Wed, October 27, 2010
China > Mainland

Memories of a population guru

2010-10-27 02:23:45 GMT2010-10-27 10:23:45 (Beijing Time)  Global Times

Wu Cangping Photo: IC

At age 88, Wu Cangping is China's population guru.

In 1974, he was one of the founders of China's first population research institute at Beijing's Renmin University, which later grew into a major think-tank for the government to map out its one-child policy.

In March 1979, Wu, along with two other colleagues, penned a report, urging the country's decision-makers to take action to rein in the population explosion. The report, known as "Five suggestions to control China's population growth," preceded a 1980 public letter from the Chinese Communist Party to the country's young people about the need to control the population.

With the 3,000-word letter, China formally launched its one-child policy.

This year, three decades since its inauguration, the policy has reached its expiration date. "Thirty years later, when the pressing issue of population growth becomes less acute, a different population policy can be adopted," according to the original letter.

In the past year, speculation rose that China indeed might drop its one-child policy. Wu does not think that China is going to do so and it was confirmed by Vice Premier Li Keqiang's speech on September 21 during a conference to mark the 30th anniversary of the policy.

Li said that China's population pressure has always been a key issue in the country's economic and social development and that the existing birth control policy will continue.

But Wu has a different take. "In reality, our population policy has been relaxed over the years, especially in the rural areas. Families with two children are common. There is no need for the government to announce to the world that we are lifting the ban. China is a big country. You just do it," he said.

Gender imbalance

Critics of Wu and his colleagues at the Population Institute of Renmin University - the stronghold of China's mainstream demographics - say the original statistics were ill-based and the one-child policy has caused an imbalance in gender ratios among the newborns and the graying of China's citizens.

"In our research, based on our deep-rooted tradition which values boys over girls, we had anticipated the imbalanced ratio," Wu said. "But we didn't expect it would go so bad. In the published reports and books (at the time), we didn't see any examples like this."

At present, the ratio between boys and girls among newborns in China hovers at 120:100, respectively.

Nevertheless, Wu insists the 1980 decision was the only option China had at the time.

"It was a sensible and daring decision. No party in the world had the courage to take such a step," he said.

"If no birth control was adopted, China's population would probably expand to 1.9 billion people and the momentum will keep going. Who is going to feed us? Can we have enough housing? And what about education?" he asked.

'Millions act as one'

Given this, Wu admitted that in meeting population reduction quotas handed down from the upper authorities, there were cases of coercion, especially at local levels. "But in general, we used education to persuade millions of Chinese families to act as one," he said.

Wu, with an amiable face, talked in a loud voice and appeared at least 10 years younger than his age.

"It was a time when people lived on rations," Wu recalled on a recent weekend morning in his high-rise home in western Beijing. "We went to factories and talked to workers. Those with advanced thinking agreed with us that having fewer children might be a remedy for the food shortage at the time."

Pointing at an oval-shaped graph from a thick book on demographics spread on the coffee table near him, Wu indicated that in the early 1980s, 300 million women from the baby booms in the 1950s and 1960s were both at their peak childbearing age. "We would see a population explosion if nothing was done. If we paid attention to the problem right after the founding of the new republic in 1949, things would have been much easier," he added.

Wu, a native of Guangdong Province, graduated from the Economics Department of Hong Kong-based Lingnan University in 1948. Upon graduation, he went to the US to pursue further studies.

In 1951, he returned to China after earning a MBA at New York University and studying statistics at Columbia University. He first taught at the Statistics Department of Renmin University and in 1953 was recruited to join the first national population census.

Wu felt lucky that as a novice demographer he didn't participate in a population control debate, which saw many prominent scholars and academics degraded and labeled

Surprising census

In 1953, China conducted its first national census and the result far exceeded the general estimate. Instead of the expected 450 million people, the population registered at 600 million. The increase, according to Wu, was due largely to low infant mortality rates and people's urge to have more children in their newly peaceful lives.

