March 12, 2024 Reading Time: 7 minutes
Parents with young children in Shenzhen, China. 2018.

Kenneth Emde of Minnesota, who came of age during the Swinging Sixties, recently explained why he is childless today.

“I was a college student when I read [Paul] Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb,” he said in a letter published by the Wall Street Journal. “I took it to heart and now have no grandchildren, but 50 years later the population has increased to eight billion without dire consequences. I was gullible and stupid.”

Emde might have been gullible, but that doesn’t make him stupid. Countless people were swept up by the maelstrom of fear created by Ehrlich’s 1968 book, which predicted mass famine due to a coming “population explosion.”

The Population Bomb was omnipresent on college campuses in the late 1960s and early ’70s and received a massive amount of media attention because of its scary subject matter. (Three decades after it was published, I was assigned the book as an undergrad in college.) Ehrlich, who at the time was young, telegenic, and breezily confident, was happy to talk about his book on TV and offer social “remedies.”

His solution to the population bomb began with government-sponsored propaganda designed to convince Americans that no patriotic family would have more than two children (“preferably one”).

“You ought to make the [Federal Communications Commission] see to it that large families are always treated in a negative light on television,” Ehrlich told an interviewer in 1970. “There ought to be a tremendous amount of television time devoted to spot commercials, the sort we’ve had against smoking.”

If that failed to move the needle, Ehrlich said, the government should use the tax structure to disincentivize women from having children and offer financial bonuses to women who forgo motherhood.

“If that doesn’t work, then you’ll have the government legislate the size of the family,” Ehrlich calmly continued. “If we don’t get the population under control with voluntary means… the government will simply tell you how many children you can have and throw you in jail if you have too many.”

Watching the interview today, it’s easy to dismiss Ehrlich as a cocky and kooky peddler of Malthusianism, a school of scarcity economics popularized by doomsayer Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), an English economist who made similar dire population predictions in the early 19th century (and, more recently, by Thanos in the Marvel movies.)

Ehrlich’s predictions on population and famine were just as wrong as Malthus’s, and thankfully his ideas were never implemented in the United States.

But others paid attention to Ehrlich’s warnings, and not just college students like Kenneth Emde.

The Origins of China’s One-Child Policy

Seven years after the publication of Ehrlich’s book, a Chinese military scientist named Song Jian visited the University of Twente in the Netherlands as part of an academic delegation to the Dutch university.

During his visit Song met a Dutch mathematician named Geert Jan Olsder who had written papers on population control, including a 1973 paper titled “Population planning; a distributed time optimal control problem.” Much like Ehrlich, Olsder believed that an “optimal” birth rate could be achieved through centralized planning.

“Given a certain initial age profile the population must be ‘steered’ as quickly as possible to another, prescribed, final age profile by means of a suitable chosen birth rate,” Olsder wrote.

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Olsder recalled how he told Song, who’d pioneered China’s anti-ballistic missile system, his research had been inspired by “warnings about finite global resources and how mathematical models could be applied to birthrates.”

The podcast Freakonomics summarized Olsder’s recollection of their first meeting (the men would meet again a few years later in Finland).

“According to Olsder, they went out for beers and talked about population planning,” wrote Bourree Lam. “Olsder thought nothing of it.”

The meeting apparently had a much deeper impact on Song, whose expertise in cybernetics translated well, he believed, to the field of population modeling. After the trip, Song began working with other scientists on his demographic projections, and by 1980 he was presenting reports to officials of the Chinese Communist Party predicting China would have more than 4 billion people by the approach of the 22nd century.

Susan Greenhalgh, the John King and Wilma Cannon Fairbank Research Professor of Chinese Society in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University, traces China’s notorious one-child policy directly to Song.

Writing in The China Quarterly in 2005, Greenhalgh pointed out that elite scientists like Song, aerospace engineer Qian Xuesen, and nuclear physicist Qian Sanqiang had tremendous prestige and influence in China. This gave Song “the scientific, political, and cultural resources and the self-confidence to redefine the nation’s population problem, create a radically new ‘scientific’ solution to it, and persuade China’s leaders that his policy of one child for all was the only way out of China’s demographic impasse.”

If one doubts Greenhalgh’s claims, it’s worth noting that Song himself claimed credit for inspiring China’s one-child policy.

“[Our 1980 projections] shocked the scientific circles and politicians,” he wrote in a 1995 article, “[leading the government to] follow a policy of ‘one child system.’”

China’s One-Child Policy: A Total Failure

Whether there is a straight line from Ehrlich to Olsder to Song is not certain.

What is clear, however, is that Song was a key leader in the Chinese central government’s pivotal meeting in Chengdu in March 1980 to discuss the scope and details of what had already become China’s new policy: citizens should have just one child. (As early as October 1979, Deng Xiaoping, the communist leader of China, had informed members of a British delegation in Beijing of China’s “one-child policy.”)

