• Nolan Hedglin

The One Child Policy: a story about China's messy history with cybernetics

Updated: May 13, 2020


In the 1970s and 80s, overpopulation became the chief concern for a modernizing, but resource-limited China. The solution enacted to combat its effects and prevent mass starvation was a limit on the number of children allowed per couple: one in urban areas and two for ethnic minorities and families in rural areas. At the time and in the decades that followed, the one-child policy was celebrated as a logical, well-researched step towards preventing resource over-consumption. It is the story of how imposing a military scientific framework onto a problem in governance led to atrocities on a scale never seen before, such as forced abortions and sterilization, abandoned daughters, and government confiscation of children. In this paper, I argue that decades of Maoist ideology led Chinese policymakers and researchers to consider and create models that explored a narrow solution to overpopulation. More objective knowledge appraisals could not resolve the challenges of complex policy situations like the one-child policy. Rather, the one-child policy illustrates a broader trend about how the formation of a knowledge claim and its corresponding legitimacy can become deeply entangled with the presence of a dominant ideology within an administration. This can be viewed as a corollary to Sheila Jasanoff's social construction of science.

A brief history of China’s post-WWII growth

Rapid population growth under Chairman Mao. The rapid population increase experienced during Mao Zedong’s rule (from 1949 to 1976) can be attributed to improvements that occurred in the health care system while the birth rate remained relatively constant. First, the infant mortality rate decreased from 227 to 53 per 1000. Additionally, the life expectancy for Chinese citizens nearly doubled, from 35 years to 66 years (which was affected, of course, by the sharp decline in infant mortality). While these lifestyle improvements took root, about 35 children were born per 1000 citizens [1]. As a result, from 1949 to 1976, the population of China nearly doubled from 540 million to 940 million [2]. For reference, as of 2017, the birth rate in the United States is 12, life expectancy is 78 years, and there are 5.7 infant deaths per 1000 born [3, 4, 5].

Despite improving living conditions, China experienced several large-scale anthropogenic disasters that took the lives of millions, with the most notable one being the Great Chinese Famine from 1959-1961. Coupled with a shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy, droughts and floods caused a major shortage in food supply. The Great Chinese Famine caused the death rate to skyrocket from 10 to 25 per 1000, taking the lives of 14 million citizens [1]. It is noteworthy that the Great Famine took place in the early years of Chairman Mao’s rule, before the population doubled in size. If a food shortage were to happen in the future, how could the Chinese government support such a massive population? The threat of famine and other resource shortages, along with a desire to pursue an idealized version of modernization discussed later in this paper, is what led to the decision combat overpopulation.

Introducing two-child and one-child policies

The Chinese government’s decision to reduce population growth was gradual in the 1970s. Early attempts included propaganda campaigns that encouraged families to have two children at most, but there was never an enforcement mechanism for ensuring that families did so [6]. These campaigns were extremely effective, halving the birth rate from 35 in 1968 to 18 in 1979 [1]. Up until 1980, influencing population growth was handled at a provincial level and did not extend much beyond the existing propaganda campaigns advocating for one or two children. However, these improvements were not enough in the minds of the Chinese government, and a national, more concrete enforcement mechanism was needed to ensure that birthrates continued to decline.

The one-child policy formally became law in September 1980. Enforcement of the policy fell to members of Family Planning, which consisted doctors and midwifes from all across China. It is claimed that, in the span of the policy, a typical member of Family Planning would carry out tens of thousands of involuntary abortions and forced sterilizations (a monetary fine was typically the first punishment a family received for having more than one child, therefore this type of enforcement mainly affected impoverished communities where the fine could not be paid) [7]. With the passing of new adoption laws in the 1990s, enforcement broadly shifted to child confiscation. This triggered an overfill in orphanages across China, which, due to cultural norms, contained a disproportionate number of young girls [8, 9]. At the orphanage, babies were given fabricated identities before being adopted by families abroad [7].

As of 2015, China has loosened their restrictions on families that wish to have more than one child, with the most notable change being that, if two individuals are only children, then they are permitted to have two children of their own [10]. From 1971-2013, it is estimated that a total of 336 million abortions, 196 million sterilizations, and the insertion of 400 million intrauterine devices were conducted in China [11]. Even when accounting for differences in population size, the normalized abortion rate in China is disproportionately high compared to rest of the world.

