SIX months ago, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, carried its first editorial on birth control. Asserting that China's population is increasing by more than 13,000,000 per year and that economic development cannot yet catch up with this rapid multiplication, the editorial urged the Government to spread the use of birth control and to encourage youths to postpone marriage until age 25. This authoritative statement of policy was not the first indication of Red China's concern with population. In 1953 the State Council had instructed the health department to give public instruction in birth control, and efforts were made in 1954-56 to strengthen this program; abortions were permitted as early as 1954 under certain restrictions, and the restrictions were subsequently eased; Party journals and the press carried articles on birth control. In 1957 intensive propaganda for family limitation began throughout the country, and a birth-control exhibition was opened in Peking on March 8, three days after the editorial in People's Daily.

Although not sudden, this recognition of the emergence of a population problem in Red China represents a dramatic shift in Communist strategy. Russia's early liberality with reference to abortion and birth control ceased in 1935, and the official Communist line has always been that socialist economics alone can benefit people, that overpopulation is a myth designed to conceal the true cause of misery--capitalism. Russia still clings to this view. If, therefore, Red China is in practice deviating from the Soviet line, it is not out of caprice but because of her own severe problems. The census taken in 1953 reported a population of 583,000,000 in mainland China, over a hundred million more than the United Nations had been estimating. The Red officials, faced with more hungry people than they had expected and with a rate of increase that taxed their ingenuity, doubtless found the mental gymnastics of reconciling birth control with Marxism easier than taking the awesome risk of doing nothing about the frightening accumulation of people in an already crowded country.

China's population problems are by no means unique. The same demographic trends that force the Red Government to adopt a population policy are affecting other areas of the world as well. In fact, Red China is now following, doubtless by conscious imitation, the examples already set by Japan, India and Puerto Rico, where governments are encouraging the limitation of births. Other countries with analogous problems may adopt a similar policy in the future, regardless of whether they are Communist or non-Communist.

It is not easy for a nation to admit openly that it has too many people. It is hard to rise above the old elemental belief that numbers as such mean power, that multiplication and fruitfulness are identical. The forces leading to official anti-natalist policies must therefore be powerful ones; and if they are spread widely as well they have international significance. Indeed, the population changes now occurring throughout the globe are so novel and so immense that they render obsolete much of the existing literature on political demography. Among other effects, they tend to widen or at least maintain the gap between the have and have-not nations, to exacerbate the political instability of the latter, and to give national population policies a new rôle, the reverse of those of Hitler and Mussolini but greater in importance.

The most salient demographic change is the astonishing rise in the rate of growth of the world's total population. Another fact of the greatest importance is that the poorer countries are now contributing far more than their share to the inflated growth of the world's population. This means, for one thing, that the areas from which the industrial countries draw many of their raw materials are becoming glutted with people. It means that the greatest advances in science and technology are being made in those countries which have the least need of it in terms of population expansion. Above all, it means that the gap in wealth and power as between the rich and poor nations is becoming wider.

Frequently the process of economic development in "retarded" areas is spoken of as if these areas were on the way to catching up with the industrial nations. This is not the case. Fifteen of the richest industrial countries in 1938 had an average per capita income roughly ten times that of 20 non-industrial countries. In 1952-54 the same industrial countries had an average per capita income about eleven times that of the same non-industrial nations. Over the period covered the population of the 15 industrial countries rose by 7.6 percent, that of the 20 non-industrial countries by 10.7 percent. If the rates of human multiplication had been reversed, national incomes remaining the same, the gap between the two groups in per capita income would have been narrowed rather than widened.

Further evidence of the influence of population in widening the gap between industrial and non-industrial nations can be seen with reference to raw materials. Since 1929 the underdeveloped areas have substantially raised their share in the production of primary materials, but their share in the consumption of these has dropped. In other words, they are consuming less and less of the raw materials they produce, despite the fact that they are adding more and more people. A French demographer, Frédéric Tabah, writing in the French journal Population, has calculated that between 1929 and 1950 the underdeveloped areas increased their relative production but lost in relative consumption of seven out of ten important primary materials. "In the aggregate," he says, "two-thirds of humanity consumes less than 5 percent of the primary materials."

