Last week this horrific photo went viral in China showing a dead baby beside its mother after it was forcibly aborted in its 7th month. This was because the family failed to pay a 40,000 yuan ($6,280) second child fine. To be honest, I didn’t initially take much of an interest in the story. It seemed to be a tragically common case that simply had vivid pictures attached to it.
Then BBC asked me to discuss the story on-air along with some other guests including Chai Ling - Tiananmen Square protest leader turned crusader against the one-child policy. She basically ignored the host’s questions, opting instead to give a detailed description of the incident’s brutality and go on a rant about how evil China’s government and the one-child policy are. That seems to be the prevailing reaction to this whole thing, but I think this misses the greater significance – which is what ultimately got me interested in this story.
As awful as this incident was, the overall situation has been getting better. China has been gradually relaxing the one-child policy for years by chipping away at the number of people subject to it. In 2007, one official estimated that less than 40% of China’s people are currently bound by it.
The central government could cease using population quotas as a basis for promotion of local officials – which would definitely reduce incidents of forced abortion. Other than that though, the gradual relaxation of the one-child policy over many years (as we’re seeing now) is probably the best anyone can hope for. Ending it outright all at once could cause a baby boom with demographic consequences down the road just as bad as those that resulted from the policy in the first place.
So for most intents and purposes, the forced abortion problem is probably better than it was 10 or 20 years ago and improving slowly but surely. The takeaway from this latest incident though is that, as far as public opinion is concerned, none of that matters.
For most Chinese, the one-child policy’s unpopularity comes simply from the fact that they can’t have as many kids as they’d like. Social side-effects like forced abortions have been largely non-issues because the censorship apparatus doesn’t allow them to be issues. For Chinese, unless you personally know of someone who experienced brutality in the name of population control, you probably don’t appreciate the seriousness and ubiquity of the problem. That is, until last week.
The nauseating images of the dead baby spread like wildfire – drawing over a million comments on Weibo. In almost the snap of a finger, masses of people (numbering at least in the seven digits) were slapped across the face with an issue the government has pretty successfully kept under the rug for decades. Thanks to the growing prevalence of cameras and microblog users, the brutal side-effects of the one-child policy have almost instantly entered public consciousness and debate.
Over the past two years or so a string of equally captivating images have gone viral sparking awareness and debate most unwelcome by the government; ranging from a petitioner crushed under a truck (possibly murdered) to the attempted cover up of the Wenzhou train crash. The government is losing control of public discourse and any sense of credibility. Decades of secrecy and censorship is coming back to bite it hard. Before people can even digest and get over one shocking image, another one pops up that confronts them with some new horrible issue. So even if things are actually getting better, they appear to be quickly getting much worse.
Nobody can say whether something like this forced abortion photo will ever push the nation past a tipping point, but what is certain is that these images are forcing leaders to take unprecedented measures – like actually enforcing laws that aren’t in their own self-interest. You might say a kind of de-facto democratic reform is unfolding.