Mao’s Fuzzy Math and the One Child policy

Now I know this is more of an edgy topic, but it’s one of the issues which generates the most anger and confusion amongst Americans when they think of China.

First a little history: China has always had a large, mostly rural, population. As it is everywhere, farmers in China also tended to have large families to help with the work. Up to the 1950’s it was common practice for families to have 6-10 children, many of whom would die before their fifth birthday. On top of the high infant mortality rate there was the Japanese invasion, and then a civil war that kept China’s population from growing despite the birth rate.

Needless to say, when the communists finally won control of the mainland, life expectancy went up, infant mortality went down, and the population started to increase quickly. This became more of a problem when Mao did some quick math (apparently not his strong suit) and thought that since people have two hands and only one mouth a huge population would be a blessing and not a burden. The policy continued for decades.

Note that the population double from 1953 to 1990


In the late 1970’s the government double checked the math and saw that Mao had forgotten to carry the one hundred somewhere, and the population was growing more quickly than the food supply. This led to the birth (sorry) of the one child policy. Now I wouldn’t say that it was a good thing, or that it didn’t cause a lot of other hairy problems (most of the stories you have heard are probably true in some scale), but in the long run I would say it was a necessary policy. The policy had come on the heels of several campaigns to encourage couples to marry later and have fewer children, but these simply were not enough to curb population growth.

"Marry late for the Revolution"

Can you imagine what the reaction would be in the US if the government even hinted at telling us how many children we could have? In China at the time there was not much discussion as to whether or not this fell under the power of the government. For years the people had been forcibly moved, and had been subject to dozens of social experiments.

"Family planning is awesome!" wouldn't become a popular catch phrase until much later (joke)

As a result of the policy there is an undeniable gap between the number of men and women. Female infanticide did happen, but not so often that it would come close to explaining the entire gap. The biggest reason is that families in the countryside (at the time close to half of the population) were allowed to have a second child if the first child was a girl. It was also legal at first to have sex selecting abortions, although later a law was put in place that made it so doctors were not allowed to reveal the sex of the child prior to birth (still in effect).

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the one child policy as it is today, and later in the week I’ll try to post some of the conversations I’ve had with my Chinese friends about this topic.

This is Part One of a Three Part Series: Part Two. Part Three.

Today’s propaganda posters came from

11 responses to “Mao’s Fuzzy Math and the One Child policy”

  1. Bill says:

    This is a policy where we see clearly the difference between the most cherished value of Americans – individual, personal liberty – and the most cherished value of Chinese – order and stability. Americans would understand the one-child policy to infringe on their most cherished value, whereas Chinese would understand the policy to be a natural outgrowth of their most cherished value.

  2. Tom says:

    I’m going to agree with about 90% of that. Order and stability are definite national values, but it bumps up directly against what people value most at the personal level, family. I would say most people understand that it is good for the country to have a smaller population, but now that 2 children are possible for some, everybody wants it.

  3. […] Red in China My life in their world Skip to content HomeAbout MeMap of China ← Mao’s Fuzzy Math and the One Child policy The Problems They Didn’t Foresee […]

  4. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  5. […] is part three of a three part series. Part One. Part […]

  6. […] This attitude towards the disabled, and the nonchalant way in which abortions are discussed I feel are a direct result of the one child policy (which I discussed in more detail here). […]

  7. […] Mao’s fuzzy math and the one child policy […]

  8. […] China’s population has historically been large, there was massive growth during Mao Zedong’s rule (even after tens of millions died due to decisions made at the time), which has made China […]

  9. Kev says:

    Female infanticide still occurs…shocked? Wealthy expecting parents will bribe doctors or travel outside China to find out the sex of the child and abort it if it is female. Even when they migrate to other countries they will often carry out the same disgusting practice.
    What most foreigners realise after spending a lot of time in China is that all is possible with money in China and the more liberties and freedoms you give to most Chinese, the more they will abuse them for their own personal gain.
    Chinese have two policies…the “ME FIRST” policy and the “SCREW YOU” policy. It may seem racist to the uninitiated, but firstly, if you come and spend some time in China and live among them for a couple of years you will see through that fake veneer of friendliness. Secondly, I have a Chinese girlfriend (more like a wife than GF) and she is more disgusted by Chinese people than I could possibly be and has often remarked that 80% of them should be killed off to save the rest of humanity from their contamination.

    • Teaspoon says:

      “It may seem racist to the uninitiated….” Yeah, well that’s because what you are saying IS in fact racist. And the fact that you have a Chinese girlfriend who shares your beliefs does not validate them. It just means that she is just as much of a vile racist as you are, because it is completely possible for people to hold prejudice and hatred against people of the same ethnicity, culture, race, etc. So don’t play that my-friend/wife/girlfriend/dog-is-black/Asian/[insert ethnicity that you’re being racist against] card because it’s bullshit. Suggesting that 80% of a population, the overwhelming majority of which she will never personally know, should be murdered because of the negative qualities that she has chosen to generalize to them, is RACIST. Period. Claiming that a population or demographic engages in a widespread abusive act while offering no empirical evidence other than their ethnicity, is RACIST. Period.

  10. Teaspoon says:

    Tom, I would like to suggest that you moderate comments such as the above written by Kev. While I respect the freedom of speech, as an American I also hold freedom of speech as a guarantee against government incarceration and abuse but not against social consequences in other public and private spaces. Too often, the internet enables anonymous cowards to air their venomous bile, which impedes productive and meaningful exchanges online. I completely support and welcome thoughtful critiques of China, its culture, and the beliefs and practices of its citizens, and I know this blog doesn’t shy away from that. However, I think that some baselines for the decency and respectfulness of comments need to be set. Kev’s comment is quite frankly, disgusting, racist, and offers no content of value. I believe that there is a legitimate critique that could be derived from his thoughts if he didn’t couch it in language that dehumanizes an entire population and suggests that their murder is a reasonable conclusion to have after interacting with them. Please, please, please, delete those comments and warn people who make comments like that in the future. We have enough hatred, ignorance, and racist bullshit in this world and internet spaces like yours, which have so much to offer to its readers, do not need to be enablers of that.

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