The continuing economic disparity between industrial and nonindustrial nations comes from the technological advance of the one and the excessive population growth of the other. These two factors are inter-related. Unimpeded human multiplication is giving the non-industrial countries exactly what most of them do not need--more people. It is hindering their acquisition of what they do need--more capital, more skill and greater productivity. As the struggle for resources intensifies, complex technology will play an ever greater rôle. Technological advances, however, will hardly be made by peasant populations living near the subsistence level and multiplying at a rate close to 3 percent per year. Unless some deus ex machina intervenes, the gap between the industrial and non-industrial countries will not be narrowed.


Drastically lowered mortality with continuing high fertility has not only burdened the underdeveloped nations with the greatest increase in human history but has also given them exceptionally young populations. Contrary to general belief, reduced mortality does not usually contribute to an aging of the population. The reason is that most of the reduction, especially when the death rate has been high, occurs in the younger ages. The advanced countries today, because of their secular decline in fertility, have between 2.5 and 3.5 people aged 15 or over for each child under 15. The non-industrial countries have between 1.2 and 1.8. The latter countries accordingly have to struggle with a high proportion of child-dependency, not fully compensated for by their lesser old-age dependency; and the high proportion of youth affords a fertile source of political instability. Unless jobs can be found for the swelling waves of young people coming into the labor market each year, their ebullient energy turns to agitation, revolution and war. The recent Youth Festival in Moscow was a tremendous demonstration of the skill and sagacity of the Soviets in whipping up youthful enthusiasm. Colonel Nasser and Cheddi Jagan also understand what youth can do, as does Robert Lacoste. The degree to which students influence politics in many areas is one expression of the importance of youth when their number is disproportionately large and their opportunities disproportionately small.

Much of the demographic and political future lies with the still underdeveloped majority of the world. Here, with the breakup of colonies, the number of sovereign nations has expanded. Here the squeeze of population growth and adverse economics on the one hand, and rising aspirations and popular discontent on the other, have become most intense. Under the circumstances, what are the leaders of these countries to do?

What the United States would like to see them do is to foster peaceful and democratic industrialization, a rising level of living and, in general, adherence to our side. To this end we have given or lent money for agriculture, industry, transportation, public health and arms. We have maintained that this is an effective way to head off Communism because, as we say, chronic poverty breeds Communism. This reasoning has much to commend it, but it ignores population trends and thus runs the danger of underestimating or misinterpreting the requirements for economic development. Envy and revolt are nurtured not by absolute but by relative poverty, and such economic progress as the underdeveloped countries are making is not lessening the gap between them and the richer ones.

We ourselves have contributed to these difficulties. The United States, perhaps the most generous sponsor of public health programs around the world, has as yet done nothing, at least officially, to aid the reduction of birth rates. At the same time we have enjoyed a continuing technological advance that enhances both our need for and our ability to command raw materials from abroad. Above all, our example encourages very high aspirations which, if reached at all by the rest of the world, cannot be reached in the foreseeable future.


The recurrent crises in the Middle East illustrate the effects of runaway population growth. Despite sharp diversities, this region is characterized generally by the world's highest birth rates and by high but falling death rates. Its people, already multiplying rapidly, may increase even faster in the future as their still excessive rate of mortality is reduced. In view of the tenacious poverty, illiteracy and economic wastefulness that characterize the region, this continued demographic expansion promises more trouble ahead.

