Family Planning, Chinese Style

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Family Planning, Chinese Style

Should the decision to relax the one-child policy be seen as a welcome, humane reform?

Family Planning, Chinese Style
Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

China’s one-child policy is frequently framed as an economic and social imperative, implemented not willfully, but rather as a necessity. Those favoring this argument often fail to acknowledge that the supposed necessity of state-sanctioned birth control came after decades of Mao Zedong dictating that the population give birth to hordes of children, so they could prop up the numbers of the People’s Liberations Army (PLA) and contribute to the country’s labor drive. The wombs of Chinese women have thus been the property of the state from the time the Communist Party came to power.

As callous as it may seem for states to think about their newborn citizens as a number that makes up a quota, it is in fact something every responsible government must do. Over-population is one of the gravest threats facing the planet. Still, even by cold-hearted standards, China takes a particularly brutal approach to ensuring these quotas are met. And the directive from the Central Committee in late 2013 to ease its one-child policy, to allow only-child parents to have a second child, is just as dubious as its more robust previous position.


Beijing’s influence in the provinces is often misunderstood. It would be impossible for a country as large and diverse as China to be controlled absolutely from the center. Beijing often encourages economic growth by allocating large sums of money to the provinces, but when it comes to implementing Central Committee policies the provinces have considerable autonomy. So Beijing’s authority, rather than being overly pervasive, is oblique; ambitious cadres who want to rise through the ranks of the competitive, hierarchical system know that their carefully documented and quantified performance will be scrutinized when opportunities for advancement present themselves.

This pseudo-communist bureaucracy persists, despite several disastrous failures in the past. The starkest of them was the Great Famine, in which an estimated 36 million people died. As part of the Great Leap Forward, Mao and the Central Committee kept requesting impossible grain and steel yields from the provinces; local officials, fearful of the consequences of a shortfall, left nothing in reserve for the workers. As each target was met, the next was raised. As large swathes of the countryside starved to death and were driven to cannibalism to survive, those in the cities remained largely unaffected. And Mao, who had become aware of his policy’s effects, continued to export grain so he could fill his coffers with foreign currency.

Fifty years on and one only has to stroll along the Bund in Shanghai to realize just how mighty China has become; yet the country’s leadership remains dangerously ambivalent towards the well-being of its people. Today, China’s wealth ensures people don’t starve en masse, but the government’s commitment to authoritarian one-party rule has not waivered. And the one-child policy is an ever-present reminder of this.

The accounts of forced abortions and compulsory sterilizations are all too common to be ignored but, by continuing to frame the policy as a requisite for continued social and economic growth, that is exactly what is happening. The Communist Party obscures the reality of its policy behind the façade of statistics projecting what the country’s population would be if the one-child policy wasn’t in place (after the 2010 census state-media reported that without the one-child policy the population could have been 400 million larger).


The government has successfully managed to manipulate the public debate, but for this numerical yin there’s a statistical yang. Since the policy was enacted in 1980 Chinese medical officials have performed more than 200 million sterilizations on both men and women and have inserted more than 400 million intra-uterine devices in women. (These figures were supplied by the government so it’s reasonable to assume they’re on the conservative side and don’t take into account any procedures performed “off the books,” as it were.)

In an article for the Guardian, the novelist Ma Jian interviewed a woman in Hubei province who’d been forced to undergo an abortion eight months into her pregnancy. Her account is harrowing: “He was still alive after the nurse pulled him out of me. He was a tough little creature. He clutched the nurse’s sleeve and wouldn’t let go. She had to peel his fingers off her one by one before she could drop him into the bin.” Infanticide doesn’t seem to strong a word for such butchery. One ought not to be surprised then that a state that treats its citizens with such cruelty can have the effect of obscuring morality in its people. It’s likely that Mao and his comrades, as students of revolution, would have read of Thomas Paine’s opposition to the execution of Louis XVI on these very grounds. But Mao evidently preferred his revolutionaries a good deal more tyrannical than Paine.