How ideology defined policy goals

Before assessing the population models presented during initial meetings about creating the one-child policy, it is important to understand how the mindset of Party members involved in the one-child policy was molded by decades of ideology under the previous administration. In this section, I will define Maoism in the context of its effect on research supported in China. From there, I assert that, even though Chairman Mao’s successor, President Deng Xiaoping, announced a notable shift away from ideology as the driving factor in assessing policy proposals, its long-term effects lingered in the way knowledge claims were appraised by members of the Party. Therefore, the knowledge controversy surrounding the one-child policy is not about the challenges of incorporating expert opinion into governance. Expert opinion was already held in high regard among Party members. Nor is the controversy about the challenges associated with educating policymakers and the public about “objectively true” scientific conclusions, because the opinion of the public did not matter much in this decision. It is about how Party goals drove expert opinion to support a narrow definition of population science. This assertion directly supports Sheila Jasanoff’s definition of the social construction of science and illuminates the messy relationship between policy goals and the science used to support a decision.

Maoism: the fall of social science and rise of cybernetics

A key component of Maoism was that the revolution belonged to the peasants and farmers across China. Like many other autocrats, Chairman Mao did not have a need for an intellectual class that challenged the theory upon which the Cultural Revolution was based. What ensued was widespread intellectual persecution among all academic fields except those which played a critical role in modernizing the People’s Liberation Army [12]. Inevitably, as a result of intellectual persecution, fields of research where global and out-of-the-box thinking were celebrated, such as anthropology and sociology, lost credibility and social status among members of academia because their research was not aligned with Party interests. Furthermore, their accompanying academic frameworks were also not appreciated among Party members and the broader academic community.

At the same time that social scientists were being persecuted, military scientists rose in power and influence as national defense became a top priority for the administration [13]. One of the most prominent research fields involved in military defense was cybernetics, which MIT professor Norbert Wiener, an early pioneer of the field, describes as the study of communication and control in complex physical systems [14]. It is an interdisciplinary approach that seeks to introduce rigor and control in systems that are traditionally considered beyond human control. Today, the application of cybernetics is seen in fields such as artificial intelligence and bio-engineering. According to Harvard sociologist Susan Greenhalgh, Chinese national defense programs received a major increase in funding under Chairman Mao and the scientists that practiced cybernetics became celebrities within academia [12]. Accompanying a rise in social status was an increase in respect for the framework used within military science. Eventually, military scientists expanded their horizons and began applying cybernetics to social systems as well. Brought on by ideology, a three decade-long academic shift resulted in the promotion of research on controlling complex social systems, which would eventually lead to the Party’s decision to impose that control on the size of the Chinese population.

The Four Modernizations: launching a “war” on over-population

Although the practices of Maoism were mostly abolished by 1978, their effects on knowledge appraisals lingered. As a result of its augmented status in academia, the rigid analytic framework of military-scientific thought began to permeate the administration. One clear illustration of this is during a speech that President Deng Xiaoping gave following a 1978 conference on the new direction of national policy. Following the death of Chairman Mao, President Deng and the Party initiated a program, called the Four Modernizations, to revitalize society in four different domains: agriculture, economics, science and technology, and defense. In his speech, President Deng defined success as the ability to “seek truth from fact” in making policy assessments [15]. The policy shift was intended to reduce the role that ideology played in national policy. However, declaring a shift away from ideology did not change the way that knowledge claims were appraised by the Party. The Four Modernizations were still underpinned by cybernetic thought, which was an artifact of Maoism. Therefore, President Deng’s speech did not actually mark a shift in the role that ideology played; it merely illustrated the broader academic shift to cybernetics in China. Instead of being at the forefront of policy decisions, Maoist thought was now rooted in the knowledge appraisals made by the Party under the guise of scientific objectivity.

The prevalence of cybernetics is exactly what led the Party to believe that population control was a necessary component of modernization. According to a report on Family Planning put out by China’s Information Office, “to accomplish the goal of the Four Modernizations in China, it was imperative to take into consideration the basic features of the Chinese environment... and this demonstrated the objective need for the development of population to be coordinated with the development of the economy, society, resources and environment” [16]. Economic, environmental, and industrial modernization could never be decoupled with controlling population size.

