This article argues that the origins of the one-child policy beginning in 1980 in China, and its development into the current system of “comprehensive population management,” are to be found not in any unfolding of a statist or authoritarian logic, or within the parameters of a nominally “socialist” project, but rather in a return to a properly capitalist set of concerns and governmental techniques, the first iteration of which can be traced to the 1920s and 1930s. With regard to the broad set of economic reforms launched in the period 1979–81, it is argued that the one-child policy is absolutely continuous with other reforms across economic sectors (agricultural responsibility systems and urban enterprise reforms) and discontinuous with anything we might understand as population management in the period 1949–76. The “law of value debate” in 1979, which “resolved” a long-standing set of issues concerning national accounting, planning, and accumulation, is found to be—despite its apparently Marxist character, derivation, and vocabulary—the passage through which a capitalist developmental logic was reintroduced into Chinese governing, with significant consequences.

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