Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 7, 2019

One Child Nation

Filed under: China,science — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

Nanfu Wang, the Chinese émigré who made “Hooligan Sparrow” and “I Am Another You”—two outstanding documentaries, has a new film opening on Friday at the IFC Center in New York. Titled “One Child Nation”, it examines the draconian law that put a ceiling on births in China from 1979–2015. She was born in this period but her parents also were allowed to have a second child, her younger brother, because they were rural villagers. Now that she has become a mother of a young son herself, she was inspired to visit China and interview her parents, their neighbors, and urban dwellers to see how the policy impacted them.

Wang’s films tackle wrenching human drama. The 2016 “Hooligan Sparrow” is about a struggle to bring an elementary school principal to justice after he raped six girls. Known as the Hooligan Sparrow, Ye Haiyan is a leader of what amounted to China’s #MeToo movement. Unlike the USA, she and her team are considered enemies of the state and constantly harassed. So was Wang’s film team that employ various ruses to cover the struggle, eventually smuggling the raw footage out the country. A year later, she made “I Am Another You” that was even more daring. Determined to find out why a young man about the same age as her chose homelessness and a nomadic life as a beggar in the USA, she followed him about with her camera, living under the same circumstances. Both films are available as VOD, including YouTube, and well worth renting for a pittance.

“One Child Nation” reveals a population that is decidedly ambivalent about the policy, including her mother. Like most Chinese, she accepted it as a necessary evil. Given the massive propaganda campaign by the state, which included folk operas and the like, there was not even the hint of an alternative.

Wang has managed to obtain photos of the human wreckage the policy left behind, including gruesome evidence of how an extra newborn was often left in a garbage dump. As China had already been making huge strides toward private property under Deng Xiaoping, many infants were rescued and turned over to orphanages that marketed them to American families. Among them was American-born husband Brian Stuy and his Chinese-American wife Long Lan Stuy, who adopted three Chinese daughters. After learning about the circumstances of their availability, they became inspired to found Research China, an organization to help parents trace their adopted children’s history and even reunite siblings. Ironically, there is not much interest in being reunited, especially those who grew up in the USA.

After seeing the film, the publicist asked for my reaction. I wrote her back: “The film might have provided more background on how China ended up with such a policy but it was a valuable documentary. Will post a review just before it opens. I’ll probably add that background in my review.”

Here’s that background now.

Probably the most authoritative study of the policy was the 2008 “Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China” by Susan Greenhalgh. I really didn’t have time to read the book but the 36-page article “Science, Modernity, and the Making of China’s One-Child Policy” she wrote for the Population and Development Review in June, 2003 is a good place to start.

The article is heavily influenced by Foucault but there is enough substance to help you get a handle on the political and historical context. As the title implies, some of China’s top scientists helped to formulate the policy based on economics and demographical data. Drawing upon 15 years worth of interviews, Greenhalgh concludes that population science is intimately connected to politics, something that should be obvious to anybody familiar with Thomas Kuhn’s writings.

Greenhalgh writes:

I will argue that at the heart of China’s post-1979 population policy lie two powerful notions: that China faced a population crisis that was sabotaging the nation’s modernization, and that the one-child policy was the only solution to it. In China for most of the past 20-plus years, these ideas have had the status of self-evident truth. I question those apparent truths by looking at how they were constructed. I show that these ideas about China’s population problem and its ideal solution were actively fabricated by Chinese population scientists, using numbers, numerical pictures (such as tables and graphs), and numerical techniques (such as projections) to tell a particular story about China. In contrast to the coercion account, which points the finger at “communist coercion,” this close look at the actual making of the policy reveals instead that practically all the key ideas on which China’s one-child policy was based were borrowed from the West, and from Western science at that.

Specifically, the Western science was an update of Malthus, as indicated in this telling passage:

Innocuous and even progressive though it must have seemed in 1979, the intervention of the natural scientists in the conversations about population produced revolutionary effects. In a short time, a Marxian theoretical field belonging to the social sciences had been reinvented as a scientific-that is quantitative-discipline. The mathematical science of population that was to revolutionize China’s population thought and practice was an unusual amalgam of cybernetics, control theory, systems engineering, and Club of Rome-style limits-to-growth thinking that had been popular among some Western academics and a sizable chunk of the general public in the West in the early to mid-1970s (especially Meadows et al. 1974; Mesarovic and Pestel 1974; on the work’s public appeal, Wilmoth and Ball 1992). The group’s leader, Song Jian, got the idea for this project on a delegation visit to Europe in 1978. Song’s description of his encounters with some work inspired by the Club of Rome brings out the excitement his discovery produced. This passage also provides a backward glimpse at the larger intellectual climate of the 1970s, when notions of explosions of population growth were prevalent around the world and applications of control theory to abstract economies facing such situations were standard fare in Western population economics:

After more than ten years’ isolation from the outside world, during a visit to Europe in 1978, I happened to learn about the application of systems analysis theory by European scientists to the study of population problems with a great success. For instance, in a “Blueprint for Survival” published in 1972, British scientists contended that Britain’s population of 56 million had greatly exceeded the sustaining capacity of ecosystem of the Kingdom. They argued Britain’s population should be gradually reduced to 30 million, namely, a reduction by nearly 50 percent…. I was extremely excited about these documents and determined to try the method of demography. (Song 1986: 2-3)

It should be added that Greenhalgh does not deny that China had serious issues of bringing economic production and population into balance but that the leading scientists exaggerated them under the influence of Western neo-Malthusians. Essentially, the scientists based the need for such a policy through a comparison of leading economic and demographic indicators that grouped China with advanced industrial economies rather than 3rd World countries. Given such a skewed comparison, it was inevitable that a destructive one-child-only policy would ensue.

(Contact me privately at lnp3@panix.com for a copy of Greenhalgh’s article)

2 Comments »

  1. Wasn’t China’as adoption of the one-child policy part of the reaction, under Deng, to Mao’s policies? I don’t think that Mao saw China’s population growth as being a problem.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — August 9, 2019 @ 4:04 pm

  2. The Tankies are out in force re: HK, and it’d be great to get what I assume would be your more nuanced view.

    Comment by Bill — August 14, 2019 @ 3:46 am


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