The following is transcribed from a recent interview of our managing editor, Chelsea Follett, on the “Stu Does America” program on The Blaze. The full video interview can be found here.
Steve “Stu” Burguiere: I’m joined now by Chelsea Follett. She’s a policy analyst at the Cato Institute Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, and is the managing editor of HumanProgress.org. Her new paper, “Neo-Malthusianism and Coercive Population Control in China and India,” overpopulation concerns often result in coercion. For those keeping score at home, it is Policy Analysis Number 897. Welcome to the program, Chelsea. I appreciate it.
Chelsea Follett: Thank you so much for having me on, Stu, and thank you for drawing attention to this issue. The instance of coercive population control that your audience is probably most familiar with, and that’s the most egregious right now, would be the situation in China. At this point, it’s hard to deny, with mounting evidence, that the Chinese Communist Party has enacted wide-ranging human rights abuses against its ethnic and religious minorities, particularly the Uyghur population. And one of those abuses would be subjecting this population to particularly strict enforcement of its two-child policy. China’s two-child policy replaced the one-child policy in 2016, and we’re now seeing many reports coming out of Xinjiang, the region where the majority of the Uyghur minority lives, showing women giving first-hand accounts of undergoing coerced abortions, sometimes even in the third trimester, being forced to undergo sterilization surgeries while imprisoned in internment camps, or under the threat of their relatives being imprisoned if they don’t comply.
And, of course, everyone in China who becomes pregnant with a third child is subject to some pressures like this, although enforcement varies a lot by jurisdiction. But we’ve definitely seen that the way this policy is implemented has been influenced, unfortunately, by these prejudices against religious and ethnic minorities. That’s not how they justify it though.
Stu: Yeah. It’s interesting, Chelsea, ’cause your paper drew attention to that for the first time. I don’t remember hearing in this glorious celebration that they got rid of the one-child policy, they just simply implemented a two-child policy. It’s not as restrictive, obviously, it is maybe not affecting as many people, but it is still crushing. And the way it’s being enforced largely on just enemies of the state or perceived enemies of the state is really shocking.
CF: This is all true, I agree with you. The way that they’re enforcing it is they can use this policy as a cover to decrease populations that the government already doesn’t like, but that’s not how they’re justifying it. The reason behind the one-child, now two-child policy, is ultimately tied to environmental concerns. China State Council says in their national population development plan, the current one that goes up until the year 2030, that “the tensions between population and resources and environment will not fundamentally change.” And this is why China needs to continue to promote “balanced population development,” which is their sort of Orwellian way of saying, forcibly limiting couples to now two children. Again, not as bad as one child, but still, we are talking about a situation where a couple can be fined up to 10 times their annual income, have their life savings seized, where people have to apply for birth permits before even conceiving a child. It’s incredibly dystopian.
Stu: Let’s back up and how did this get… ‘Cause it’s about Neo-Malthusianism, Thomas Malthus is the guy who’s seen as the father of this particular theory. Talk about what he believed, and how did it take hold in China?
CF: Sure. At the end of the 18th century, an English clergyman named Thomas Malthus published a very influential essay on population, where he theorized that, as the population grew, people would no longer be able to feed themselves and there would be widespread famine. And, of course, after he died, that did not happen. The Industrial Revolution occurred, the Green Revolution occurred, people were able to feed themselves even as the population reached new highs, poverty decreased, and living standards reached levels that would be unimaginable to our ancestors, certainly to Thomas Malthus. And it was largely debunked until the 1960s and 1970s when we saw a resurgence in Malthusian thought, that’s why we call it Neo-Malthusianism, when the environmental movement really started to take off. And originally this was a very bipartisan concern, people saw that the world population was growing during the ’60s and ’70s at levels that it had never grown before, it kept reaching new highs, and they were worried that this would strain the world’s resources and would lead to widespread starvation.
And so you saw a lot of concerns, renewed concerns, about overpopulation, and these ideas eventually reached officials in China. We know that the man who helped design the one-child policy was influenced by Thomas Malthus himself. He read that essay of his, and other writings by Thomas Malthus, but we also know that he read a very influential report called “The Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome, a western environmental group made up of concerned professionals, scientists and officials and others who were just trying to figure out how we could solve this overpopulation issue. And basically this report suggested that you could use systems analysis or math to calculate the ideal sustainable population of a country. And so the officials of the Chinese Communist Party at the time looked at this, they thought that it made sense and that their population should be much lower than it was, and that’s when they first implemented the one-child policy in 1979. Toward the end of the ’70s, they implemented this policy and they were rewarded actually by the West with lots of praise initially for the policy.