China’s one-child policy proved to be not just a moral abomination but a total failure, something even Chinese Communist Party officials seemed to recognize long before the policy was officially rescinded in 2016.

Though near-universal one-child restrictions were codified into China’s constitution in 1982, the policy’s history is peppered with rollbacks and exceptions that began as early as 1984. These included allowing some parents to have a second child if the first was a daughter, and allowing exemptions for some provinces and ethnic groups.

By the 2000s, Communist officials seemed to realize they had a new problem on their hands: a birth shortage. Models began to show an ominous drop in population, portending severe economic problems down the road.

More exemptions to the one-child policy followed. Then, in 2015, the Chinese government announced it was lifting its cap to allow two children per family. By 2021, it was three. Soon thereafter there were no procreation restrictions at all.

Today, China’s government is offering various incentives to get citizens to procreate. Researchers at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Victoria University recently told the Journal that China is projected to have just 525 million people by 2100, a collapse of more than 60 percent of its current population (1.4 billion).

“Our forecasts for 2022 and 2023 were already low but the real situation has turned out to be worse,” Xiujian Peng, a fellow at Victoria University who leads research on China’s population, told the paper.

Forced Sterilization and Abortion Quotas

The moral problems with China’s one-child policy were apparent from the beginning.

Though Ehrlich may not have received the memo, international human rights groups since the 1960s had declared in charters that “parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.” The Communist regime in China cared little for such rights, which resulted in its gruesome and well-documented enforcement practices: forced sterilization and abortion quotas in regions that ignored the policy.

While many people across the world were rightfully appalled by these practices, few today realize how widely these practices were embraced by prominent institutions in the West. 

Ehrlich’s book had created a moral panic. By preposterously predicting that “England will not exist” by 2020 and tens of millions of Americans would soon starve because of unfettered population growth, officials within some of the most powerful institutions in the West — the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, the Swedish International Development Authority, and the Rockefeller Foundation — began advocating forced sterilization, a policy supported by Ehrlich.

Douglas Ensminger, a representative of the Ford Foundation in India, worked directly with government officials there to create the infrastructure to forcibly sterilize millions in one of the worst human rights violations in modern history.

According to the BBC, an astounding 6.2 million men — mostly poor ones — were sterilized in a single year, far exceeding any of the sterilization efforts led by the Nazis during World War II.

For various reasons—including the fact that both countries were far poorer and more populous—the population control policies took place in China and India at a scale they did not in the United States. 

This isn’t to say population control efforts didn’t occur in America; they did. But these efforts ran into more resistance in the US (see Buck v. Bell), largely because the American system is designed to curb the erosion of rights that such efforts inevitably require.

The smooth-talking Ehrlich might have been able to convince men like Emde and Ensminger that population control was a moral imperative, much like the brilliant military scientist Song was able to convince Communist officials that unchecked procreation was a dire threat. But widespread population-control policies proved more difficult to sustain in the US and remain a non-starter today at the federal level because of the American system’s emphasis on limited government, individual rights, and the separation of powers.

Where those protections were weaker (in minority communities, prison, and mental asylums) population control “experts” had some success in states pushing sterilization efforts with devastating results.

As recently as the early 2000s, California was running a sterilization program for inmates in state prisons. The American conception of individual rights can be fragile, especially in the face of moral panic created by doomsayers preaching the latest apocalypse.

A Dying Dragon and the Perils of Planning

Despite growing fears in the West of the “Red Dragon Rising,” China’s coming population collapse raises serious doubts about its economic future. The Chinese government’s policies designed to incentivize procreation might manage to reverse the decline, but such an outcome is unlikely.

“History suggests that once a country crosses the threshold of negative population growth, there is little that its government can do to reverse it,” the New York Times recently observed in a report on China’s demographic plight.

That China’s downfall stems from its own collectivist policies is no small irony, but it should come as no surprise. It stems from the same flawed thinking that led to the fall of the last communist empire: the Soviet Union.

Both systems suffered from the fatal conceit that central planners can effectively engineer society if they’re only given the proper coercive tools to do so. 

Central planners are not omniscient, and this is evidenced by China’s own policies.

“In the last 80 years China has swerved from pro-natal sentiment, to anti-natal sentiment, to anti-natal policy, to pro-natal sentiment, and likely to pro-natal policy soon,” wrote economist Peter Jacobsen.

The only thing consistent in China’s schizophrenic approach to population control over the last century is this: central planners, not individual families, get to decide how many children people should have.

Call this what you will, but it’s not science.

“Planning other people’s actions means to prevent them from planning for themselves, means to deprive them of their essentially human quality, means enslaving them,” economist Ludwig von Mises once observed.

China is paying the price for its barbaric and byzantine policies. 

Jon Miltimore

Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of and a Senior Writer at AIER. His writing/reporting has been the subject of articles in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and the Star Tribune.

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