Egypt's population, for example, has grown at an accelerated rate from 14,218,000 in 1927 to approximately 24,000,000 today. The gain during the last decade alone has been 26 percent. The registered birth rate (known to be deficient) averaged 44 per 1000 in 1950-53, while the registered death rate, having fallen 30 percent in ten years, was 19 per 1000. The fact that the population has grown some three times faster than the area under cultivation would not be deleterious if productivity in agriculture had quadrupled or if the country had industrialized; but neither of these things has happened. In 1947 the proportion of the labor force in manufacturing was still what it was in 1927--8 percent. Half of the male working force is still trying to make a living from farming, which means an astounding average of about 1,250 people dependent on farming for each square mile of cultivated area (as against 35 in the United States). No wonder Egyptian cities are filled with refugees from the destitute countryside. No wonder the experts find a long-run decline in the Egyptian level of living.

A "solution" has been commonly considered to be more dams on the Nile and increased land for agriculture; the United States has been berated for reneging on the financing of this "solution." But schemes of the magnitude of the Aswan Dam take time as well as money. Furthermore, economic development does not consist in simply extending the cultivated area but in altering the economic and social system. With Egypt's population growing so rapidly, the new lands would be filled with surplus people as fast as they were opened up, with no relief to the farmers on the old lands. The Economic Sub-Committee of Egypt's Population Commission reported in 1955 as follows: "All that can be hoped for [from the Aswan Dam and reclamation projects] is that the rapid fall in the standard of living would be halted." The government is tentatively examining the prospects for fertility control, but in the meantime Colonel Nasser, faced with a virtually hopeless domestic situation, has had to use his one great asset (Suez) and his one great issue (Arab-Jewish antagonism) to wring every possible concession from both Communist and Western Powers and to garner every possible ounce of support from his restless populace at home.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is now supported by the United States in four ways--by direct subsidy to the Jordanian Government, by contributions to the U.N. relief funds for the country's large Arab refugee population, by bilateral grants of surplus agricultural products and other benefits, and by the promise of military protection against foreign intervention. What manner of state is this that draws sustenance from the American taxpayer? It is an artificial state with a serious population problem and little or no future as a viable entity. Its citizenry, now a million and a half strong, is growing at an estimated rate that will double the number in 25 years. One reason for such rapid growth is that roughly a third of the people--the Arab refugees from Israel--have for years had no obligation to support themselves. In 1953 the refugees on UNRWA relief rolls came to 475,000. Though gradually being absorbed into the local economy, they have long lived on the United Nations, with no penalty for unlimited reproduction. Since Jordan's most striking geographical feature is a large expanse of desert, the farming area is so limited that the nation has 622 persons per square mile of cultivated land. Most of this land itself is so marginal that the pressure on it by Jordan's overwhelming agrarian population is equal to that of Egypt. The only real way of increasing the cultivated area is by impounding the waters of the Jordan and Yarmuk Rivers, but the most ambitious plan yet set forth for doing this would add only 200 square miles to the irrigated area. At the minimum this operation would take 15 years, at which time the population would have grown sufficiently, at the present rate, to put 4,500 people on each of those 200 miles. Actually, the squabbling with Israel has delayed the Jordan Valley development indefinitely, but not the population growth. It looks as though the American taxpayer, dubbed as "materialistic" by his Arab friends, will have in Jordan an increasing opportunity to demonstrate his largesse.

Syria's ratio of cultivated land to population is much higher than Egypt's or Jordan's, and her agriculture is more capable of expansion. However, although nobody knows how many people there are in Syria, one can be certain that they are rapidly multiplying. Since cultivation has expanded primarily by putting new rainfed regions to the plow, the fertility of the virgin soil has provided an agricultural bonanza that cannot last. To overcome her poverty Syria must therefore turn to irrigation and industrialization, both of which take time and money. Her present position illustrates the principle that it is not alone density of population in ratio to resources that affects economic prospects, but also the rate of population growth. Even an underpopulated country (a category that hardly describes Syria) may have too rapid a rate of human increase. The reason is that, with population constant, it requires an investment of 3 to 5 percent of national income to produce a 1 percent increase in per capita income, whereas, with a population growing at 3 percent per year, the rate of investment must be somewhere between 12 and 20 percent--extremely hard to achieve under conditions of poverty and governmental inefficiency. Rather than face squarely economic problems of such magnitude, the Syrian leaders are seeking other means to power. They exploit the emotional crusade against "imperialism" and Zionism and regularly spend at least one-third of the national budget for "defense."

