‘We need a planetary one-child policy’

Malthusianism is so widespread that greens can now openly sing the praises of China’s population authoritarianism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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It is testament to the relentless rise of neo-Malthusianism that people are now openly praising China’s one-child policy. At the Copenhagen summit on climate change, Zhao Baige, vice-minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission of China, said ‘population control is key to reaching a climate deal’, and none of the Western leaders or radical green activists – who have complained about everything from politicians’ use of limousines to the presence of Coca Cola – batted an eyelid (1).

In the run-up to the summit, leading Western greens gave thanks for China’s stringent population policies. ‘Had there been no “one child family” policy in China there would now have been 400million additional Chinese citizens’, said Jonathon Porritt, former chair of the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission (2). An eco-feminist writing in the UK Guardian said, with an almost audible sigh of relief, that there are ‘300 to 400million fewer people on the planet’ as a result of China’s one-child policy (3). (A feminist praising authoritarian control over women’s reproductive lives? You couldn’t make it up.)

A Canadian newspaper columnist drew out the logic of these paeans to China’s population policing. She argued that ‘the real inconvenient truth overhanging the Copenhagen conference [is] that humans are overpopulating the planet’, and said ‘a planetary law, such as China’s one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birthrate, which is currently one million births every four days’. She said we should thank China for its ‘one-child-only edict’ (4).

The public complimenting of China’s one-child policy shows how utterly mainstream Malthusianism has become. Western Malthusians have long had a soft spot for China’s barbaric one-child policy, seeing it as a useful tool for keeping down the number of yellow people on the planet; they even helped to fund and mould China’s population-control programmes and provided ‘acceptable discourse’ to make the one-child policy look like a reproductive health initiative rather than an alarmingly illiberal method of control over women’s choices and bodies (5). Yet at the same time they recognised that they could not openly praise China’s methods for fear of exposing their own authoritarian instincts. That they now feel free to do so shows how worryingly ascendant is the misanthropic creed of Malthusianism.

China’s one-child policy was introduced in 1979. It forbids married urban couples from having more than one child. Exemptions are made for couples in rural areas and also for ethnic minorities and parents who themselves do not have any siblings; such families may, with permission, have more than one child, though there are strict rules about when they can have their second child: they must allow a ‘birth spacing’ of three to four years between children (6). If your child is severely disabled or has died, you may apply to the authorities to have another.

Enforced by ‘population commissioners’, the one-child policy involves a remarkable degree of intervention into people’s reproductive choices. Anyone who has more than their allotted number of children – one in most urban areas, two or maybe three in some rural areas – will be severely fined. It takes some families a whole generation to pay off the fines, meaning they are effectively forced to live in poverty for the sin of having ‘too many children’ (7). This creates a situation where the rich are freer to have children than the poor. As one Chinese official recently commented: ‘A poor family hides away when giving birth to more than one child, while the rich man simply pays a fine to have more than one child.’ Taking into consideration the rural exemptions and the fact that some cities, most notably Shanghai, are starting to relax the one-child policy in an attempt to tackle the social problem of China’s ageing population, it is estimated that 35.9 per cent of China’s population – around 470,000,000 people – are still subject to the one-child restriction.

To anyone who considers himself a progressive, the one-child policy is an abomination. It holds individuals responsible for what are in fact social problems of poverty and inequality, presenting China’s social and economic failings as the failings of individuals, the fault of wilful women creating too many mouths to feed. More importantly, the policy interferes in the most intimate areas of people’s lives, restricting the freedom of women to control their bodies and of all adults to create the kind of families and home lives that they want. And yet many Western greens are green with envy at the powers China has developed for curtailing its citizens’ reproductive choices.

In fact, the love-in between Western greens and Chinese authoritarians at Copenhagen should remind us of a far-too-little-discussed fact: that elements in the West have for a long time supported, both financially and morally, China’s enforcement of its one-child policy. There has been a great deal of interplay between Western Malthusianism and Eastern authoritarianism.

It is striking that at Copenhagen, Zhao Baige cited the authority of Britain’s Optimum Population Trust (OPT) to re-justify her country’s approach to population as a ‘climate-friendly initiative’. She cited research carried out by Thomas Wire of the London School of Economics, which apparently found that ‘each $7 spent on basic family planning would reduce CO2 emissions by more than one tonne’ (8). This research was commissioned by the OPT and was used by them, on the eve of Copenhagen, to launch PopOffsets, a grotesque initiative that invites well-off Westerners to offset their CO2 emissions by funding family-planning charities in the Third World and thus preventing the creation of more carbon-emitting life (9). The Chinese authorities have long looked to the West, to groups similar to the OPT, for up-to-date moral justifications for their Malthusian authoritarianism.