Having examined population growth trends in the early 1950s, Ma Yinchu, a US-trained economist and then-president of Peking University, concluded that further increase at such a high rate would be detrimental to China's development. In June 1957, at the fourth session of the First National People's Congress, Ma presented his "New Population Theory," advocating government control of reproduction.

During the following three years, Ma was accused by critics of following the thinking of Thomas Malthus, a British scholar who warned of the dangers of population growth. Ma was also criticized for attempting to discredit the superiority of socialism and showing "contempt for the people."

"There were several hundred articles published against Ma," Wu said. "It was overwhelming." Wu shook his head, almost in disbelief. "Nobody dared to talk about population control any more."

Wu Jingchao, a prominent sociologist from the Economics Department of Renmin University, was also labeled as a rightist for following Malthusian theory by advocating birth control.

Fueled partly by Mao Zedong's belief in "More people, more powerful," the population continued to grow in the 1960s. After the three-year famine from 1959 to 1961, when millions of people died from starvation following the Great Leap Forward campaign (1958-60), 1963 saw 29.54 million babies born, the highest record in the country's recorded population history.

From the very start, there were voices within the Communist Party supporting birth control. "The Party has long been divided over the issue," Wu said.

Enter Deng Xiaoping

In August 1953, Deng Xiaoping, then-vice premier of the Government Administration Council, predecessor of the State Council, instructed the Ministry of Health to offer help to women with birth-control measures.

Disrupted during the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the work on population control picked up at the start of 1970s, though not openly. "At that time, we could not openly announce a birth control policy," Wu said. "We were afraid of being accused of objecting to Malthusian Theory, while in reality following it."

In 1973, birth control was for the first time included in the nation's Five-Year Plan. Policies such as "Late Birth, Late Marriage, Big Spacing Between Each Child, and Fewer Children" and "It is ideal for one family to have two children" were formulated.

Contraception options, such as condoms, were widely available and distributed for free. Women who opted to use intra-uterine devices were entitled to paid leave and the government paid for the operation.

In the meantime, the political situation in China grew slightly relaxed.

In October 1971, the UN General Assembly recognized the People's Republic of China as the only legitimate government of China. In 1973, to prepare for the Third World Population Conference in 1974 in Bucharest, Romania, a population research group was set up. Wu, who speaks fluent English and is also an expert in economics and statistics, became a member.

"At the start, I felt a bit nervous," Wu said, "Because we still could not openly talk about the issue. But at least, they would not wield their sticks at will."

Open research

After 1978, the Party adopted a reform and opening-up policy, Wu and his colleagues no longer needed to conduct their research discreetly.

On August 5, 1979, Guangming Daily, a State-owned newspaper, published an article titled, "Wrongly criticized one person, population increased 300 million." One month later, Ma Yinchu, China's foremost promoter of population control, was formally "rehabilitated."

Wu had also long foreseen the problem of aging. "Strictly following a one-child policy will inevitably bring out an aging society," he said.

"The aging of population will appear in early 21st century. So towards the end of the 20th century, we should reconsider our policy," he warned in his research report in early 1979.

'Improve life quality'

Today, Wu is probably better known for his research in China's aging problem. "The solution is not to have more children," he said. "Having more chil-dren will also see us with an empty nest. The key is to improve our social services and raise the quality of life."

Wu rose from his sofa seat, walked briskly to his study and from the walled shelf, took out a newly published collection of his works. On the wall near the doorway, there is a shelf filled with prizes honoring his research over the years. Wu, who holds an honorary professorship at Renmin University, still advises five doctoral students.

Since his wife passed away in 2007, Wu now lives alone with a housemaid from Anhui Province. Every morning, he goes downstairs and walks for an hour in the garden.

Wu said his two children moved to the US many years ago and both have busy lives, however, Wu does not like the idea of moving to the US and living the rest of his life in a retirement home.

"My life is here," he said. "China has just started to build up its service for the elderly. So long as we are determined to do it, we will definitely achieve it."

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