Family planning as a Mao concept
The family planning policy has been grabbing headlines since the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee eased some of the policy restrictions. The family planning policy, introduced in the late 1970s, allowed most families to have only one child.
The policy was implemented after Chairman Mao Zedong’s era, but in fact Mao came up with the idea of family planning way back in the 1950s. And although he didn’t implement a family planning policy, it would be pertinent to look into that chapter of history now that the policy is being eased
In August 1949, when the CPC was on the verge of attaining victory in the civil war, signifying the “failure” of the US policy toward China, Washington published a paper, “United States Relations with China with Special Reference to the Period 19441949” (or simply “China white paper”). The paper said regimes were overthrown in the past because they could not feed China’s huge population, and concluded that the CPC would fall into the same trap. Mao wrote a series of articles in response to the “white paper” and then US secretary of state Dean Acheson’s “letter of transmittal”.
In an essay, “The bankruptcy of idealist conception of history”, Mao said it was not the huge population but the unfair distribution of social resources that forced the oppressed people to revolt.
Instead of viewing the people simply as consumers (beyond the economic sense), Mao also emphasized their role as factors of production: “It is a very good thing that China has a big population. Even if China’s population multiplies many ties, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production. The absurd argument of Western bourgeois economists like Malthus that increases in food cannot keep pace with increases in population was not only thoroughly refuted in theory by Marxists long ago, but has also been completely exploded by the realities in the Soviet Union and the Liberated Areas of China after their revolutions.” The article also has one of his famous quotes: “Revolution plus production can solve the problem of feeding the population”.
The short essay reveals Mao’s demographic thoughts: it was the bad social system — feudalism coupled with pillaging imperialism — that forced Chinese people into poverty. Mao and his fellow leaders used this tenet to deal with the demographic difficulties, including population pressure.
Under the principle, birth control, a by-product of industrialization, was forbidden in the early 1950s. It was only in August 1956 that the Ministry of Health issued a document lifting the ban on the sales of contraceptives and legalizing the practice of abortion after the urban youths complained against the ban on birth control.
The economic success — especially in industrial construction — during this period strengthened the decision-makers’ confidence in the planned economy, and Mao’s idea of “family planning”, or guiding population growth to fit the economic plan, gradually gained ground. At a top-level meeting in 1957, attended by more than 1,800 elites from all professions, Mao said: “No country other than China has such a large population. China needs to advocate birth control ... and family planning ... China has 600 million people … What if the population grows 10 times to reach 6 billion? The government might need to establish a department or committee on family planning.”
According to historical documents, that was the emergence of the phrase “family planning” in China. Mao’s family planning proposal was part of his demographic outline for the planned economy. In other words, population growth, like economic growth, can be planned scientifically to best serve the country’s production needs and for exploitation of resources.
Mao had enough reason to be confident. From 1950 to 1957, China’s social gross output had increased from 68.3 billion yuan to 160.6 billion yuan and per capita income had grown by 10.5 percent a year, both “unprecedented” achievements.
But the economic achievements made Mao overoptimistic about the potential of a larger population creating miracles. In a letter, dated April 15, 1958, Mao wrote that China could “catch up with the UK within 15 years and the US within 20 years”. A similar sentence was included in the CPC’s economic plan a month later, thus starting the “Great Leap Forward”.
After 1958, Mao deleted the sentences on family planning from all his publications and no longer talked openly about the idea. The idea to establish a national agency on family planning, initiated by Mao, was thus abandoned by Mao himself.
But a society can develop only gradually. Mao planned to achieve faster economic development in the same way that wars are fought — by mobilizing the people — which was not the right way. Marx said a society can’t skip or cancel its natural development stage. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” set up goals which were not achievable at the level of social development at that time.
In the following years, China suffered serious economic losses because of the impractical objectives and unrealistic means of production. That was the result of violating Marx’s materialism and Mao’s own pragmatic “revolution plus production” theory.
Several conclusions can be drawn from this. First, Mao was not a professional demographer, but a great revolutionary, thinker and statesman who devoted his life to seeking ways to solve China’s social problems and contradictions. His “demographic theory” is part of the overall Mao Zedong Thought, aimed at finding a way to liberate the Chinese people, boost the country’s economic development and achieve industrialization. Mao Zedong Thought is a combination of Marxism and Chinese revolutionary practices. So it’s not correct to review Mao’s demographic thinking without considering the special historical background or to separate his demographic thinking from Mao Zedong Thought as a whole.
Second, any demographic theory must first answer the question: What causes population pressure? Most scholars until then had attributed it to rapid population growth, but as a firm believer in Marx’s historical materialism, Mao was convinced that people are both consumption force and production force. It was this “people-oriented” thinking that had helped Mao and his fellow leaders to establish the People’s Republic and unite people to strive to build a prosperous nation.
Third, Mao rightly judged a large population’s potential role in economic construction, but he overestimated that potential and made impractical plans for China’s development. He launched the “Great Leap Forward” and the “cultural revolution” (196676) in the illusory hope that mass movements would solve all the problems, including those of the economic kind. By doing so he betrayed his own “demographic theory” and caused great setbacks in China’s economic construction and social development.