In Edge.org‘s 2013 collection ‘What Should We Be Worried About?’, the first piece is ‘Chinese Eugenics‘ by Geoffrey Miller. It’s one of the worst nonsense-mines I’ve ever tumbled into. Apart from being classic, semi-racist “China is going to take over the world” fear-mongering, it’s also wildly inaccurate and misleading, and just completely wrong in many places.
Irritatingly, the Edge.org interface doesn’t seem to let you comment directly on individual articles, so I’m making my response a full post here. Just to give you a taste of what Miller’s article is all about, here’s a quote from the first paragraph:
China has been running the world’s largest and most successful eugenics program for more than thirty years, driving China’s ever-faster rise as the global superpower. I worry that this poses some existential threat to Western civilization.
Total misrepresentation of the one-child policy
The main premise of Miller’s article is that there’s an orchestrated eugenics regime in China that’s been taking place on a huge scale for a few decades, but even before that this idea has been central to Chinese culture since the dawn of time. Now, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there is / was eugenics research going on in China, even on a large scale (as there was in many countries in the 20th century, including the USA), but it’s nothing like how Miller tries to claim.
It would have been quite interesting if Miller actually documented or gave any evidence at all for “the world’s largest and most successful eugenics program” of which “China makes no secret … in either its cultural history or its government policies”. But he doesn’t – he just makes some vague hints about it and tries to link to to much larger, better known policies such as the one-child policy.
Miller seems to think that the one-child policy isn’t just about controlling China’s population growth (that is what it’s for), but also about somehow ensuring that better genes are passed on. He doesn’t give any evidence for this whatsoever, and doesn’t even explain quite how this would work scientifically. Each couple being limited to one birth doesn’t somehow make the children “higher quality” (Miller’s term).
What the one-child policy does do is reduce population pressure on infrastructure, health, education etc. etc. that the Chinese state is still struggling with anyway. It’s not like this is a mysterious area with little research – the whole world knows about the one-child policy and there’s masses and masses of research on it. There would at least be hints in academia if there was some sort of eugenics conspiracy or program wrapped up in the one-child policy.
The Chinese government also seems to be wrapped up in an internal debate about whether or not to relax the one-child policy, as it’s currently generating a dangerous side-effect: a top-heavy population with, to put it bluntly, too many old people and not enough young people. That doesn’t seem to me to be the expected result of a finely crafted mass-eugenics program.
The other thing that Miller totally glosses over (or is just ignorant of) is that the one-child policy is a) very badly implemented in many places and b) has had all sorts of terrible side-effects (other than the top-heavy population issue). The first point is that the one-child policy is not evenly implemented, and is very vulnerable to corruption, loop-holes, mismanagement etc. etc.
The second point is that the one-child policy is creating huge social problems, particularly a dangerous gender imbalance. China’s population is steadily moving towards a higher proportion of males, which is really dodgy territory for a society. Having too many males is generally regarded as a bad thing for a population.
Update: Pete pointed out in the comments that the one-child policy is actually set up in such a way that non-Han ethnicities and the rural poor have more children than Han urbanites. Again, this is the complete opposite of Miller’s argument.
A healthy babies conspiracy!
The “Chinese Eugenics” article also tries to claim that the concept of eugenics is not a modern addition to Chinese knowledge and culture. Apparently, this has long been a particular concern of the Chinese, and they’ve always made efforts to ensure that their babies are healthy and intelligent.
If that sounds totally normal and unremarkable to you, that’s because it is. Every culture everywhere since ever has been interested in healthy babies. It’s human nature. It’s not even just human nature, it’s just nature. There is nothing interesting about the fact that trying to create healthy babies is important in Chinese culture.
There are many stupid things in Miller’s article, but one of the most stupid is his pointless insertion of pinyin (the standard romanisation system for Mandarin Chinese) for terms he uses. Inserting pinyin like this is fairly standard practice in academic literature, supposedly because it makes it easier for people to follow the terms being used and to look them up if necessary. However, this only makes sense if you’re quoting a translation of a Chinese source or are referencing actual Chinese terms.
