Terra Incognita: One child - The end of social engineering and the 20th century

The one-child policy was probably the greatest attempt at social engineering in the 20th century; it is estimated that 400 million births were prevented.

PREGNANT WOMEN practice yoga as they attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the largest prenatal yoga class, in Changsha, Hunan province last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
PREGNANT WOMEN practice yoga as they attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the largest prenatal yoga class, in Changsha, Hunan province last year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week China decided to end its one-child policy and allow families to have two children. The greatest scientific experiment in rationalizing human family planning may end up being seen as one of the greatest disasters. It will leave China with massive disparities and gender imbalances, and will have long-term effects on the country. The slow passing of this policy is symbolic of a whole series of policies carried out in the 20th century that sought to “rationalize” human society and in so doing led to some of the greatest harm ever done to humanity.
The one-child policy was put in place in 1979 to arrest China’s growing population, which then stood at a billion people. The Communist Party experts had looked at the developed West and concluded that few children per family was one of the reason the West was wealthy.
Poor, third-world countries were known to have legions of children and, supposedly, this created cultures of poverty.
Child-bearing cultures, like those in Africa or the “global south,” are supposedly poor, so China would “catch up” to the West, as it had done with its “five-year plans” in the 1950s.
The one-child policy was probably the greatest attempt at social engineering in the 20th century; it is estimated that 400 million births were prevented. But with all those missing people, equivalent to the entire population of South America, huge disparities came into existence. As families used the science of birth control to choose boys over girls, the gender gap increased to 120 boys for every 100 girls. Outside of gender imbalance is the long-term effect of an aging population. Some 10 percent of China is over the age of 65, still behind Japan where 20% are over 65, but meaning trouble in the future.
The one-child policy, like all attempts at social engineering, had exceptions. Minority groups and rural people were allowed to have more children. This led to chafing in policies and tensions between groups. In August last year a government official said they sought to “lower and stabilize fertility at a moderate level” for Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province.
As the one-child policy slowly fades, it is important to take stock of the long history its demise symbolizes. In the late 19th century numerous scholars sought to draw conclusions from new scientific theory on evolution and population growth and rationalize mass society as a “human organism.” These ideas, including modern concepts of eugenics, race theory and social Darwinism were eventually grafted onto existing political movements that sought revolutionary and scientific answers to society’s ills.
These ideas multiplied on the progressive Left and radical Right, spawning mass populist movements such as communism, futurism and Nazism, each with their own idea of how to get to the best possible human future. It’s not a surprise that Brave New World and 1984 were produced during the first half of the 20th century, mocking this mad pursuit for perfecting society.
To make a perfect society large pieces of it had to be eradicated.
In the Soviet Communist view it was groups like “kulaks” in the Soviet Union. Social engineering’s consequence was mass killing, but couched in the language of science and bureaucracy, as Stalin wrote in 1930: “Ousting the capitalist elements in the countryside is an inevitable result and component of the policy of restricting the capitalist elements.”
That pleasant language was describing the deportation and killing of 1.8 million peasants, and eventually mass starvation that followed the collectivization. Under Alfred Rosenberg’s Nazi theories of the “myth of blood... awakening after a long slumber, to victoriously put an end to racial chaos,” tens of millions, many of them Jews, had to be exterminated.
The tragedies of the 1930s-1945 in Europe were repeated as the century progressed. Mass extermination on the scale carried out in Cambodia gave way to quieter policies of mass human engineering according to which people were seen as “human material.” In India forced sterilization was attempted. In South Africa the policy of Apartheid was heavily constructed around the “scientific” theories of Hendrik Verwoerd, who believed it was a form of progress.
If you think the planning policies that influenced Verwoerd’s South Africa, that sought to “rationalize human settlement,” only had an impact there, you would be mistaken.
The concepts of mass human planning connected to German planners such as Walter Christaller’s Central Place Theory were used from the Soviet Union to fascist Europe and beyond. The giant Prora complex at Rugen, Germany is but one example.
Wherever you travel in the world today and see “projects” for human settlement, from the Queensbridge Houses in Queens or Pruitt Iglo in St. Louis (now demolished), or Robin Hood Gardens in East London, the banlieues throughout France, to the numerous dilapidated “development towns” in Israel, one finds the failed legacy of social engineering.
When one hears the nasty “demographic” arguments in Israel, echoes can be heard of those demographers who once predicted a “black takeover” of America, or once predicted the need to “sterilize” people in third world countries. It all traces back to the same era: 1890 to 1920.
The same education systems in Europe spawned the “engineers” of humanity in the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Verwoerd’s South Africa, Ben-Gurion’s Israel and LBJ’s “great society.” Politics allowed these concepts to hide, so that what the Nazis had attempted is seen as irreparably evil, whereas what happened in other places, like Indira Gandhi’s sterilization, was just seen as a kind of screw-up by well-meaning government officials.
The central struggle against this “rationalization” of human endeavor has been the question of who the state exists for. Does it exist to preserve the state, or as a minimal necessity to safeguard the individual’s rights to fulfill his or her potential? For the “mass planners” the concept was the state as a vast organism. The life of one worker was like the life of one ant in a colony, meaningless. The success of the system was what mattered. But time and again the imposition of mass government planning and the dehumanizing tendencies of rationalized bureaucracy have resulted in massive human abuses. The hangover from the Soviet period has never left Eastern Europe; the planning catastrophes, the uninhabitable, hulking buildings, the dispiriting view of the future, the stripping of culture, soul and religion have all left people rudderless.
China risks the same results. The massive, soulless housing projects built over the years deny individualism. The concept of one-child per family sought to help the country, but may have done it a great disservice. That’s the added irony of all this. Even when measured by its own bar, of whether the attempt to “rationalize” humans has worked, it has never worked. Humans are not rational; they are not ants. The only thing packing them into mindless state-sponsored planning results in is destroying their will to succeed and, eventually, to live.
The decision to let people realize their basic human right to a slightly larger family is a welcome development. But when one thinks back on what this is a legacy of, one can only cry over the tragedies of the 20th century and hope they are not repeated in the 21st.