Ecoscience: China's Population Crisis

With a projected 1.2 billion mouths to feed by 2000, China's leaders are trying to address the country's population crisis.

| May/June 1983

  • population crisis - simple maps comparing China and U.S. land area
    China and and U.S. are equal in terms of total land area. However, China has to support four times as many people, a population crisis the country's government is struggling to contain.
    Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • Anne and Paul Ehrlich
    Anne and Paul Ehrlich.

  • population crisis - simple maps comparing China and U.S. land area
  • Anne and Paul Ehrlich

China faces a very serious population crisis, the crux of which can be seen by examining a few sample statistics. Although the total land area of China and the United States are roughly equivalent, its arable land is approximately one-half of ours and must support more than four times as many people. In addition, its weather is less stable and its environment has suffered far more abuse than ours. Perhaps most dire, with nearly a quarter of Earth's people it possesses only a twentieth of our planet's fresh water!

As its own government recognizes, many of the problems faced by the People's Republic of China can be traced directly to overpopulation. In the 1960's, Premier Zhou Enlai stated, "If we control population development, we will obtain benefits. Not only will it reduce the burden of the state, increase (capital) accumulation, and enable our country to become wealthy and powerful more quickly, it will also raise the scientific level of our country so that it will catch up with and surpass that of the [advanced countries] more quickly, and accelerate the speed of our industrialization."

This has not always been the state's position, though. In 1949, Mao Zedong was parroting the tired Marxist line contending, in essence, that properly organized socialist states had nothing to fear from population growth.

However, by 1953 China's first census showed that its population was approaching 600 million souls, and was growing at a rate of 2% per year. At that rate, it would have reached a population of about 1.2 billion by 1990. These projections galvanized the nation's leadership, and in 1957 Mao proclaimed "population growth must be controlled."

China had already launched its first campaign to accomplish this, but it was brought to a halt by the 1958-1960 "Great Leap Forward." This was a crash economic program whose most famous feature was the promotion of "backyard" steel production — a total fiasco of inefficiency and disorganization. As a result of the program, industrial and agricultural production decreased and famines occurred.

In the early stages of what turned out to be a "great stagger backwards," pronatalism had a resurgence, and there were even discussions of possible future labor shortages. Ironically, however, growth was much reduced during this period as birth rates plunged and death rates soared in response—it has been presumed—to the general disruption of Chinese life. It's even possible that, for a brief period, the nation reached zero population growth (ZPG).

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