If this story sounds like a scene out of the world of Dr. Strangelove, it does: while doing some research on the origins of China's one-child policy, I came across this article in the well-regarded journal China Quarterly by Susan Greenhalgh. In her article, she identifies Chinese missile scientist Song Jian as the progenitor of China's one-child policy. If it weren't for his strong backing of the idea while having the ear of Deng Xiaoping, it probably is little exaggeration that China would be a significantly different place from how it is like today. It is a story of mind-boggling proportions, combining elements of cybernetics, the Club of Rome (Limits to Growth), and massive state coercion to make the one-child policy a reality. Who needs conspiracy theories when you can follow one of the largest social experiments of all time?
The entire article is a very good read, but here are some key sections, anyway. The military roots of social policy in the post-Mao era owe a lot to a past emphasis on defence policy:
In the revolutionary turmoil that was Maoist China, most of the social sciences were abolished, the natural sciences decimated. Yet because of Mao’s military view of the world and the very real threats of attack from the United States and, after 1960, also the Soviet Union, military science became a privileged site of knowledge and technology production. Most privileged of all was the strategic weapons community of scientists and engineers charged with building the atomic bomb and the missile systems to deliver the payload.Deng Xiaoping identified runaway population growth as an obstacle to progress:
In 1977–78, Deng Xiaoping was reducing investment in military R&D and urging defence scientists to turn their energies to solving the nation’s many economic problems. One of China’s most serious problems was its huge and still swiftly growing population. After Mao’s death in 1976, a strong consensus had emerged at the highest levels of government that the rapid growth of a largely rural population was a major obstacle to the achievement of the “four modernizations.”One of the most prominent missile scientists, Dr. Song, believed that he could apply his expertise in the area of population control. With scientism in vogue, he caught the zeitgeist of the moment very well:
Song immediately saw the promise of the systems science approach. Based on mathematics, this Western cybernetics of population would produce what seemed to him a precise, scientific solution to the population problem. Such a solution appeared far superior to the Marxian social science perspectives that had dominated for so long, leaving population control vulnerable to ideological attack. In the West, the Club of Rome work had provoked an outcry from social scientists concerned about the application of cybernetics’ mechanistic models to the solution of human problems. Song apparently did not encounter such critiques. Quite the contrary, the congress at which he discovered the new approach was infused with a spirit of scientific certainty, progress and messianic fervour about the potential of control science to solve the world’s problems.Unconstained by Mao's periodic purges of social scientists, the engineers were far more emboldened to make large-scale changes:
Finally, in their years in the weapons development community, the physical scientists and engineers had imbibed that community’s culture of bold experimentation and risk-taking. Whereas the social scientists were encumbered by an ingrained caution and fear borne of years of political persecution, the military scientists possessed the self-assurance to enter an entirely new field, borrow a set of foreign techniques they had encountered only briefly, modify them in significant ways, and then employ those techniques to quickly develop and press for a radically new solution to social problems that had vexed the nation for decades. Of course, these bold manoeuvres carried risks and dangers. But those would emerge only later.They went about casting population science as analogous to missile science:
In devising a scientific solution to the problem, Song and his colleagues (especially Yu) turned to the cybernetic techniques of optimal control whose use Song had pioneered in the development of missile guidance systems. From a mathematical point of view, missile control techniques lent themselves readily to population control problems, because the trajectories of missiles and populations charted over time followed similar lines, and because the optimization problems for controlling the two objects took functionally similar forms.Once approved, Song's ideas about the one-child policy needed to be implemented by the state. Akin to a centralized missile programme, directives emanated from above. The rest is history:
As a defence scientist, Song had devoted his career to working on huge, complex and costly weapons projects that not only served statist ends but also required state-centric solutions. In an atmosphere of urgent threat to China’s national security, many of those projects were pursued with a “big-push” thrust that entailed total leadership commitment and massive mobilization of the nation’s resources. Song himself was a proponent of big-push approaches to weapons development...In China at least, population control was rocket science. One of the ironies here given China's current environmental woes was that reaching environmental limits was one of the reasons touted for population control a la Limits to Growth. Despite worrying concerns over China's warped demographics, the policy thought up by a rocket man remain largely in place.
The inappropriateness of the policy solution became painfully clear in 1983, when, in a changed environment, policy makers undertook a very big-push solution, a massive, nation-wide campaign aimed at jump-starting one-childization by sterilizing one member of all couples with two or more children and aborting all unauthorized pregnancies. Ordered to enforce this policy and reach targets no matter what, rural cadres had little choice but to use coercion against the people. The results were a record level of demographic achievements – 21 million sterilizations, 14 million abortions and fertility rates that dropped to just over 2.0 – and unexpected magnitudes of social suffering, as baby girls were killed, women’s bodies were damaged, and village life was torn by violence and fear.