China’s one-child policy was officially introduced in 1980, among other things, to slow down the disastrous population growth encouraged by Chairman Mao in the 1950s and 1960s when the “potentially inexhaustible” creative and productive energies of the masses were central to the success of the Communist state (as seen in his Little Red Book (1964) – ask John McDonnell or George Osborne when they’re finished playing with it). Recently, China decided to end this and allow couples to have two children.
The one-child policy has been widely associated with forced abortions, sterilisations and even infanticide. Many have heralded the decision as a “rare human rights victory in a country where freedoms are tightly restricted.” The cultural impact that this policy had on a generation of people is undeniable, in a country that now has 30 million more men than women – due to an age-old preference for male heirs – and widespread anxiety over marriage and family life. An article in The New York Times noted “for some of the more than 150 million young people who grew up as only children, the announcement has reawakened feelings of isolation and regret.” After experiencing the frenetic national obsession with match-making, by parents and children alike, Mei Fong concluded in The Guardian that the policy has had an “insidious impact, shaping how one-sixth of the world live, love and die.”
What does China’s decision mean for world population more broadly?
Way back in 1798, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) argued that the “power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” For Malthus, the Earth could not sustain mankind’s increasing population – then at 1 billion – without the introduction of far-reaching policies to curb the increase. In the early twentieth century, the need to counter overpopulation was invariably tied with the push for increased education on birth control by groups such as the Malthusian League (1877-1927) and later Planned Parenthood (in existence under various names since 1916).
Opponents of (neo-)Malthusianism have argued that improved sanitary conditions, increased agricultural productivity and advances in modern medicine had made possible a new type of civilization that can support much larger populations than ever before. Elsewhere, as seen in Colorado last week, Planned Parenthood continues to experience violent opposition, usually from Christian fundamentalist groups who tend to view birth control and abortion as interfering with the sacred act of procreation and murder, respectively.
The world’s population has now passed 7 billion. A dramatic reduction in the global birth rate is seen as essential by many public figures and academics alike (e.g. the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation) to sustain human life in the long run. One contributor to this debate is Sarah Conly, Associate Professor in philosophy at Bowdoin College and author of One Child: Do We Have a Right to More (2015). Conly told the Boston Globe that “More people will mean more unsustainable resource use, worse climate change, and, eventually, wars over scarce goods or massive population displacement and migrations to places with remaining resources. Given the damage we are causing, and the suffering we foresee for all those who live after us, it is clear that having more than one child is just something that none of us — Chinese or American — has a moral right to do. We have no right to cause great harm to others when we can avoid this without great loss to ourselves.”
Unlike the Chinese example, for Conly this does not mean forced sterilisations and abortions: “Most of us do what is right because we think it’s right, not because we’re afraid of punishment. We think murder is wrong and so (most of us) don’t murder. The same could be true for limiting how many children we have.” Instead, a new culture should be established in which the public are educated about the environmental implications of large families, contraception is available to all and tax breaks reward smaller families and fines deter larger families “fixed on a sliding scale relative to income”.
Conly and others argue that such measures are essential to the future of humanity. However, they are certain to receive vehement criticism, ranging from the practicalities of their introduction to the moral questions surrounding state control and rights to parenthood. This criticism will come from politicians, fundamentalist groups and most importantly, large sectors of the general public. Significantly, though, as the population continues to grow at an exponential rate, this debate will only continue as the arguments from all sides grow louder.
Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (Oxford World’s Classics reprint, original publication: 1798), 13.
Sarah Conly, ‘Here’s why China’s one-child policy was a good thing,’ Boston Globe (31 October 2015), [https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/10/31/here-why-china-one-child-policy-was-good-thing/GY4XiQLeYfAZ8e8Y7yFycI/story.html].
Mei Fong, ‘China’s brutal one-child policy shaped how millions lived, loved and died’, The Guardian (1 November 2015), [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/01/china-one-child-policy].
Javier C. Hernandez, ‘End of China’s One- Child Policy Stings Its ‘Loneliest Generation’, The New York Times (13 November 2015), [http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/14/world/asia/china-one-child-policy-loneliest-generation.html?_r=0].