly implemented in rural areas and the
wealthy were being allowed to “buy” a second child. A long battle
between Song and the reformer Peng Peiyun seems to have been won by the latter.

As far as I can tell from the Club of Rome’s website, the
think-tank has yet to acknowledge its role in sparking the horror
of the one-child policy, or even to respond to Susan Greenhalgh’s
revelations. It is still publishing pessimistic tracts and
demanding more “governance” to head off Malthusian doom. Malthus
himself was, says his epitaph in Bath Abbey, noted for “his
sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart,
his benevolence and his piety”. But his mathematical naivety has
provided despots and tyrants with an excuse for being cruel.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times