The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Population. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Population. Show all posts

Monday, August 22, 2022

Pixie Dust and Overpopulation: What are the Origins of the "One Child" China's Population Policy?


Often, I have the sensation that we live in a world of pure magic. That everything we think we know is the result of a fairy who spread some pixie dust on the real world, transforming it into an alternate reality where people can fly. Yet, it is so incredibly easy to convince people of more or less anything without bothering to bring any proof. A good example is the story that the Chinese government developed its "one-child" population policy as a result of the influence of the Club of Rome and their evil book "The Limits to Growth." It is so common on the Web that it seems to be an ascertained fact. But, is it? Or is it just a legend? For more details on the influence of the "Limits to Growth" report on world policies, you can read the recent review of the whole story titled "Limits and Beyond"

When it comes to the Chinese "One-Child" policy, two statements seem to be commonly repeated on the Web. One is that it was an abject failure, the other is that it was inspired -- or even driven -- by the evil think tank called "The Club of Rome" and by their even more evil book titled "The Limits to Growth" (1972). They are followers of the arch-evil enemy of the people, Thomas Malthus, the first would-be exterminator of humankind. 

If nothing else, this story shows how easy it is to transform facts into narratives. With a sprinkle of pixie dust, everything can be transformed into the archetypal fight between good and evil, which seems to be the current way of seeing the world in the West. It would be a long story to examine this attitude of Westerners (Simon Sheridan has some good hints, I think). In any case, the legend of an evil cabal that led the Chinese government to adopt the one-child policy  -- and that it failed -- is appealing because it provides us with a comfortable image of bad guys who are both evil and hapless. 

It is easy to find various versions of this story on the Web. A recent one was written in 2021 by Dominic Pino for the "National Review." It shows how easy it is to use pixie dust to build a story that's nearly completely fact-free. So, according to Pino, 

China’s population policy is one of the best examples of the weakness and failure of central planning. Based on the best information available at the time and the opinions of experts around the world, China instituted strict population-control measures to limit most families to have only one child. The policy then stuck around for much too long and now presents a serious threat to Chinese society.


Naturally, there were unintended consequences. Now that China needs to increase its birthrate, the Chinese government is having a hard time persuading its people to have more children. The government lifted the one-child policy in 2015, allowing any married couple to have up to two children. Despite raising the limit, the 2020 census showed that the number of births fell again — for the fourth straight year.

And therefore: 

The failure of the one-child policy has been conclusively demonstrated.

There is so much that's wrong with these statements that you don't know where to start criticizing them. The main point, I think, is how self-contradictory Pino's evaluation is. If the objective of the one-child policy was to reduce the birth rate to stop population growth, then it worked: the Chinese population DID stop growing and now is declining -- so much that China now needs to increase its birth rate. Then, how can a policy that was lifted in 2015 be still "a threat to Chinese society"? Do the Chinese tend to follow non-existing laws? That is, do they still bind the feet of their young girls to make them smaller? Do they still beat drums on eclipses to chase away the invisible dragon that's eating the sun? These contradictions are just buried by the pixie dust liberally sprinkled on the story. 

Then, is there any truth in the idea that the policy was based on "the opinions of experts around the world"? Did the Chinese really seek advice from Western scientists? Pino refers to the work of "The Club of Rome" and its "The Limits to Growth" report, published in 1972, saying that, 

In 1978, Song Jian, a missile scientist who had gained the trust of the governing elites, went to Helsinki for the Seventh Triennial World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control. That completely normal-sounding group was composed of Western scientists who had bought the Club of Rome’s arguments about the need for population control

This sentence is lifted almost verbatim from an article written earlier on by Susan Grenhalgh (2005), who also stated that: "....the Congress was infused with the spirit of scientific certainty, progress and messianic fervour about the potential of control science to solve the world’s problems,” and that it was "tied to the well-known work of the Club of Rome," including "a global systems model in which population growth was destroying the environment and required strong, even drastic, control."

