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Missile Science, Population Science: The Origins of China's One-Child Policy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 June 2005


This article traces the origins of China's one-child-for-virtually-all policy to Maoist militarism and post-Mao military-to-civilian conversion. Focusing on the work of Song Jian, leading missile scientist and scientific architect of the strict one-child policy, it shows how during 1978–80 the resources of defence science and the self-confidence of the elite scientist enabled him boldly and arbitrarily to modify the work of the Club of Rome and use that Sinified cybernetics of population to redefine the nation's population problem, create a radical one-child-for-all solution to it, and persuade China's leaders that his “scientific” solution was the only way out. Although the advent of “scientific decision-making” in the population arena helpfully broke a political logjam, allowing China's leaders to adopt a strong policy on population control, the making of social policy by an elite scientist/engineer from the defence world posed dangers for the Party and China's people. The case of population policy is important because it provides rare insight into the way scientists have sometimes shaped elite policy-making and because the social and political consequences of the one-child policy have been so troubling.

Research Article
© The China Quarterly, 2005

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This article was written with the support of a grant from the Science and Technology Studies Program of the US National Science Foundation (#0217508), an Individual Project Fellowship from the Open Society Institute, and a grant from the Newkirk Center for Science and Society at the University of California, Irvine. This support is gratefully acknowledged. The article has benefited greatly from conversations over many years with Edwin A. Winckler; his careful reading as well as that of David Bachman, Geoffrey McNicoll and Wang Feng; and discussions with Martin King Whyte and mathematical demographers John Bongaarts and Griffith Feeney. My deepest thanks go to the many Chinese who have shared their insiders' experiences and interpretations of the elite politics of the one-child policy over the years. Space limitations mean I am able to cite only key sources.