China and Women's Liberation: Re-Assessing the Relationship through Population Policies

By Ross, Kaz | Hecate, May-November 2010 | Go to article overview

China and Women's Liberation: Re-Assessing the Relationship through Population Policies


Ross, Kaz, Hecate


After thirty years of reform, China's economic and social spheres have been transformed beyond recognition. The new economy has created unprecedented employment opportunities for both urban and rural workers. The governmental structures which were put in place in the 1950s to foster social stability (such as the household registration system) have been adapted to better fit the new conditions. (1) The government's strategy of fostering urbanisation combined with the phenomenon of the 'floating population' of an estimated 200 million migrant workers has changed the composition of towns and cities and emptied villages of their working age populations. (2) At the same time, the abandonment of the planned economy has resulted in a widespread lay-off of workers from state-owned enterprises. Regardless, the overall standard of living has improved for many but the demands of home ownership, consumerism, medical and educational expenses have led to unparalleled financial stresses for the newly formed middle classes. Problems as diverse as divorce, prostitution, the trafficking of women and children, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, crime, land acquisition disputes, obesity, corruption, pollution, and environmental degradation have all increased. (3)

One area which has been particularly controversial and conflict-ridden is that of population control. In 1979 the government implemented a new stricter policy of birth limitation. The new set of regulations brought reproduction under the notion of the plan at the same time as planning itself was beginning to retreat from the economy. Family size would now be regulated by the state with the aim of limiting family sizes to an ideal of one child per eligible couple. (4) Within a few years, resistance to the implementation of planned birth was so severe, however, that regulations were loosened. At the discretion of provincial authorities the regulations could allow a second child under certain circumstances. (5) However, negative stories regarding late term abortion, forced abortion, forced contraception, and abandoned children soon began to circulate outside China.

For feminists (within and outside China) the conditions created by both economic reform and the population control policies were (and continue to be) problematic. As is the case elsewhere, Chinese women are singularly affected by the vagaries of a market economy. Despite the Chinese government's attempts to make male sterilisation and condom use popular methods of contraception, women have borne the burden of contraceptive practice and of contraceptive failure. Once a couple has achieved their allotted number of children, it is highly likely that it will be the woman who will be sterilised rather than the man. For feminists, therefore, the outcomes of the economic reform period are mixed. On the one hand, many young women have found opportunities to participate in paid work away from the village; an increasing number of women have the option of attending university; and traditional attitudes which valued sons more highly than daughters have been challenged by extensive government campaigning and policies. (6) On the other hand, government attempts to modernise China through reducing fertility and changing reproductive behaviour place a disproportionately heavy burden on women and women's bodies.

However, assessing the impact of population policies on Chinese women is no easy endeavour. In order to produce a comprehensive and accurate account of the current situation, many difficulties need to be overcome. The first of these is the lack of clear and comprehensive information regarding most aspects of Chinese reproductive policies, their implementation, and their impact. The (somewhat inaccurately named) One Child Policy only became national law in 2002, more than twenty years after the idea of limiting family size was implemented. (7) Until the Law was promulgated, birth limitation policies were drawn up on a province-by-province basis in order to allow for the huge variation in conditions that exists across China's vast territory. …

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