If you’re not, then there is absolutely no point whatsoever in inserting the pinyin. Why not insert the terms in Arabic or French? Miller has randomly sprayed his article with the pinyin for translations of English terms he uses, but for no reason. We can look the terms he uses up in an English-Chinese dictionary if we want to know what they are in Chinese. Here’s an example:
For generations, Chinese intellectuals have emphasized close ties between the state (guojia), the nation (minzu), the population (renkou), the Han race (zhongzu), and, more recently, the Chinese gene-pool (jiyinku).
See how pointless that is? He’s not using Chinese terms or a quoting from a translation, he’s just inserting pinyin for his English, presumably because he thinks this makes it look more legitimate. Perhaps (yexu) we should all try this technique (zuofa), as it will certainly (kending hui) make everything we write (women suoyou xiede dongxi) seem more believable (kanqilai geng kexinde).
Hard and soft power
Moving on, Miller tries to claim that China is going from strength to strength with its hard and soft power abroad. One strategy for this is apparently “owning America’s national debt”. That China completely owns America’s national debt is a common misconception and a favourite of fear-mongering politicians (I wonder why Miller included it).
Unfortunately, it’s not true. China owns about 7% of America’s national debt. It’s still a significant chunk, but it’s nothing like what Miller implies by failing to give the real figure when he says “owning America’s national debt”. Plus debt is not a good investment, and if the US economy goes bad then so will China’s. This arrangement doesn’t give China any real ‘power’, hard or soft, over the US.
The idea that China is working its soft power influence across the globe is a complete joke. China does not have a good image in the vast majority of countries, and a lot of layers in its government seem to be trying as hard as they can to make this worse. See this, this and this for some quick-fire examples of hilariously bad soft power cock-ups from media and government organisations in China.
Total misrepresentation of China’s education system
Miller then decides to turn his attention to another famously-flawed area of modern China: its education system. I’ve written before about how badly the media in other countries misrepresents China’s education system. According to Miller, though, it’s producing a generation of intellectual, scholarly types who will go on to run the country due to their superb leadership skills and education (rather than, you know, political maneuvering, family ties, blind party allegiance etc.).
Miller even references the gaokao. This is the widely-hated pre-university exam that is extremely unfair and showcases the worst of rote-learning-for-the-exam style education. It in no way fits in with Miller’s ridiculous idea of a concerted effort to produce a generation of super-children.
Ridiculous assertion of ‘co-operation’
That last point brings me on to what might be the most ridiculous sentence in Miller’s whole article:
There is unusually close cooperation in China between government, academia, medicine, education, media, parents, and consumerism in promoting a utopian Han ethno-state.
Where do you even begin with that? It isn’t just wrong, it’s at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to right. Co-operation between government, media, academia, education, media, parents, consumerism? That genuinely is a nice list of competing factions in China’s political landscape. Again, Miller makes no effort to provide any evidence for this wild assertion (because there is no evidence for it at all).
Miller than caps it off with the use of the term “utopian Han ethno-state” – it almost sounds like he’s swallowed a large quantity of internal Party memos and ended up believing it all. Sure, the CCP might dream of a “utopian Han ethno-state”, but it’s not going to happen.
China is not going to take over the world
Sadly, I think Miller’s whole article just boils down to a disgusting attempt to stir up some fear and hatred by promoting the worn-out idea that China is coming to get us. This is now an old, boring idea that really should be heading for retirement, but it keeps popping up in the media, probably because it sells newspapers and gets traffic.
Miller pretends that he’s spreading this bullshit out of some sort of weird concern for ‘the West’ and for China in his final paragraph, which begins: “My real worry is the Western response.” It ends with:
A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world.
What a complete crock of shit.