There is a lot of pixie dust here. There was indeed a congress of the IFAC in Helsinki in 1978. It was a normal congress that lasted for 4 days, and you can still peruse its proceedings. You'll see that 294 papers were presented and discussed. Only a few of these papers are available online, so it is not impossible that some of them mentioned or discussed "The Limits to Growth" study. But there was no presentation dedicated to population growth, nor were there members of the Club of Rome among the speakers or the participants (I checked with the original authors of "The Limits to Growth," they didn't even know that such a meeting had been held). So, there is no support at all for Pino having transformed the congress into a "group" that "was composed of Western scientists who had bought the Club of Rome’s arguments about the need for population control." Of course, in the 1970s, control engineering was a new field, and it sparked enthusiasm among scientists. But the "messianic fervour" that Susan Greenhalgh mentions exists only in her mind. There is no trace of anything like that in the proceedings.

But, as usual, once you blow off the pixie dust, shreds of truth start appearing.  In an earlier paper, Susan Greenhalgh describes how a top-level Chinese scientist, named Song Jian, traveled to Europe in the late 1970s. Did he attend the 1978 Helsinki congress? His name does not appear in the proceedings, but he may have been there as a participant, although not as a speaker. Then, it is not clear whether he was directly exposed to the work of the Club of Rome, although he might have been. In a citation to a paper by Song, reported by Greenhalgh, we only find a reference to the book titled "Blueprint for Survival," published in 1972. It was a study that followed lines similar to those of the "The Limits to Growth" but it didn't use world models and had nothing to do with the Club of Rome

Greenhalgh proposes that, after getting back to China, Song Jian developed a model of the Chinese economy equivalent to "The Limits to Growth." It is not impossible, although there is no evidence that it happened. It is clear from what she writes, that Greenhalgh has no training in the kind of modeling used for control engineering. All she shows as a proof is this diagram from a 1981 paper by Song. 

This is not the output of a world model. It seems to be a much simpler extrapolation of population trends. Correctly, the diagram shows that for birth rates lower than about 2, the population tends to decline. The reverse occurs for higher birth rates. For birthrates remaining at around 3 per woman, theoretically, the Chinese population could have reached 3 billion before the end of the 21st century. But to arrive at these conclusions, paper and pencil calculations would have been sufficient. 

In practice, it is likely that, during his trip to Europe, Song had been exposed to a general view of the Western way of thinking in the 1970s and 1980s that saw overpopulation as a major problem. The Chinese may have been even more sensitive to the issue: surely they still remember how the famines of 1951 and 1961 are reported to have killed tens of millions of people in China (note: the commonly reported number of deaths may have been greatly exaggerated as a result of Western propaganda. Nevertheless, famines were endemic in agrarian China). So, when Song developed some simple models to extrapolate population trends in China, the government decided that they had to do something to avoid that the Chinese population could reach levels that would have been impossible to feed. So, they decided that they had to push Chinese families toward lower birth rates. And that's what they did. 

The Chinese were those who took the most radical approach to curb population growth, but other countries reacted to the problem, too. In South America, the Mexican President, Luis Echeverría (1970-1976) implemented some policies to reduce the number of children, at the time of the order of 8/10 per woman. Apparently, that was done as a direct result of the work by Victor Urquidi, a member of the Club of Rome. So, in this case (and probably only in this case) the Club of Rome had a direct influence on the population policies of a major country. 

Other countries, instead, ignored the problem. In the Soviet Union, scientists knew about the "Limits to Growth" study and created their own versions of it. But the Soviet Union was a vast and scarcely populated country so, not surprisingly, the Soviet government didn't see an overpopulation problem and paid no attention to them. In the West, instead, governments preferred to react in the way they knew best: they buried "The Limits to Growth" under a thick layer of pixie dust (aka "propaganda") and then they ignored it. 

The interesting part of the story, though, is that, no matter what governments did or didn't do, the results were the same. You can see in the graph (data from the World Bank) how countries close to China had lower birth rates, despite not having implemented birth control policies (Taiwan is not listed in the World Bank data, but it shows the same behavior). 

During the past 50 years or so, the birth rate declined rapidly all over the areas that were called the "first world" (the West) and the "Second World" (The Soviet bloc and China). This trend was called the "demographic transition" and didn't need draconian measures by governments to occur. All the countries of the world are facing the same transition. Third-world countries are just arriving a little later. 

So, you see? The story is rather simple: things went the way they had to go. No need for evil guys plotting to destroy humankind. That's just pixie dust liberally spread over everything, as usual. 

h/t Susana Chacón, Li X, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers

To know more about the origins of world models, and their relevance for us, nowadays, you can read the recent report to the Club of Rome titled "Limits and Beyond"