Malthusian Survivalism:
The One-Child Policy and Its Importance in Limiting China's Population

by Christopher A. Reed

China today is in the midst of one of the greatest experiments in demographic control in world history. This experiment involves an epic struggle to limit and to stabilize the three key factors that, as recently as the 18th century, used to be crucial for accruing international wealth and power: resources, population, and human fertility. Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China's population growth and suitable policies for dealing with it have tested successive leaders. Since 1980, China's efforts to limit population growth, especially by means of what has come to be known as the "one-child policy," have drawn attention from foreign observers, thanks in part to the vast amount of empirically grounded investigations undertaken since the late 1970s.

I will first provide some background regarding China's historical population patterns, followed by a brief survey of the history of the PRC's population policies. I will then briefly discuss the one-child policy from the perspective of Chinese compliance and opposition, and conclude by evaluating the implications of China's fertility and one-child policy as the country heads into the new century.

Historical Background

Since the Han dynasty, when China's first official census was taken (2 A.D.), China has consistently had the largest population of any centrally governed country. During Han, China's population was nearly 60 million. From 960 to 1279, when China's predominantly agricultural economy experienced the rapid agricultural, commercial, and technological growth that China scholar Mark Elvin has called a "medieval economic revolution," the empire's population was 100 million. By the dawn of China's early contact with the mercantile empires of early modern Europe, the population had grown to 150 million. Within a century, the 300 million mark was reached and, by 1850, most estimates pegged the Chinese population at nearly 450 million.

What makes this phenomenal increase so fascinating is that it occurred on a sophisticated agricultural and commercial foundation the likes of which were unknown in other parts of the world. After the catastrophic decline of the European population in the 14th century due to the long-term effects of the Black Death and to unproductive agriculture, transformative European population growth did not come until industrialization made it possible in the 18th and 19th centuries. China, by contrast, did not experience industrialization significant enough to change the social fabric of society until the early decades of the 20th century. Instead, imperial China's population growth and military supremacy were made possible by an increasingly productive agriculture, enhanced considerably by rising numbers of tax-paying peasant farmers, by enrichment of their land, and, to a lesser degree, by land reclamation.

Although China today is larger than the continental United States, it sustains a population nearly five times greater on the 11 percent of its land area that is arable. Population pressure on the small proportion of China's land mass that is arable has increased steadily since the 18th century, when traditional China's standard of living peaked along with its population. In the modern period, official efforts to reclaim wilderness areas, reminiscent of the Soviet Union's Virgin Lands campaigns of the 1950s, have often failed. Urbanization since the late 1970s, by which time China's population was at least one-fifth urban, has also depleted farmland. For these reasons, population control has often seemed a necessary, if not always a politically viable, complement to the increased economic (both agricultural and industrial) productivity, national wealth, and international respect that China has sought throughout the modern period.

In 1949, according to the State Statistical Bureau, China's estimated population, not counting Taiwan or Hong Kong, was about 542 million. Most were poor, many desperately so. Life expectancy was 40 years. Eighty-nine percent of the population were peasants. From 1949 to 1960, the population grew by an estimated annual average of 13 million mouths. Although the urban/rural ratio had declined to 20:80 by 1960, most of the newborns were living in rural areas and were destined to pursue agricultural careers, much as they are today. From 1961 to 1980, each new year added about 17 million people, the rough equivalent of adding the population of Holland each year for 19 years. In 1980, the urban/rural proportions were still 19:81.

With population growth of this magnitude and no special efforts to rein it in, to achieve a standard of living comparable with those in the First World, China would have had to undertake, in a matter of decades, industrial and green revolutions the likes of which Europe, America, and Japan did not experience in the past two centuries. And it would have had to do so without the vast migrations and social dislocations experienced by those other regions of the world. Clearly, something had to be done to stifle this population growth if China were to achieve wealth, power, and domestic security in modern terms.

Population Policy Since the Establishment of the PRC

Just as in the premodern period, since 1949 there have been periods of pride in China's population size. Historically, the direct link between population and economic productivity has been a real one to the Chinese leadership. In the 1950s, the leadership dismissed advice by leading sociologist Ma Yinchu and others regarding the Malthusian cul-de-sac into which China was heading. Even Ma had to balance his view that an excessively large population would delay scientific and technological development with the prevailing political wisdom that, under Marxism, a large population can be an asset. At that time, China's non-Malthusian values, influenced by a physiocratic peasant tradition, closely complemented what passed for Marxist orthodoxy.

The Malthusian spirit of Ma Yinchu's views in favor of control was revived at the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Ideas of modernization, first introduced in 1975, began to pay off in demographic declines by the late 1970s. The birth rate, which had been 37 per thousand in 1950 and nearly 34 per thousand in 1970, dropped to about 18 per thousand in 1980. From 1980 to 1989, the previous two-decade average of 17 million new mouths per year was reduced to 14 million, a million more than the average of the 1950s and itself not an insignificant number. Still, in the same period the annual rate of increase was forced down even further to 13.2 per thousand, compared with the rate of 21.0 per thousand that had prevailed from 1949 to 1979 (not counting 1960 and 1961). The question remains: How did they do it?

In 1980, Premier Hua Guofeng announced in the National People's Congress, China's national assembly, that henceforth all couples would be limited to one child each; those who had three or more would be punished. The policy, which rapidly became known as the "one-child policy," had already been tested for about two years, and was intended to bring the annual rate of increase down to zero per thousand by the year 2000. This was no mean goal in a country that had a higher proportion of young people (implying that vast numbers of children had yet to be born) than in developed countries, where zero population growth often remains an ideal.

