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  • Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng's China
  • Therese Hesketh (bio)
Susan Greenhalgh . Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng's China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. xxii, 403 pp. Paperback $21.95, ISBN 978-0-520-25339-1.

China's one-child policy is widely acknowledged to be one of the most controversial social policies ever implemented. It has also directly affected the lives of one-fifth of the world's population for thirty years. One of the tantalizing questions about the policy has always been how it originated. How had a policy so unpopular and so at variance with the needs of the great majority of the population, the rural peasantry, ever been agreed upon in the corridors of power? Who were the real drivers behind the policy, and what were the demographic arguments behind it? This whole area has been shrouded in mystery; as a result, many ill-informed assumptions have been made. After frequent repetition, these have often simply become received wisdom. In this extremely well-researched book, Susan Green-halgh sets the record straight.

From the outset, Greenhalgh makes no attempt to hide her total opposition to the policy, describing it as causing "social suffering and human trauma on a vast scale," straining relations between the Communist Party and the peasantry, damaging women's reproductive health, and exacerbating violence against infant girls. She answers many questions for the first time, throwing new light on the whole process of the development and early implementation of the one-child policy during the years 1978 to 1980, Deng Xiao Ping's first years of power. This is by far the most detailed account to date of its origins by someone who has studied China's population policy from an anthropological standpoint for more than twenty years and who is, therefore, uniquely placed to tell this story

The story is fascinating. It starts as China is emerging from decades of global isolation and highly authoritarian Maoist rule. What people forget about China at this time is the fact that scientific endeavors, especially in the social sciences and critical thought, had been discouraged, even suppressed during the Mao years. Policy had been made on political and ideological grounds. Under Deng Xiao Ping, in contrast, science and technology were embraced with fervor, and scientists were called upon to lend their expertise to the development of economic and social policy. The use of science was virtually to become the official ideology of the Deng regime, and it was seen as a panacea for solving many of the country's problems.

Against this background, a group of leading natural scientists and engineers came to steer the demographic policy agenda. They believed that China was facing a population crisis that demanded a drastic solution, an extreme view at the time. Significantly, these scientists were removed from the people for whom the effects of their recommendations would be most profound, the rural population [End Page 105] that needed children to help work their land and for whom male offspring was a necessity.

In describing the events, the personalities, and the process of developing the policy, the book provides a case history of how policy was promulgated in the early Deng era and how it drew on the expertise (or prejudices and ignorance) of scientists. Some fascinating facts about solutions to what was perceived as the population problem emerged. Scientists were calling for the one-child policy, while politicians recognized the unacceptability of this proposal, favoring rather the two-child-with-long-spacing solution. This provides an illuminating picture of policy making in the early Deng years.

Another crucial though often forgotten issue is that China already had the "later, longer, fewer" program in place. Since 1970, this policy had sought to reduce the birth rate through a voluntary policy, which called for later marriage, spacing between births, and fewer children. It was supported by easy access to contraception and abortion. The policy took into account the needs of the peasantry by providing a flexible set of rules with a nonpunitive approach while focusing on propaganda and education to change behavior. This policy was very successful, reducing the total fertility...