Controlling China's Baby Boom

By Richards, Lucinda | Contemporary Review, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Controlling China's Baby Boom


Richards, Lucinda, Contemporary Review


Our children are our future. And yet as the world population continues to boom, there is ever increasing competition for finite resources. Nowhere is this felt more intensely than in China. But is the policy used to address this problem putting China's future behind it? China is the world's most populous nation and its population has, on average, increased by over 25 people every minute, every day for the past 40 years. It now stands at over 1.2 thousand million people. Population numbers have reached such heights that the Chinese are even running out of room to bury the dead and people in urban areas are now being cremated, something which goes against 3,000 years of tradition.

Although Mao Zedong introduced birth control in 1954, he was not particularly concerned about China's population growth and was quoted as saying, `Every stomach comes with two hands attached. On no account must we think we have too many people'. In 1979, the new government, under Deng Xiaoping recognised that action needed to be taken. Without intervention, the population was predicted to rise to 1.4 thousand million by the year 2000, throwing the country into turmoil with a strong danger of widespread famine and poverty.

So, the One Child Policy was introduced aiming to level out the population at 1.2 thousand million by the year 2000, and then to bring it down to 700 million over the next century. Since no actual law exists governing the number of children a couple can have, a series of incentives and `disincentives' have been designed in order to give the policy at least some chance of success. Families with one child get preferential treatment including paid pregnancy leave for up to three years, a 5-10 per cent salary bonus, free health care and education and higher pensions upon retirement. Families with more than one child are excluded from these benefits and are subject to financial penalties. In Henan province, in central China, parents who have a second child have to pay 20 per cent of their annual income for seven years. The penalty for the third child is 30 per cent for fourteen years.

However, new flaws in the policy have arisen due to China's soaring economic growth. In the countryside, peasants and farmers, who constitute 80 per cent of the population, are becoming wealthy enough to afford the fines for the second and subsequent children while newly affluent city dwellers are able to bribe the poorly paid family planning officers. The other much harsher unofficial disincentives, forced abortions and sterilisations, have resulted in a number of alarming social problems in China. Since the introduction of the policy there have been local abortion gangs which, following the government policy, are intent on keeping the number of children born in their area within the officially allocated quota because they are afraid of being penalised for not meeting targets.

The abortion gangs often capture women who are pregnant for a second time and arrange for an immediate abortion. If the woman does not co-operate, the gangs have been known to cut off water and electricity from the living quarters until she consents to an abortion, and in extreme cases, houses have actually been burnt down. In other cases, husbands have been beaten, a stroke for each day of their wife's pregnancy until they agree to abort their second child. Abortion is allowed often as dangerously late as eight months. There have been horrific stories of piles of foetuses dumped in waste bins and women committing suicide after discovering that their aborted child was male. Peng Yu, the vice minister of the State Family Planning Commission denied his government would force women to abort a child. `Whether or not a pregnant woman has a sterilisation or abortion depends totally on her own wish. If she refuses to do so, no coercive action will work', he said. However, he admitted that in some areas coercion may have occurred in the initial phases of family planning activities. …

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