The levels of infanticide are a carefully guarded state-secret, but Ma’s personal testimony would seem to suggest that it’s still a problem that afflicts the nation that places a high importance on male heirs:

A few days later, while walking along the banks of the Pearl river [in Guangdong’s Fengzhong County], I saw a dead baby lying in an opened black plastic bag. I had seen discarded fetuses in China many times before: purple lumps of flesh lying on rubbish heaps or inside communal dustbins. But this was a pale, fully grown, newborn baby, with the umbilical cord still attached. A passerby had spotted it, and was prodding it with a wooden stick.

This is not some impoverished nation, it’s a country that could soon boast the world’s largest economy, and happened as a direct result of government policy.

Following the change of policy in 2013 the government-controlled press reported heavily on the case of Zhang Shuxia, a former obstetrician with Fuping County Maternal and Child Health Care Hospital, who’d been sentenced to death, suspended for two years, for selling babies born at a hospital in northwest China’s Shaanxi province to human traffickers. One can only assume that this was an episodic attempt by the Communist Party to demonstrate that it will prosecute those suspected of similar offences (something they’re commonly criticised for not doing). The government maintains a blackout on the number of children sold on the black market, but some sources estimate that the number is at least 70,000 a year.

In September 2013 the state-media revealed that the police had saved 92 children kidnapped as part of a human trafficking ring. They arrested 301 suspects and were lauded by the media for their efforts to crack down on the endemic problem.

These sporadic official reports and the multitude of unofficial testimonies paint a picture of a country that has set up a system in which the trafficking of children not only thrives, but is facilitated. The secrecy and draconian punishments for those breaching the one-child policy mean that selling one’s child is sometimes the only viable option for poor parents. Yet the Communist Party continues to try and frame the crimes as being perpetrated by rogue medical professionals or criminal gangs, rather than acknowledging what it really is: the callousness of the state filtering down and directly affecting the actions of its people.

Gender Imbalance

Chinese parents’ historical preference for boys, coupled with the restrictions, is having some serious societal effects; most frequently cited is the disproportionate number of males who are unable to find brides and the ageing population. But what of the women who are driven to abort their pregnancies by the “invisible hand” of the state?

It’s illegal for couples to find out the sex of their unborn child, but it’s hardly difficult if one really wants to. I’ve spoken to couples that have simply paid a small bribe to their doctor who has happily handed over the information. And it’s easy to purchase home ultrasound kits to conduct the procedure by oneself (albeit with questionable reliability). On discovering their baby’s gender many women feel under great pressure to abort their pregnancy and try for a boy. The statistics are telling: The health ministry revealed that since 1971 there have been 336 million abortions performed. To put this in perspective, China performs over 13 million abortions a year, compared with India’s 6.5 million, and the United States’ 1.2 million.

Not surprisingly, abortion in China is big business. In stark contrast to the moral complexities that accompany the issue in the West, in China abortion is presented as something divorced from morality, it’s been commodified. Abortion clinics are advertised on the sides of buses, on the headrests in cabs, on billboards, and even on subways with ads offering half-price procedures to students.

Perhaps these differences are a product of social conditioning. Abortion in the West has always been divisive, with either side of the argument often unable to comprehend their opponents’ position. In China, the government relies on public ambivalence to help validate and enforce their one-child policy.

Now, about 18 months since the family planning rules were relaxed, there hasn’t been the parental rush to have a second child that many predicted. The government has conceded that even it has been surprised that only 700,000 families have begun to fill out the required paperwork to obtain the necessary permit to have a second child. The early indicators suggest that the reasons for this are largely economic. But it seems that – in some small way – families are pushing back against the government and women are reclaiming some autonomy over their bodies.

One shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the Communist Party’s decision to ease its one-child policy wasn’t sparked by any sense of humanity. The CCP has not decided that it wants to reform and begin to treat citizens with dignity and respect. Rather, it was a decision made to ensure that it can continue to grow economically as its population ages. In other words, the quotas have changed and any belief that this is the first step towards a more compassionate ruling party is misguided.

In short, this is no shift in ideology; rather, it reinforces the direction the country has been taking since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. Provided the Communist Party’s authority remains unchallenged, economic prosperity is of primary (sometimes sole) importance, regardless of the consequences. This kind of hyper-capitalism practiced by an authoritarian, unopposed government inevitably leads to widespread abuses against the people who don’t get in line and follow in an orderly fashion: The one-child policy is a case in point.

Tim Robertson is a Beijing-based freelance writer. You can follow him on twitter @timrobertson12