Population Control in Cold War Asia: An Introduction

Volume 10, Issue 4

On 29 October 2015, the state-run Xinhua news agency of the People's Republic of China reported headline news: the Communist Party of China announced that the government would allow all couples in the country to have two children. According to an official communiqué released on that day, the decision, made in the Fifth Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Communist Party of China Central Committee taking place between 26 and 29 October, was intended to balance its population and to address the issue of an aging population presently confronting the country (Xinhuanet 2016).

The Communist Party's official announcement that year, immediately characterized by the broadcast media as marking the end of the so-called one-child policy (British Broadcasting Company 2015; Jiang and Cullinane 2015; Al Jazeera 2015) and by one journalist as “China's most radical birth control experiment” (Fong 2016), vividly illustrates one of the defining features of population control in East Asia: the leading role that the modern state has assumed in intervening in people's reproductive lives for the sake of governing its population. Indeed, as a number of English-language works on the subject have demonstrated, postwar national governments in the region actively participated in population control by enacting birth control policy and endorsing family planning programs (Homei 2016; Chen 2011; Huang 2009; DiMoia 2008; Greenhalgh 1994, 2008; Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005; Kuo 2002). 1 Many of these works were inspired by the concept of biopower and governmentality advanced by Michel Foucault that clarified the intricate links between issues of individual reproductive conduct and issues of national power prevailed in the politics of population (Park 2008; Greenhalgh and Winkler 2005). Drawing on Foucault, these studies have paid attention to the attribute of modern state as a unit of governance and consider how the notion of individuals as members of a population and a population as an aggregate form of biological “species bodies” spurred national governments to discipline individuals' reproductive behaviors in order to manage their respective populations. 2

This special issue, which adopts a critical stance to population control in Asia during the Cold War era, aims to further our understandings of fertility reduction being deployed under the name of population control within the context of nation-states in Asia. However, in contrast to the existing works that have regarded the nation-state as a primary focus of analysis, essays in this issue also consider cases of political units subsumed under the conventional definition of nation-states and examine how a locally and nationally specific family planning program in Asia was also located within the transnational politics of reproduction and population that became increasingly pervasive over the Cold War era.

Critical studies on the historical development of the global-scale population control initiative of the Cold War era have been flourishing over the past few decades. 3 Studies emerging in the 1980s focused primarily on the internal workings of nongovernmental or transnational organizations that took part in the campaign, many of which were based in the United States (e.g., Caldwell and Caldwell 1986). Since the 1990s, with intensifying globalization shaping academic agendas, we have witnessed the rise of research in various academic fields critically reappraising the transnational population control movement of the Cold War era (for a review, see Connelly 2003). More recently, in STS, Chikako Takeshita (2011) has investigated how R&D leading to the intrauterine device (IUD) was strongly tied to the political discourse of population control in the 1960s and exposed the ways in which the IUD as a “politically versatile technology” was shaped by the global biopolitics that stratified women along the geopolitical lines of South and North. In tandem, historians, too, began to partake in the project. Most notably, Alison Bashford (2008a, 2008b, 2014) and Matthew Connelly (2006c, 2008a, 2008b) have carefully traced how a global consensus was reached in the mid-twentieth century about the idea of fertility reduction as the most viable measure of population control. They clarified how the transnational population control movement represented an aspect of the twentieth-century world history that could not be neatly explained by the seemingly self-contained category of nation-states (Connelly 2006b).

Yet, as much as research focusing on national governments can fail to recognize the importance of global politics of population and reproduction, the scope in many of the studies of the transnational population control movement has precluded researchers from adequately capturing the important role that local and national subjects made in the transnational population control movement. Thus, to fill the gap in the historiography, this special issue examines national- and local-level population control campaigns that unfolded in Asia in the light of global politics. 4 We focus on Asia because, as Susan Greenhalgh and John DiMoia in this issue also contend, the region was the target in the transnational population control movement. Additionally, this focus permits us to grasp the “relations of national to transnational power” (Loomba et al. 2006: 20–24), as the modern state both as a political unit and as an ideal has exercised enduring effects on population control in Asia that was constantly calibrated by other more micro and macro forms of population governance.

It must be noted that we have gradually gained insights into this subject thanks to a growing literature. However, most have thus far focused on the case of postindependence India (Williams 2014; Löwy 2012; Amrith 2006; Connelly 2006a; Rao 2004; Chatterjee and Riley 2001). This approach methodologically makes sense, because Indian cases most vividly describe intersections between national and inter/transnational efforts. Furthermore, these studies clearly point out that a local population and birth control scheme of the postwar period relied on the global population network that was forged during the prewar period in the colonial context (Hodges 2008; Ahluwalia 2007). While these studies have enriched our understanding, we contend that population control in Asia was a more complex affair than it was presented to be. Thus, to highlight this complexity, we adopt the following three approaches.