From 1979 through to today, China’s one-child policy has been part-funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a wing of the UN frequently applauded for ‘raising awareness’ about overpopulation. The UNFPA trained China’s demographers. In 1983, at a time when China’s one-child policy was even more unforgiving than it is today, the UNFPA gave Qian Xinzhong, China’s then Minister for Birth, the first-ever UNFPA award for ‘tackling the problem of rapid population growth’ (9). Following claims that some women in China were being forced to have abortions, the UNFPA called on China to ‘reduce the coerciveness’ – that is, to enforce its population authoritarianism in a more palatable way (10). Presumably the UNFPA prefers it when women are pressured (under the threat of a fine) rather than actually forced to have abortions.

From the late 1980s onwards, China has changed the tenor of its one-child policy in keeping with the shifting ideologies of international Malthusianism. As one important study says: ‘International discourse provided Chinese domestic discourse with much of the rationale for initiating and maintaining birth limits – in the 1970s and 1980s, it was “population crisis”; by the 1990s, it was “sustainable development”.’ (11) ‘Foreign ideas arrived through many channels’, the study points out, through the UNFPA, the World Health Organisation, and ‘foreign non-governmental organisations and private foundations’, all of which ‘were crucial sources for ideas and arguments, technical resources and political support’ (12). For example, in the early 1990s the International Planned Parenthood Federation, beloved of so many American liberals, ‘praised China’s accomplishment in birth limitations’ but encouraged it to talk up ‘women’s rights’ rather than ‘population control’; in 1991, the Rockefeller Foundation introduced new contraceptive technologies to China alongside the idea of ‘informed choice’, and so on (13).

A key turning point was the UN’s 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, which China was deeply involved in and which ‘shifted the focus of the international population community from deploying state power to “control” population to empowering women to manage their own fertility’ (14). In other words, the project of Malthusianism decided to wriggle free from the explicit language of state control and instead to speak in the deceitful lingo of ‘female empowerment’. As if providing women with condoms and warning them that unless they use them their country will collapse and future generations will perish has anything whatsoever to do with freedom or empowerment. Being pro-choice, as spiked is, means supporting women’s right to choose whether to have children, to not have children, to use contraception, or to seek an abortion – the clue is in the title: choice. Courtesy of the UN and NGOs and Western intellectual input, China’s one-child policy, which started life as an explicit state programme to curtail people’s choices, is now dishonestly repackaged as a ‘government-led’ process of ‘female empowerment’ designed to ensure ‘sustainable development’ and ‘climatic stability’ (15). In helping to provide the ‘ideas and arguments and political support’ for the one-child policy, Western forces have been complicit in China’s massive denial of reproductive freedom to its citizens.

So at Copenhagen, what we effectively have is Malthusianism coming home. Western population hysterics were on the defensive for much of the 1960s to the 1980s. Isolated and marginalised, these misanthropes could only see their perverse dreams realised in undemocratic China, where they knew their ideas would be welcomed by the authorities and ruthlessly enforced. Now, however, such is the misanthropic tenor of our times that there can be talk of a planetary one-child policy, of spreading the Western-Eastern project of birth limitation in China around the globe in the name of ‘saving the planet’.

It is often implied that Western people and Chinese people have utterly opposing interests – that their fridges will bring about our climatic doom, or that our desire for stuff is forcing them into hard labour. Yet we share one common interest which overrides all of that: it is in the interests of both we in the West and people in China to stand up to the Malthusians who rule over us, who see everything as finite, who despise the idea of free choice, and who have already caused so much hardship and horror in China and would like to do something similar here, too.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Population control called key to deal, China Daily, 10 December 2009

(2) Rich nations to offset emissions with birth control, Guardian, 3 December 2009

(3) Climate change is a feminist issue, Mary Fitzgerald, Comment is Free, 27 October 2009

(4) The real inconvenient truth, Financial Post, 8 December 2009

(5) See Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics, Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A Winckler, Stanford University Press, 2005

(6) See Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics, Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A Winckler, Stanford University Press, 2005

(7) Heavy Fine for Violators of One-Child Policy, China.org, 18 September 2007

(8) Population control called key to deal, China Daily, 10 December 2009

(9) Rich nations to offset emissions with birth control, Guardian, 3 December 2009

(10) See Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics, Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A Winckler, Stanford University Press, 2005

(11) See Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics, Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A Winckler, Stanford University Press, 2005

(12) See Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics, Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A Winckler, Stanford University Press, 2005

(13) See Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics, Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A Winckler, Stanford University Press, 2005

(14) See Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics, Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A Winckler, Stanford University Press, 2005

(15) See Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics, Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A Winckler, Stanford University Press, 2005

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