Within a couple of years, more realistic goals emerged. In policies implemented from the top down, different provinces were allotted varying targets, all with the overall goal of restricting China's population to 1.2 billion by the year 2000. By the mid-1980s, however, and even after five years of strict family planning and a record harvest, it became clear to many observers that the revised targets were too utopian; sadly, average per capita shares of grain, still an important unit of measurement, were lower than they had been in the mid-18th century.*1 Annual per capita income, which had been forecast in the early 1980s to rise to US$1,000, had to be scaled back to $800 because of recognition that the hoped-for population target could not be met. Industrial and agricultural innovation could make up only some of the shortfall in a society that was still overwhelmingly (37:63 in 1985) rural and agricultural. The rest was being made up by compliant urbanites willing to take Malthusian control of their lives.

Compliance and Opposition to the One-Child Policy

As more than one observer has commented, Chinese state policy and aggregate population statistics often collide with family needs and expectations. Although rarely as uniformly restrictive as it has sometimes been portrayed in the Western press (by 1984, for instance, several exempted groups already existed, including minorities, remarried persons, parents of handicapped children, the very poor, and parents of one daughter), the one-child policy has also not been as successful as its original enforcers hoped it would be. This patchy record of accomplishment has been partly due to coercive measures pursued by overzealous local officials. Coercion, officially outlawed from the start, was eventually more firmly discouraged, and abortion and sterilization drives of the early years were abandoned in favor of contraception. Further, severe economic penalties for noncompliance were discontinued in the 1980s. Still the population continued to grow beyond acceptable levels. Mere child-bearing itself became an act of defiance, a situation exacerbated by refusals to register births in rural districts.

Compliance today, not surprisingly, is largely a feature of economic development and education levels. It is striking that Chinese human rights activists, with rare exceptions, do not raise their voices in opposition to the one-child policy. Such activists, themselves mostly relatively educated urbanites, share the government's desire to raise living standards by, among other means, reducing population. Urbanites and wealthier rural dwellers with access to reliable state-run or enterprise-run pension systems now acknowledge they will no longer have to rely on their children for support in their old age. Thus, they are the most likely candidates for adherence to the policy. These persons also depend on the state or, increasingly, on expensive fee-for-use services for sustenance of their families. For these reasons, it is in their interest to have only one child. Finally, significant numbers of young Chinese adults in major urban centers, perhaps for the first time in Chinese history, are now choosing not to have any children at all. In all these ways, urbanites' interests coincide with the Malthusian survivalism promoted by the state and contribute to declining rates of urban fertility and rising urban living standards. Nevertheless, these values have little effect on rural China, where nearly three out of four Chinese still live.

Throughout the history of the PRC, peasants have only occasionally been able to count on the state for the social services urbanites take for granted. For this reason, their immediate local interests have often taken priority over those articulated by the state and the cities. Without access to medical, educational, and old-age facilities on the order of those found in cities, peasants have also, as in traditional times, sought sons as insurance against old-age infirmity. For this reason, a rigid early implementation of the one-child policy cut sharply across the grain of peasant interests and led to instances of female infanticide. Further, prior to the widespread appearance of family farming in the 1980s, peasant collectives could not reward compliant peasants on the order that urbanites were rewarded. With the decline of the collectives, old justifications for large families have reappeared, and the state's influence on peasants has withered.

The Future of China's Population Policy

The utopian projection of zero population growth by the year 2000 has not been met, and per capita annual income remains around $500. Although opposition to the one-child policy has been significant, the biggest threats to China's fertility control and one-child policy are abstract: unequal economic development, unequal distribution of educational access, and the weakened mobilization of state and Party resources to monitor childbearing in the countryside. All these problems are related to a growing commoditization of public services and a reduced role of the Communist Party in the lives of all Chinese, but particularly of those who live in the countryside.

Unless China can accelerate rural industrialization or find other means to reduce the value of multiple male children to peasant families, the unequal distribution of children between country and city will soon become a potent symbol of the worsening gap between rural and urban standards of living. The differences between rural children whose social lives are better-rounded and their increasingly materialistic, pampered, and solipsistic urban counterparts who grow up as the sole focus of attention in their nuclear families will be intensified. Declines in student enrollments brought on by the new necessity of having to pay school fees will mean that the state will lose its occasional contact with young peasants and their families along with its ability to mobilize the population in favor of population control.

Similarly, as the Communist Party withdraws from other aspects of daily Chinese life, it is inevitable that, in the 21st century, the Party will also lose its effectiveness in family planning and population control. Future children of adults who are themselves products of the one-child policy will lack aunts, uncles, and cousins in a country in which social connections still provide the key to survival. In this way, the Malthusian survivalism of today's Chinese urbanites may soon be swamped by a surge in the traditional survival strategies of rural Chinese. Satisfying the new arrivals will challenge not only the Chinese, but also the world, with explosive implications for everything from China's grain imports to its exported consumer products.

*1: This observation, as well as the statistics quoted throughout this article (derived largely from published Chinese documents) may be found in Colin Mackerras and Amanda Yorke, Cambridge Handbook of Contemporary China (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pages 171-182.

Christopher A. Reed is Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History at Ohio State University.

Copyright (c) National Institute for Research Advancement (NIRA)