First, we maintain our primary focus on the officially sanctioned population control initiatives in Asia that were not chiefly premised on the network of prewar Western colonialism. Thus, Yu-Ling Huang's article analyzes family planning initiatives deployed in the context of postwar Taiwan where the US-centered Cold War order replaced the Japanese colonial rule. Kayo Sawada's article on Okinawa critically examines the context whereby prewar Okinawa, commonly depicted as Japan's “internal colony” (Siddle 1998), became subject to US occupation after World War II. Darshi Thoradeniya's work depicts that, while the origin of the Ceylonese family planning campaign could be located within British colonialism, the state-endorsed family planning program after independence relied on the initiative of politically neutral Sweden. Finally, Aya Homei's article in this issue concerns Japanese international cooperation in family planning, which she argues was embedded in Japan's position in international politics oscillating between the imagined West and Asia. Together, articles in this issue attempt to illustrate complex geopolitical factors that shaped population control measures in Asia.

A second focus adopted by this issue is the inter-Asian network. 5 The existing works, even those that pay attention to transnational elements in population control in Asia, focus much on the network between Asian and Western actors, most notably links with US demographers, activists, officials, and institutions. However, as Homei, Huang, and Sawada demonstrate, experience at other Asian sites or collaboration with other Asian subjects—which, to a great extent, relied on the prewar political system and ideologies centered on Japanese imperialism—was another important factor in the deployment of population control in Cold War Asia. This issue therefore aims to complicate our understanding by bringing another axis into the analysis.

Third, the STS approach forms a basis of some of the articles in this issue. In particular, Homei and Huang build on the works of Greenhalgh, who has ingeniously applied STS approaches to show the mutually dependent relationship between the trajectory of distinctive sciences grappling with population issues and the policy-making process attributable to the establishment of China's one-child policy (Greenhalgh 2005, 2008). Similarly to Greenhalgh, Huang investigates how various fertility and birth control studies in Taiwan were organized after World War II when the political elites considered the country overcrowded. Thoradeniya points out that the Swedish economist Gunner Myrdal's vision of rational social engineering sanctioned family planning in Ceylon. Finally, Homei demonstrates that the birth control research developed in Japan under a similar condition not only was instrumental in carving out a specific population policy and campaign in 1950s Japan but also became a factor in the historical memory that was crucial for the shaping of a humanistic Japanese family planning technique presented to Asian countries in the early 1970s. STS as a method is useful because it allows researchers to demonstrate effectively that population control was not simply an abstract idea or ideology but also involved tangible techniques and technologies of sexual and reproductive health in which politics were inscribed (Manderson 2012; Latour 1987).

We also note two topics that are highly critical for the study of the population control campaign but nevertheless remain tangential to this special issue. The first is the question of gender politics. We recognize that it is impossible to analyze the transnational history of the population control campaign without addressing reproductive bodies and gender implications. In her introduction to the EASTS special issue “Gender and Reproductive Technologies in East Asia,” Adele Clarke (2008) urges scholars to bring gender into postcolonial and transnational studies, for gender matters in localizing the practices of reproductive technologies. Family planning programs and contraceptive technologies in Cold War East Asia are significant examples for such studies. Thus, in the present issue, Sawada shows that in postwar Okinawa local women's organizations and female midwives were the major family planning instructors to introduce couples to “traditional” methods, such as the use of condoms and diaphragms and the rhythm method. Sawada also points out that family planning fieldworkers considered the culture of son preference when they chose potential users. Comparing fertility and contraception studies in 1950s Taiwan with the national family planning programs of the 1960s, Huang argues that the Taiwan-US family planning network emphasized “female” methods that required obstetricians and gynecologists to be deeply involved women's reproductive health.

However, as Bashford (2014: 5) has argued, “‘population’ was always more than the politics of sex,” touching on “almost everything” that ranged from international relations to economic development. A result of this multidimensional nature of the population issues was the rather condescending view spread among influential advocates of population control in the political and economic quarter that served to restrain reproductive autonomy and belittle gender issues that cropped up in the actual campaign (Hartmann 1987). While it is certainly not our intention to perpetuate such a view in this issue, we simultaneously want to highlight first and foremost that the discussion of population in the early Cold War period, although dealing with reproduction in which gender politics mattered most, took place in the arena where reference to gender was almost nonexistence. Yet, even such a disdainful Cold War discussion that seemed to overlook the issues of gender was never devoid of gender politics. As Carol R. McCann (2009: 160–61) has aptly demonstrated, the Cold War population discourse was sustained by the “co-configured imperial, racialized, and (heteronormative) gender logics” that underwrote the global diffusion of “modern reproductive masculinities.” We look forward to further studies of the roles of gender in forming family planning programs' reasoning, agendas, and practices in different locations of Asia, and specifically how Asian case studies shed light on gender, sexuality, reproduction, and politics in the transnational settings.

