China's Second Thoughts About Family Planning

Amid New Doubts, Harsh Policies Linger

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BEIJING, OCT. 22, 2005 ( China’s fierce demographic control policies have exacted a heavy toll during the last quarter-century. An overview of the consequences appeared in an article in the Sept. 15 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

«The Effect of China’s One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years,» authored by Therese Hesketh and Zhu Wei Xing, noted that the regulations cover matters ranging from family size, late marriage and the spacing of children. The term «one-child policy» is, in fact, misleading in that it is applied only to a part of the population, primarily government workers and those living in urban areas. Rural families are generally allowed a second child, five years after the birth of the first, especially if the first was a girl.

The restrictions are underpinned a system of rewards and penalties, which are administrated by local officials and which vary widely. They can include economic incentives for compliance, as well as substantial fines, including confiscation of belongings and dismissal from work, for noncompliance.

Contraception and abortion are the backbone of the implementing the policy. Long-term measures are favored, with intrauterine devices and sterilizations together accounting for more than 90% of contraceptive methods used since the mid-1980s. The authors note that the majority of women are offered no choice in contraception.

Hesketh and Zhu note that authorities claim that the policy has prevented 250 million to 300 million births. The authors caution that population statistics in China are known to be subject to government manipulation. The total fertility rate — the mean number of children born per woman — decreased from 2.9 in 1979 to 1.7 in 2004, with a rate of 1.3 in urban areas and just under 2.0 in rural areas.

Girls eliminated

One consequence of the family planning restrictions has been the growing disproportion between male and female births. The proportion of male live births to female live births ranges from 1.03 to 1.07 in industrialized countries. In China the ratio was 1.06 in 1979, but climbed to 1.17 by 2001.

Sex-selective abortion, facilitated by the use of ultrasound images to find out the sex of unborn children, accounts for a large proportion of the female babies killed. And while infanticide is thought to be rare, sick female infants are known to receive less medical care. The growing scarcity of females has already resulted in kidnapping and trafficking of women for marriage, and could well be a threat to the country’s stability in coming years, according to some analysts.

The low birthrate has set the stage for a rapid aging of China’s population. The percentage of those over age 65 was 5% in 1982 and now stands at 7.5%. It might top 15% by 2025. These figures are low compared to industrialized nations. But the lack of an adequate pensions system in China means that most of the elderly depend on their children for support, leading to concern over how the ever-smaller numbers of children will cope in coming years.

Authorities have tacitly acknowledged some of the problems caused by the family planning system, by adopting a more flexible policy in various regions. A more-open admission came at the start of this year, Reuters reported Jan. 6. On the occasion of China’s population reaching the 1.3 billion mark, an editorial in the China Daily supported the one-child policy but conceded: «Admittedly, the family planning policy has gone awry in some places.»

Reuters also reported the same day that China was taking further steps to avoid the selective abortion of females. The news agency said that government data showed 119 boys were being born for every 100 girls. Sex-selective abortion was already illegal, but the new plans involve a further tightening of regulations, including banning the use of ultrasound machines to detect the sex of fetuses.

Authorities, however, made it clear that they will not countenance opposition to family planning policies. The Associated Press reported Jan. 5 that a Shanghai woman, Mao Hengfeng, was sentenced to an additional three months in a labor camp because of her opposition to the policies. She was already serving a one-and-a-half year sentence for her campaign to abolish the family planning policies.

Repression intensifies

Recent events in the eastern province of Shandong indicated just how harsh the family planning policies still are. On Sept. 7 the Washington Post reported that Chen Guangcheng, a blind peasant who campaigned against the use of forced sterilization and abortion, had been seized by authorities. Chen was visiting Beijing while preparing a lawsuit to challenge the abuses.

Chen, who lives in Linyi, a city to the southeast of the capital, had protested against local measures that required parents with two children to be sterilized and women pregnant with a third child to undergo abortions. Three days later the Washington Post reported that Chen had been confined to his home by authorities and couldn’t receive visitors.

Time magazine in its Sept. 19 issue also reported on the events in the province. The article graphically described the case of a forced abortion of a 9-month-old unborn child being carried by Li Juan.

The article explained that family planning policies were eased at the national level in 2002, allowing parents to have extra children, so long as they paid big fines. But in many cases local Communist Party officials still maintain the old, harsher restrictions and attitudes.

Faced with criticisms by provincial leaders that the birthrate was too high, local officials launched a campaign in March to eliminate what they considered to be the extra births. Time magazine described the operation as «one of the most brutal mass sterilization and abortion campaigns in years.» In one county alone at least 7,000 people were forced to undergo sterilization between March and July. According to Time, several villagers were beaten to death for trying to help family members avoid sterilization.

Officials also resorted to arresting family members of women who did not agree to be sterilized, the Chicago Tribute reported Oct. 2. And in one case a family was forced to pay a fine and fees equivalent to $617, more than an average farmer makes in a year in the province.

The Washington Post followed up the matter with a report Sept. 20. The newspaper said that officials in the city of Linyi had been dismissed for abuses committed while enforcing the one-child policy. But the newspaper also cited Jian Tianyong, a local lawyer involved in a lawsuit against the officials, as saying that only a few low-level officials had been punished, leaving the party leaders untouched.

The recent events have been criticized by the human rights organization Amnesty International. In an Oct. 14 press release Amnesty started by noting it has not taken an official position on China’s «birth control policy.» But it is concerned about the human rights violations resulting from the coercive methods used to apply the policy.

Referring to forced abortion and sterilization, and the forcible detention of people, Amnesty declared that it considers such actions «to be cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment amounting to torture.»

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