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Governing China's Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics
Governing China's Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics
Edwin A. Winckler; Susan Greenhalgh
Stanford University Press, 2005
412 pp., 28.0

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China's Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the People's Republic, 1949–2005
China's Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the People's Republic, 1949–2005
Tyrene White
Cornell University Press, 2006
320 pp., 60.94

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Ross Douthat

Planned Parenthood

On closer inspection, China's draconian population policy is surprisingly familiar.

Spend an afternoon leafing through The Black Book of Communism, the most exhaustive accounting of death-by-Marxism to date, and you'll encounter nearly every Communist crime known to history—not only the main events, the gulags and famines and killing fields, but lesser atrocities like the NKVD's terror campaign in 1930s Spain and the depredations of Ethiopia's Mengistu regime. What you won't find, though, is more than a passing mention of one of the most recent Communist assaults on human dignity and human life: China's decades-long campaign to bring its rate of population growth to heel, whatever the human cost.

Near the end of Governing China's Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics—one of two new academic histories of population control under the Middle Kingdom's Marxist Dynasty—Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A. Winckler note the omission of China's one-child policy from the usual litany of Communism's crimes, and wonder about the reason for it. Perhaps, they suggest, there just wasn't enough killing involved—abortions aside, of course. Unlike the Great Leap Forward, say, "whose trauma can be measured in lives lost," the human suffering associated with coercive population control is hard to quantify. You can count corpses, but how do you tally up "the trauma experienced by millions of peasants being coercively sterilized as though they were 'pigs being spayed?'"

This seems like a reasonable answer, but both the Greenhalgh-Winckler study and Tyrene White's China's Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the People's Republic, 1949-2005 hint at another, more troubling explanation as well. However horrifying forced abortions and compulsory sterilization may be to the sensitivities of the liberal West, such policies aren't as intimately connected to Communist ideology as was, say, the ruinous collectivization of agriculture under Mao and Stalin, or the mass murder of supposed bourgeois sympathizers under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. The one-child campaign's means were totalitarian, certainly, but they weren't designed to midwife a Marxist utopia; instead, the campaign took its cues from a characteristically Western idea of progress, in which rising standards of living are the only proper benchmarks of a society's success. Whereas other Communist crimes were committed in the hopes of burying the West, Beijing embarked on its brutal one-child campaign in the hopes of emulating us.

It's true that the central anti-natalist idea—that the state could levy a "claim of authority over pregnancy and childbirth," as White puts it—originated in the murderous hubris of Mao. "With respect to births," the Great Helmsman declared in a 1957 speech, "mankind is in a state of anarchy. … In the future we want to achieve the complete planning of births." But Mao was of many minds on the subject of what "birth planning" ought to mean in practice. The Communist Party line in the 1930s and '40s had been pro-natalist, the better to make up for the lives lost to war and disease, and even once the Party took power and China's immense population began to cast a shadow across its rule, Mao retained a natural confidence in Chinese resilience—famously embodied in his remark that his country could lose three hundred million people in a nuclear exchange and come out ahead. Rather than trying to impose "the complete planning of births" by force and fear, he envisioned a future in which China's population leveled off organically, thanks to a combination of propaganda, individual family planning, and rising levels of affluence and education.

In the 1970s, though, with Mao gone and twenty years of failed economic policy in the rearview mirror, China's leaders turned to draconian population control as their last best hope for rapid economic development. Opening a window on the more-successful West, they saw societies where birthrates were low and GDP was high, and where the best minds of the time were preaching "lifeboat ethics," arguing that countries threatened by Paul Ehrlich's "population bomb" needed to set their moral qualms aside and throw the dead weight overboard. The bureaucrats in Beijing took the argument to heart—and the result was twenty years or more of terror.

This terror came in fits and starts, as the government adopted and then discarded various methods of population regulation. It crested with the early-1980s campaign to sterilize every couple in China with more than two children, but it endured whether Beijing pursued its objectives by force or suasion, bribes or browbeating. Over time, the worst excesses were curbed, as the Chinese government—again, following the lead of the West—began emphasizing quality over quantity, human capital over attempts at culling the human herd. But the legacy of coercion endured: "By the turn of the millennium," Greenhalgh and Winckler write, "feticide had become an everyday part of the culture of family formation." A 2001 study suggests the scope of what the population planners achieved: Roughly three-quarters of the women surveyed checked the sex of their second fetus if their first child was a girl, and 92 percent of those who discovered it was a girl "opted" to abort. Another study, from the same year, confirms the extent to which the Chinese have internalized the lessons the one-child policy's enforcers meant to teach: In a culture where a family-centered Confucianism once held sway, just 6 percent of those surveyed stated that they'd like to have three or more children.

Such numbers only skim the surface of the larger human tragedy, of course, but the one-child policy still awaits its Robert Conquest, or its Solzhenitsyn. These two histories have their virtues, but they're bone-dry and groaning with jargon, and when they shock it's with charts and tables rather than with anecdote and incident. Instead of personal drama, the reader is left with unforgiving tabulations: In 1971, there were three million sterilizations in all of China; in 1979, seven million; in 1983, 21 million; over the thirty years leading up to the millennium, 150 million Chinese submitted to sterilization. In 1970, there were four million abortions; in 1982, 12 million; there were over ten million abortions a year from 1985 through 1992; over thirty years, 264 million Chinese fetuses were disposed of before birth.

Did all this brutality produce the desired result? As Zhou Enlai remarked when asked his opinion of the French Revolution, it's too soon to tell. China benefited enormously, in development terms alone, from the plunging birth rates of the last two decades; on the other hand, the Chinese government may yet reap a whirlwind of unintended consequences. For one thing, there's the possibly crippling age imbalance, with ever-fewer young workers supporting ever-more retirees; for another, there's the inherent instability of a society where the bonds of family run thin, where practically everyone is an only child, and the gender ratio is so skewed that 120 boys are born for every 100 girls. The one-child policy, in the hindsight of history, could prove responsible for both China's present prosperity and its future collapse.

But from the cold-blooded point of view of the Chinese leadership, this may have been a gamble worth taking. Perhaps they could have managed to lower their birthrate without all the coercion and cruelty; Greenhalgh and Winckler, in particular, venture that most of the fertility reduction could have been achieved with education and incentives, and without "heavy-handed techniques to enforce compliance." But perhaps not—and a reduction in fertility, for better or worse, is part of what it means to be modern, for Americans and Europeans as well as for Chinese. They wanted to be like us, rather than like their impoverished ancestors, and they reached for what seemed like the only means at hand.

This is not to excuse the criminality of "China's longest campaign" but rather to suggest that the Party apparatchiks who used abortion and sterilization to pave their country's road to riches are not, perhaps, quite so distant from ourselves as we might like to think. America, too, has its millions of abortions, its affluent cities where children are few and far between, its meritocratic obsession with high-quality offspring whose main purpose in life is to compete successfully in the global economy. The Chinese took a darker road to prosperity: They were coerced into embracing the modern way of childbearing, whereas we have chosen it freely. But their wealth and ours alike has been built on a choice to bury the old ways of life, sever the old bonds and dismiss the old obligations, and attempt to create ourselves anew.

Ross Douthat is an associate editor at the Atlantic and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion).

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