The second tangential issue involves ethics. As with the case of gender, the question of ethics—the most basic of which is whether a family planning initiative unfolded under the rubric of top-down population control was good or bad—has remained a central theme in the study of the transnational population control campaign of the mid-twentieth century. On this point, the response in the literature ranges widely, with some studies tending to condemn the extreme scheme as coercive or violent (e.g., Tone 1997; Hartmann 1987). The authors of the articles in this special issue unanimously take neither a celebratory nor an accusatory stance to the mid-century transnational population control campaign, because we are alert to the various impacts of the top-down family planning services that provided birth control means to women who experienced too many pregnancies. Instead, as Thoradeniya does in her contribution to this special issue, we are primarily interested in exploring the entwined political backstories (Bashford 2014: 5) of population control initiatives deployed in Asia. Moreover, significantly, this stance applies when we tackle the ethical claims being made by our protagonists about Asian forms of population control. For instance, Homei uncovers the constructive element in Chojiro Kunii's claim that the Japanese family planning initiative was more humanistic than the Western counterpart. However, we recognize that population control was not only a subject of political bartering but also a real phenomenon for many people. Thus, it is crucial to reflect on the complex ethical concerns of the mostly top-down family planning programs adopted as part of the global population control measures.

Finally, in presenting this special issue, we would like to categorically emphasize that we do not take the notions of either Cold War or Asia for granted. While thus far we have used the Cold War in a conventional sense as a marker for a specific period after World War II, it is not our intention to depict the Cold War merely as such. Following research pointing out that the global population control initiative did not simply happen during the Cold War era but was very much part of the Cold War politics (Sharpless 1995; Donaldson 1990), we contend that the Cold War, attributed to the rise of the discourse of Pax Americana predicated on the expansion of US imperial power, was one of the most critical political backdrops that had a direct impact on the manifestation of population control in Asia during the middle of the twentieth century. On the one hand, most of the regions in Asia studied under this special issue—Japan, Okinawa, and Taiwan—were strategically important US allies under the Cold War. They were therefore actively integrated into the “free world,” or a Cold War construct underpinned by the idea of a US-oriented system of capitalist free trade and by what Christina Klein (2003, 24–28) calls the “global imaginary of integration.” 6 On the other hand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, studied by Thoradeniya and Homei, respectively, were rendered “developing countries” in Asia, having recently gone through the decolonization process and actively participating in the Non-Aligned Movement (Shimazu 2014). And crucially, as Greenhalgh reminds us in her critical commentary in this issue, behind these Cold War trends in Asia the political presence of the Communist People's Republic of China loomed large in the region's geopolitics. These specific Cold War political circumstances directly informed the relationship between a specific family planning program in each of these noncommunist sites in Asia and a population control initiative organized transnationally. This was the case especially because some of the major US-based philanthropic organizations that had been supporting transnational collaborations in the population work for Asia, most notably the Rockefeller Foundation, became spurred by the aforementioned US Cold War ideology of integration during the 1950s (Sharpless 1997). These organizations then framed their transnational cause in ways congruent with the ideology that advanced global-scale cooperation based on mutual bonds. In the 1960s, Cold War ideology became even more pervasive in the global discourse of population when population control itself began to be a formal element in US foreign policy. Under the Kennedy administration, the United States officially endorsed family planning as part of development aid and supported population research and family planning initiatives deployed in the developing countries (Greenhalgh 1996; Donaldson 1990; Hartmann 1987). In this context, population control helped the United States establish the position of Asia's allying countries even more firmly within the “free world” for the sake of containment, while simultaneously population control was expected to act as a device with which to deflect the attention of nonaligned countries in Asia away from the Communist faction (Davis 1956). Population control under the Cold War, therefore, was a strategic means with which to establish an integrated world envisioned by the United States, and population control in Asia specifically carried a special meaning precisely because of the region's strategic importance in the Cold War.

