Posts Tagged ‘One-child policy’

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.

If you want to get an idea of how well a city’s economy is doing in China, one quick way is to look for how much one-child policy propaganda there is. China’s public welfare system is lacking and, for the poor, children are usually the most reliable social security insurance (and male children are investments with greater potential returns). This is why poor villages like Chen Guangcheng’s often must resort to brutal methods like forced abortions and sterilizations in order to meet their family planning quotas.

Recently I went biking through Shandong – where Chen Guangcheng fought these practices. When going from cities to villages, there’s a pretty obvious inverse correlation between the income of local people and the number of signs urging them to only have one child (and not to abort if that one child is female). These signs range from the spray-painted and depressing to the fancy and poetic. Some are so absurd I figured they must all just be made up on the spot by desperate local officials (ie – “Plant more trees, have less children and you’ll become rich”).

Well it turns out many of these slogans come directly from the National Population and Family Planning Commission – a State Council agency. In 2007 the commission worried that many local slogans were “cold and tough, lacking humane care and people-oriented thinking” and may “lead to ambiguity.” Then there were some slogans which “have content that isn’t wrong, but are too blunt and indifferent. They not only fail to warn and educate, but also can easily lead to resentment of the masses, leading to conflicts and disputes.”

Getting them right is important because “even with today’s highly developed mass media, slogans still inspire, guide and unite the people on the principles and policies of population and family planning.”

So the commission took the liberty of putting together this list of 190 recommended slogans.

Many go beyond just birth control. They touch on issues indirectly related to the one child policy; like discouraging aborting girls, encouraging care for the elderly (implying that you won’t need a bunch of kids to take care of you when you get old) and discouraging anything that might cause birth defects (which would prompt you to have more kids).

Here are some choice translations:

16. Do everything possible to solve the population problem, focus on building a harmonious society.

30. Mother Earth is too tired. She can’t bear too many children.

34. Control the population, protect the environment and cherish the planet.

40. Advocate the scientific premarital examination and the prevention of birth defects.

55. In nature there are mountains and water. In human society there men and women – balanced and harmonious.

61. Maintain a balanced sex ratio at birth and build a socialist harmonious society.

66. It is strictly prohibited to drown, abandon or abuse baby girls. According to the law protect the rights and interests of women and children.

72. Migrant workers, do not forget family planning and health services are always with you.

78. Respecting, caring for and helping the elderly are virtues of the Chinese nation.

80. Children are the flowers of the motherland. The elderly are the wealth of society.

96. Bare fewer children and run faster toward a moderately well-off life. Build a harmonious new countryside.

104. Break the thousands of years of old feudal customs. Set up new marriage and reproduction culture.

124. Girls and boys are the hope of the nation.

146. Family planning services send sincere emotions. Law-based administration warms hearts.

155. Family is a boat, love is the sail, and reproductive health is the harbor of your happiness.

157. Contraception, informed choices, and reproductive health warm you and me.

173. Family is a boat, love is the sail. A healthy husband and wife will reach the other shore.

181. Citizens have the right to reproduction, but also the obligation to practice family planning according to law.

184. No inter-family marriage. Premarital check is essential.

I should add that the more poetic slogans aren’t even done justice through the English translation, but you get the idea.

Now, five years later, it seems these suggestions have indeed found their way down to the villages. Here’s some of what I saw on my trip:

Give fewer and better births, be happy the whole life.

Ban non-medical sex determinations and sex-selective abortions.

Delivering girls is just as good as delivering boys. Girls are descendants too.

When going out for migrant work, don't forget your birth control.

Men should also participate in the family planning. Both husband and wife build a harmonious society.

One town even thought it prudent to add English translation themselves:

Strictly control the population growth. Accelerate the social economic development.