Israel's success in a world of hostile Arabs not only suggests that a nation's most precious resource is a highly trained citizenry but also illustrates the complexities of internal political demography. In 1947, on the eve of Israel's national birth, Palestine was a crowded country. The Jews, however, comprised less than a third of the population, and their natural increase was only two-thirds that of the Palestinian Arab majority. The prospect for a Jewish state in Palestine looked hopeless. The solution came in the form of a successful war. A new ethnic state embracing slightly more than three-fourths of Palestine was created by the exodus of some 700,000 Arabs, leaving only a small Moslem minority in Israel. This gave room for more Jewish immigrants, who came in such huge numbers that in seven years from 1949 to 1956 the population grew by 80 percent. Israel's population now almost equals the number who were in all of Palestine in 1947, and again Israel faces a crisis. There is not room for many more immigrants. Hemmed in by intransigent Arab nations, the nation has only the assets of a highly trained and united citizenry at home and Jewish capital abroad. Her ideological commitment is to accept more Jewish immigrants, which would give her a continued population growth out of all proportion to her territory and resources. She cannot fulfill this commitment unless she gains either more territory or more economic opportunity; she may have to cut off immigration and even lose some of her own nationals to other countries, where, because of their skills and the helping hand of co-religionists, Jews are often welcome. On the other hand, with Israeli aspirations frustrated and Arab emotions inflamed by their own domestic problems, war may again flare up as a desperate gamble on both sides.


The rôle of population as a guarantee of national strength is waning while its rôle as an economic and military liability is increasing. The ever larger dependence of industry and warfare on scientific technology enhances the value of trained manpower; yet the unique rate of population growth now prevailing severely hinders an increase in the proportion of highly trained people, especially in the underdeveloped countries. It also hinders their employment when trained, because the capitalization of longrun industrial and developmental projects, which employ trained manpower, is difficult in the face of rising consumption demands on the part of indigent but increasing millions.

It is no accident, then, that similar policies aimed at halting runaway population growth are emerging in countries of opposite political persuasion and contrasting demographic doctrine. If today China is following Japan and India in this regard, other Communist as well as capitalist countries may do so in the future. As excessive population growth continues, they will feel the need of overcoming the effect of one government policy (mortality control) by another government policy (fertility control).

How effective the anti-natalist policies will be is hard to say. In Japan the Government's encouragement of family limitation is certainly an important factor in the dramatic 41-percent drop in the birth rate from 1948 to 1955. In Puerto Rico the drop over the same period was 13 percent. In India a slight drop has probably occurred, but the Government's policy is too recent there to have had much effect. It is too much to expect that a sufficient number of underdeveloped countries will adopt anti-natalist policies, or that if adopted they will be sufficiently effective, to reduce the rate of population growth soon. Many of the weaker countries still feel too unsure of themselves, too lacking in sheer manpower, to follow the radical lead of more secure nations like Japan, India and China.

It looks, then, as if the pace of human multiplication will rise still further before it reaches its peak and begins to decline. Even after the rate of increase starts declining, as it must eventually do, substantial growth can continue for many decades. The added strain upon resources and the exacerbation of existing inequalities is therefore likely to continue to complicate international relations. If the Communist nations are beginning to abandon the dogma that economic development alone is the panacea, independent of all else, it is time for the free nations, and particularly the United States in its foreign policy, to do the same.

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  • KINGSLEY DAVIS, Professor in the Institute of International Studies, University of California; formerly Director of the Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University; editor of "The Population of India and Pakistan"
  • More By Kingsley Davis