As much as the Cold War's manifestation in population control was complex, Asia, too, was more than simply a fixed geographical category. In this issue, we take a critical stance toward the notion of Asia by following a tradition of metageography and postcolonial studies (Keyder and Palat 2013; Duara 2010; Lewis and Wigen 1997), as well as the recent discussion that has unfolded in this journal on the use of East Asia or Asia as an analytical framework for the analysis of science, technology, and medicine (Anderson 2007, 2012; Bray 2012; R.-L. Chen 2012; J.-S. Chen 2012; Fan 2007, 2012a; Tsukahara 2009, 2010; Clancey 2009; Low 2009; Chen 2008; Fu 2007; Nakajima 2007; Hong 2007). Drawing on the arguments that these debates advanced, we contend that what underlies our geographical focus is that the idea of an underdeveloped, poor Asia as a breeding ground for babies and communism, which prevailed in the international discussion on population buttressed by demographic transition theory as well as Rostowian modernization theory (McCann 2009; Greenhalgh 1996; Szreter 1993; Hodgson 1983), was itself a construct informed by the kind of Cold War political and cultural diplomacy mentioned above, whose goal was to assist the expansion of US power. For this reason, the deployment of international/transnational population control programs in Asia was in tandem with other Cold War cultural projects in which the United States had a vested interest, such as the expansion of Peace Corps projects (Goldstein 2008; Burner 1999; Cobbs Hoffman 1998; Cobbs 1996) or the rapid growth in area studies in the United States (Engerman 2007; Szanton 2004; Miyoshi and Harootunian 2002). These projects, buttressed by the above-mentioned global imaginary of integration, both were mobilized by and reproduced the notion of Asia as a coherent geographical entity.

With these methodological and theoretical points in mind, articles in this issue analyze how fertility reduction programs in Asia were mediated by the interplay between the Cold War geopolitical dynamics as a vehicle to drive population control on the global-scale and the local and national constellations of reproductive politics in Asia. Specifically, each article presents a case study that carefully delineates the interplay in a given site within the region. Huang's article reveals the heterogeneous international network of family planning between postwar United States and Taiwan. American private foundations required acquiescence of US foreign affairs offices and the Kuomintang (KMT) regime, while the KMT technocrats demanded population studies and unofficial birth control services to convince conservative elites as well as the public of the need of fertility control. Similarly, Sawada unravels the politics of reproduction in postwar US-occupied Okinawa, arguing that the distinctive ways in which issues of fertility control were dealt in Okinawa, compared with Japan, where abortion was de facto legalized from early on in the postwar period, paved a way for nongovernmental and international organizations to participate in, and lobby for, reproductive rights. Thoradeniya tackles the question of why one of the first international family planning programs took place in Sri Lanka and why Sweden invested heavily in the Ceylonese family planning scheme, despite political neutrality. Homei's article traces how the Japanese state-endorsed birth control initiative, in which Japan participated in international cooperation in its attempt to regain international reputation, was remembered in the specific context of the Cold War.

Thus, this special issue adds specific Asian case studies onto the current historiography of global population control, but its aim is more expansive: to complicate various assumed elements presented in existing studies by highlighting the centrality of Asian subjectivities and by depicting interactions among sciences, practices, and ideas of population and reproduction within Asia and the global-scale population control fueled by the Cold War geopolitics.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Aya Homei

Aya Homei is a lecturer at the School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures at the University of Manchester. She is the coauthor of Fungal Disease in Britain and the United States 1850–2000 (with Michael Worboys, 2013). She has also worked on the history of midwifery in Japan and is currently working on the project “Family Planning, Health Promotion, and Global Medicine, 1945–1995: The Activities of Japanese Health Campaigners around the World,” funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Yu-Ling Huang

Yu-Ling Huang received her PhD in sociology from the State University of New York at Binghamton and is assistant professor at the School of Medicine at National Cheng-Kung University, where she teaches medical sociology and STS courses to medical students. Her research investigates the practices of reproductive medicine and public health policies from the STS feminist perspective.


1 For a more comprehensive literature review, see John DiMoia's article in this issue.

2 Of course, state intervention in reproduction was only one aspect of the politics of population sketched out by Foucault. Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A. Winckler (2005), who examined population governance in the People's Republic of China by drawing on Foucault, also complicated the narrative by elaborating on how state intervention interacted with other aspects of biopower, such as individuals' efforts to optimize their capacity as biological beings and social institutions' techniques of disciplining individual reproductive conduct. For another example of using Foucault to detail the politics of population in East Asia, see Park 2008.

3 In this introductory article, we use the singular form initiative to describe the transnational population control movement unfolded during the era. However, it is not our intention to regard it as a homogeneous trend. Our definition of the movement specifically draws on from the idea of “population establishment” elaborated by Matthew Connelly (2008b: 155–94), which points out the multiplicity of the movement. For more critical commentary on the scholarship, see Murphy 2010.

4 Necochea López 2014 and Murphy 2012 adopt a similar perspective. For other works that offer a framework to analyze science and globalization, see Nappi 2013, Fan 2012b, Sivasundaram 2010, and Latour 2007.

5 This approach is inspired by inter-Asian studies that have flourished over the last few decades. For a theoretical background, see Chen 2010.

6 According to Klein (2003: 41), the “global imaginary of integration” was one of the two pillars of US Cold War ideology (the other was “global imaginary of containment”). It “constructed a world in which differences could be bridged and transcended” and “relationships of ‘cooperation’ replaced those of conflict . . . and ‘community’ became the preferred term for representing the relationship between the United States and the noncommunist world.”


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