Language also played an important role in outlining avenues of approach to achieving the policy. A common propaganda phrase used by the Chinese government during the early years of the Four Modernizations program was to call the situation a “war” against overpopulation [7]. By framing this challenge as a “war”, the Party biased their assessments towards studies that are performed within a military-scientific framework, which would lead them to conclude that overpopulation required a cybernetics-driven, hawkish solution. This language also resulted in members of Family Planning being regarded as heroes in the great war against starvation, often receiving awards from government officials for their actions [7]. All of these examples point to the same conclusion: no amount of scientific objectivity could separate the one-child policy from Maoism; the Party was unaware that their desire to be objective was rooted in the ideology that governed the decades prior.

Distinguishing collectivism from Maoism

From a Western perspective, it is very easy to decry the policy as a crime against humanity’s right to bodily autonomy and expect Chinese citizens affected by the policy to feel the same way, but that is not necessarily the case. Among older generations, the general sentiment — but by no means absolute sentiment — is that the one-child policy was the right decision [7]. Every individual had to make a small sacrifice for the collective benefit of society. I am explicitly mentioning this because it highlights a long-standing — but, once again, not absolute— normative disconnect between China and Western society that makes a retrospective analysis of the policy difficult. Given that I grew up in the US, it is possible that I am mislabeling the role that collectivism plays in Chinese society as the presence of Maoist ideology among Party members and researchers at the time. I argue, however, that even under collective intent, the Party should have recognized the long term effects of a one child limit on labor participation and gender imbalance, and would have, had they expanded their view beyond cybernetics.

The models that led to the one-child policy

The influence of Western population studies

The overpopulation concerns that troubled Party members had roots in Western academia. One of the most famous studies on overpopulation was conducted by the Club of Rome, including European and MIT scientists, in 1972 [17]. In it, they concluded that humanity’s resource consumption is unsustainable and warns of the environmental crisis that will come in the following century. It was an extremely timely report given that a major oil crisis would ensue the following year. Around the same time, physics professor Albert Bartlett became famous for giving talks about the subject, proclaiming that “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function” [18]. There was a big scare among Western researchers about the dangers of overpopulation.

As far as the content of the report is concerned, the conclusion they reached was partially correct. The report mentions that over 1000 mathematical equations and graphs were used in their calculations, and forty years later its warning about the environment still rings true [19]. The major critique of report’s content is that the model assumed existing institutional structures at the time would remain immutable. Nevertheless, the Club of Rome report is still held in relatively high regard among researchers because it did not advocate for modifying fertility rates; it was merely environmental and economic modeling used for the purpose of gaining a better understanding about the dynamics of resource consumption. The Club of Rome does not try to extend their models to different policy solutions [17]. The Club of Rome model was mostly harmless in the US because it was as a tool for understanding the scope of the problem and not a substitute for policy decisions, but that was not the case in China.

Song Jian’s population cybernetics

Song Jian, a prominent Chinese missile scientist, was particularly influenced by models published by the Club of Rome and other researchers such as Geert Jan Olsder [12, 21]. To simulate population growth, Song iterated over a more complex variant of the Lotka-McKendrick equations, which are essentially first-order differential equations on the growth of a population as a function of time, using one of the first computers in China. In his report, Song determined that the optimal population for China was 700 million and a drastic reduction in the birth rate from 3 to 1.5 would be needed in order to achieve that goal. His work in population cybernetics was well respected among Party members, and his recommendations eventually became the foundation of the one-child policy.

There are several aspects of the model worth highlighting that challenge its credibility. First, Song and his colleagues had trouble collecting accurate data on the existing Chinese population [22]. In addition to using questionable data, the model treats individuals as a net negative on society, only accounting for energy output and resource consumption. What the model misses from this picture is that individuals also spur technological innovation. Finally, the way Song presents his results implies that only one parameter, birth rate β, can be modified in order to achieve policy goals, and it does not assume that birth rates will naturally drop as a result of improved quality of life. It is impossible to ascertain whether or not this was a deliberate design choice, but it is reflective of the position that the government and Song were searching for a very specific answer to the problem of overpopulation. Even if the model corrected for these issues, however, it would not change the heart of the knowledge controversy.

