The Ideology and Ethics of China`s Birth Control Program

Liberty, Harm and Utility:
What J.S. Mill Would Say About
China’s Birth Control Program
Jing-Bao Nie, BMed, MMed, MA, PhD
Bioethics Centre, University of Otago, New Zealand
(adjunct) Hunan Normal University and Peking University, China
The Role of China in the Historic
Achievement in Reducing Poverty
Two Human-Made “Miracles” in China
Rapid economic growth
 Rapid decline of fertility rate
Two Strategic National Policies
Gaige kaifan 改革开放 (the reform and open policy)
◦ From jihua jingji (planned economy) to market economy
◦ Relaxed state control over society
 Jihua shengyu 计划生育 (the population control policy)
◦ Two essential wings and one central goal
 To control the quantity of population
 To improve the quality of population
 “Fewer but healthier births”
◦ Known as the “one-child policy”
 Officially translated as “family planning”
◦ From relatively laissez faire to unprecedented state control
 Literally, “planned reproduction”
China’s Birth Control Program
A massive project of social engineering by a
authoritarian state
“China’s longest socio-political campaign”
The most ambitious and intrusive population program ever
undertaken in human history
Enormous and numerous challenging social, political,
cultural and ethical issues
In traditional Chinese outlooks
In Western theories
Eg. Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism)
Eg. Classic Marxism, Liberalism, Communitarianism, Feminism
What J. S. Mill would say?
A dialogue between a major Chinese social practice and a
prominent Western moral and political theory
Liberty, Harm and Utility
The Matter of Liberty
International Responses to the Chinese program
◦ Commendation
◦ Criticism and condemnation
The liberty principle
◦ “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the
individual is sovereign”
◦ Primary vs. secondary liberty
 How fundamental is the reproductive liberty?
◦ Private vs. public sphere
 Reproduction is never “self-regarding” only
◦ The problem of harm
The Matter of Utility
The Chinese official justification
◦ To promote “the greatest happiness for the
greatest number of Chinese people”
◦ A rational supported by the majority of
The liberty principle based on the ethical
principle of utility
 The difficulties
◦ How to calculate happiness involved
◦ How to calculate suffering and pain involved
China’s Birth Control Program:
The Claimed Success
Poverty reduction and living standard through
prevention of over 300 million births
Is the fertility decline a result of the program? If so, to
what extent?
China’s Birth Control Program:
A Pyrrhic Victory
Extraordinary human and social costs
◦ Actual social and financial costs
◦ Social suffering it has caused
Coerced sterilization
Coerced abortion
Costs mostly beard by women
Violence and conflicts
Dire long-term consequences
◦ “The single child” syndrome
◦ Abnormal sex ratio at birth
 40 million “missing females”resulted mainly from sex-selective abortion
◦ Abnormal structure of population
 Shortage of labour
 Elderly care
◦ Negative impacts over rural residents
 The structured rural-urban injustice and inequality
The Matter of Harm
The harm principle
 The difficulties
◦ Is overpopulation really a serious social
◦ Is bringing more than one child into the world
really a burden to society?
Mill’s Thoughts on Population Control
If the opinion were once generally established among the
labouring class that their welfare required a due regulation of
the number of families, the respectable and well-conducted
of the body would conform to the prescription, and only
those would exempt themselves from it, who were in the
habit of making light of social obligations generally, and there
would be then an evident justification for converting the moral
obligation against bringing children into the world who are a
burthen to the community, into a legal one; just as in many other
cases of the progress of opinion, the law ends by enforcing
against recalcitrant minorities, obligations which to be useful
must be general, and which, from a sense of utility, a large
majority have voluntarily consented to take upon themselves.
(Principles of Political Economy, Book II, Ch vii, ξ2,Emphysis added)
What Mill Would Say
About China’s Program?
His serious concerns
Liberty of thought and discussion
Consent of people
State coercion and violence
Government intervention over society
Supporting the Chinese program in principle
◦ Concern about poverty
◦ Not giving adequate attention to the human and
social costs paid for the sake or in the name of
common demographic good
Chinese practice indicating some key theoretical
difficulties in Mill’s moral and political philosophy
◦ Social utility vs. individual liberty
Beyond Mill’s Liberalism
The primacy of liberty and justice
◦ Rawls’ liberalism
 Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice
that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot
override. … Therefore in a just society the rights
secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining
or to the calculus of social interests.
(A Theory of Justice, ξ1)
The essential importance of community
 What would contemporary Western
liberalism and communitarianism say about
China’s birth control program?
The research has been conducted as a part of a
larger project, “Predicaments of Social
Engineering: The Ideology and Ethics of China’s
Birth Control Program”, supported by a grant
from the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of
New Zealand.

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