In 1983, the United Nations Population Fund, the UN population agency, actually gave the inaugural Population Award meant to encourage people, officials who had come up with population solutions to a man named Qian Xinzhong, who was the man in charge of China’s State Family Planning Commission, the man in charge of the one-child policy in its early days, when we know that there were widespread abuses. There were reports in the Wall Street Journal of women literally being tied up and hauled off in trucks to get sterilizations they did not want, or undesired abortions. But they [Chinese officials] were rewarded for this. And the other winner of the first Population Award— there were co-winners—was Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India at the time, who had actually earlier overseen a bunch of mandated sterilizations during a period of Indian history called “The Emergency” from 1975 to 1977 when civil liberties were suspended.
And there were about 11 million sterilizations, many of them, probably about seven million of them, forced during this period. It’s not clear how much Indira Gandhi herself knew, it may have been mostly her nephew, who was in charge of the policy, but still this was a case of the UN trying to reward any policy to decrease the population regardless of whether or not it was coercive. And it’s not that they didn’t know these policies were coercive, actually one of the people on the award committee resigned in protest of the recipients, because it was well known at the time that there were abuses during “The Emergency” and that China’s one-child policy was very coercive.
Stu: Yeah. It’s interesting, Chelsea, going into this, I kinda knew an outline, at least of China… You really go into depth on all of the stuff that’s going on and it’s all just shocking. India sort of surprised me. Could you go into even… “The Emergency,” the whole story of “The Emergency” is worth a read just there. It’s fascinating and very strange. But even today in India, we’re seeing remnants of this philosophy that live on, and it shocks me how common place it is with sometimes celebrities that we’ll interview, they’ll just quote these things as if it’s just fact. It’s so deeply ingrained in some of these people’s heads that too many people is a bad thing, when I certainly look at it as a really good thing. The more people, the better.
CF: I agree with you. Unfortunately, in India today… And again, we need to clarify that this is not anywhere close to the scale of what you are seeing in China. India is a very different case. But even in India today, there are some troublesome policies that remain. There is less political representation for people who live in states with high birth rates, so that is maybe a very indirect form of trying to push people to have fewer children, although I don’t think it’s very effective. And about half of the population of India live in states with what they call two-child policies, but it’s not nearly as bad as what you see in China. In India, the two-child policies, these typically restrict people from being able to run for office, being able to get a government job, and there are some other restrictions, but they’re not being fined massive amounts of money, they are not being forcibly sterilized, that’s no longer politically palatable. But there is still a very widespread concern in India about overpopulation. Their Prime Minister Modi spoke about that … last year, during the Indian Independence Day speech. He talked about an overpopulation crisis and the need for urgent action on this.
And there has been a lot of talk in India about having perhaps a national two-child policy, but again, because India is a democracy, that should protect the population against actual coercive population control policies on the level that we’re seeing in China. But like you’re saying, this mindset, it’s not restricted to people in China or India. This is something you see among celebrities in the West, whether it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying last year, in the face of climate change, “Is it okay to still have children?” Or whether it’s the celebrity TV host, Bill Maher, also saying last year, and these are his words, that he “can’t think of a better gift to our planet than pumping out fewer humans to destroy it.”
CF: I know. Prince Harry, if he’s still called a prince, they may have removed that title, but across the pond last year, he also said that he thinks responsible parents should have two children “maximum” for environmental reasons. So, this is a very widespread, popular belief now among some environmentalists. It’s particularly prominent on the left. Again, originally this was a bipartisan concern, but with this latest resurgence we’ve seen, it’s very much on the left. You may remember last year there was a report calling for climate action, including a reduction of the world’s population to fight climate change, that went very viral. It was shared by many office holders, including senators, Bernie Sanders, Ed Markey, Chris Van Hollen, representative Jimmy Gomez, Susie Lee, and the list goes on. And President-elect Joe Biden has even voiced soft support of the family restrictions in China. He said to a Chinese audience, back when he was vice president and back when they had the one-child policy, not the two-child policy, “Your policy has been one which I fully understand, I’m not second-guessing, of one child per family.” With that phrasing, “I understand, I’m not second guessing,” he voiced some level of acceptance, which comes with this mindset that overpopulation is this very urgent problem, it’s a crisis that may even necessitate force or coercion or some acceptance of policies of that nature.
Stu: Yeah. Chelsea, it’s fascinating. We’re running short on time here, and I would love to have you back and go into a little bit more depth on this. But it is amazing, too, not only how these beliefs had the resurgence in the ’60s, but how all those predictions from the ’60s wound up crashing into the ground and failing and how… You point out in the paper, too, how the solution comes naturally if this is a problem, that people, as they get wealthier, start having less and less children. We’re gonna run out of time here for now, but I encourage people to go to the paper. It’s “Neo-Malthusianism and Coercive Population Control in China and India,” overpopulation concerns often result in coercion, Policy Analysis Number 897 by Chelsea Follett. She’s a policy analyst for Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, and managing editor of HumanProgress.org, which I will recommend incredibly highly as a website because it actually reminds me that the world doesn’t suck, and I love that you guys do that over there. Thank you so much for keeping track of all that data, and it’s such an important effort you guys are doing.