From the Party’s perspective: meetings in Chengdu

Government officials held meetings in Chengdu to hear proposals from different scientists about policy implementation. Although members from all across academia—including sociology—were included in the discussion, cybernetics dominated. Greenhalgh explains that “although the social scientists recovered their ability to conduct population research with impressive rapidity, after 20 years of intellectual isolation, deskilling and political intimidation, they entered the contest to shape China’s population policy with distinct handicaps” [12]. Greenhalgh goes on to explain that Song was able to steer the conversation toward a systems control approach by garnering support from other prominent defense scientists such as the father of the Chinese space program, Qian Xuesen, and by leveraging his position as principal deputy chief designer of China’s submarine launched ballistic missile.

Others who were present during the early meetings about the one-child policy refuted the claim made by Greenhalgh that Song was the driving force for one child cap. They claim that the original idea came from within the Party and the scientists that created population models to support the decision were commissioned to do so [11]. Either situation speaks volumes about the role that cybernetic science played in the Party’s decision-making. Whether the models or the idea came first in policy discussion does not change the influence that ideology played in the decision. It is also worth mentioning that every scientist and government official that had influence in the one-child policy process was male. The lack of female representation in policy process may have played a part in why controlling the birth rate was not considered a controversial decision among Party members. The one-child limit was brought about by a three decade-long social construction of science.

The aftermath of the one-child policy

Although the one-child policy was a success from the perspective of reducing birth rates, its consequences are too large to ignore. First, the decision and all the models that led up to it failed to consider that future generations would need to support an oversized, aging population [23]. This is known as the “4-2-1 problem” because a child would have to support two parents and four grandparents in the future. Additionally, the government failed to account for the intrinsic value that Chinese society placed on having a boy over a girl, which has resulted in a massive gender imbalance in the country as a result of female babies being abandoned and sometimes killed during the lifetime of the policy [9]. As indicated by the new fertility policy’s maintenance of a hard cap on the number of children a family can have, it is unclear if the Party’s mindset on assessing policy proposals has changed at all in the past forty years. Given that 8 of the 9 top government officials in China come from a STEM background, it can be argued that cybernetics still plays an important role in decision-making.


When discussing the legitimacy of a population model, we must be careful not to disguise bias as mathematical assumptions. Models do have a place within policy assessments, but each one needs to be uniquely fitted to the situation it is trying to address. Issues arise when a model is incorrectly adapted to a situation and then heavily cited as the scientific evidence for a decision.

By promoting a cybernetic framework, ideology guided Party members and researchers to treat population size as a complex social system that needed to be controlled. Both the government and the scientists who built models to support the one child policy were looking for a very specific answer to address the growing population. Regardless of whether studies were commissioned by government officials or promoted by top military scientists, the interaction between government and academia during the one-child policy formulation illuminates how ideology intricately links the formation of a knowledge claim to how it is perceived by policymakers.


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[3] World Bank Group, “Birth rate, crude (per 1,000 people),” 2017.

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[12] S. Greenhalgh, “Missile science, population science: The origins of China’s one-child policy,” The China Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 182, pp. 253–276, 2005.

[13] J. Lewis and L. Xue, “China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age,” The China Quarterly, vol. 144, p. 1207, 12 2009.

[14] N. Wiener, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948.

[15] X. Deng, “Emancipate the Mind, Seek Truth from Facts and Unite as One in Looking to the Future,” in Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping (1975-1982), p. 158, 1984.

[16] “Family Planning in China,” 1995.

[17] D. H. Meadows, D. L. Meadows, J. gen, R. William, and W. Behrens Ill, “The limits to growth,” p. 205, 1972.

[18] A. Bartlett, “Arithmetic, Population and Energy: on the impossibility of exponential growth on a finite planet,” 2013.

[19] C. Parenti, “’The Limits to Growth’: A Book That Launched a Movement,” 2012.

[20] J. Song and G. Li, “Renkou fazhan wenti de dingliang yanjiu,” Jingji yanjiu, 1978.

[21] G. J. Olsder and R. C. W. Strijbos, “Population planning; a distributed time optimal control problem,” pp. 721–735, Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1976.

[22] S. Greenhalgh, “Science, Modernity, and the Making of China’s One-Child Policy,” Population and Development Review, vol. 29, pp. 163–196, 6 2003.

[23] W. Xiaoli, “Green Paper on Population and Labor: China’s Population and Labor Issues Report No. 19,” 2019.

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