HONG KONG - What will it take to jar
Chinese leaders out of their long-standing fiasco
of a family-planning strategy?
Not that it
was really needed, but the past two months have
provided further evidence that the State
Population and Family Planning Commission needs a
new game plan - and the sooner, the better.
Instead, however, once again the response has been
to suppress dissent and soldier on with a policy
that has provoked violent protests in the
countryside and exacted a terrible price in
Riots in the southern province of
Guangxi this month over the one-child policy -
implemented in 1979 to curb China's runaway
population growth - are only the latest
manifestation of that policy's inherent
inhumanity. The unrest also serves as a reminder
of its erratic and sometimes brutal
implementation, which has led to forced abortions
and sterilizations. At the same time, there are
signs that because of the woeful lack of sex
education in China, young women are increasingly
turning to abortion - often multiple times - as a
favored form of contraception.
officials seem to note all this with due gravity,
they don't pledge to do much about it. The recent
riots in Guangxi provide a textbook case in point.
According to a report last month on
National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States,
dozens of women in Guangxi have been forced to
have abortions as late as nine months into their
pregnancies. The report, which ran on NPR's
Morning Edition, described the harrowing
ordeal of Liang Yage and his wife, Wei Linrong.
The couple already had one child but wanted a
second. But, according to Wei, in the seventh
month of her pregnancy, family-planning officials
forced her to abort her child in a Baise city
maternity hospital. The Christian couple do not
believe in abortion.
19-year-old woman, He Caigan, told NPR that her
forced abortion occurred just days before her
scheduled delivery. The report also cited an
anonymous witness who counted 41 occupied beds on
one floor of the same Baise city hospital and said
he believed all the women on that floor were there
against their will.
Forced abortion is
against the law in China.
This month saw
Guangxi officials' brutal enforcement of the
one-child policy spark riots in 28 towns in Bobai
county. The violent protests started after local
officials ransacked the homes of residents who
could not afford to pay fines levied on them
because they had violated the one-child policy.
In retaliation for their loss and
humiliation, angry villagers stormed government
buildings, breaking windows, smashing furniture
and vandalizing vehicles. Some residents also
reportedly tried to set buildings on fire.
Thousands of people were involved in these
To quell the unrest, the
regional government called in hundreds of armed
police, but in the end only 28 people were
arrested, according to the official Xinhua News
Agency, on charges of "networking, persuading and
being involved in damaging public property". The
agency also reported that 4,200 Communist Party
cadres had been dispatched with the aim of
engaging villagers in dialogue about their
complaints and easing tension in the 28 troubled
The Guangxi eruptions were caused
by an abrupt crackdown by local officials on
violators of the one-child policy after they
received a warning from higher-ups for exceeding
their quotas. The provincial government this year
made political advancement - and even survival in
office - for local authorities dependent on their
ability to achieve, among other things,
inception, enforcement of the one-child policy has
been erratic at best, with even official data
showing that only 35% of the population adheres to
it. In rural areas, a second child is commonly
allowed - and a third, fourth and fifth have
Such laxity was
apparently the norm in Bobai until this year's
edict came down from provincial leaders. Their
futures threatened, local cadres acted, villagers
reacted and, for a 48-hour period, all hell broke
loose in nearly 30 towns.
This is not
exactly what the Chinese leadership needs in the
run-up to this autumn's 17th Communist Party
Congress, whose theme is maintaining a "harmonious
society", and to the Beijing Summer Olympics next
year, which will showcase the country to the
world. In fact, it is downright embarrassing.
Adding to that embarrassment, no doubt,
was an 1,800-word article in the New York Times
this month on the rising abortion rate among
young, unmarried women in China. In what amounts
to a chilling indictment of the country's lack of
sex education, reporter Jim Yardley strings
together anecdotal evidence from Chinese
newspapers and websites, interviews with academics
and health workers, and official statistics to
depict an alarming culture of abortion among
young, single women.
The article paints a
detailed picture of a disturbing by-product of the
new materialism that has accompanied China's
breakneck economic growth: lacking basic education
in contraception, a growing urban class of single
women with looser sexual mores is turning to
abortion to rid themselves of the social stigma
that remains for single mothers in the country.
Many of the millions of young, single women who
have abandoned the countryside to share in the
economic boom in Chinese cities have left their
traditional values behind.
once taboo, is now commonplace in cities, as is
abortion to deal with the unwanted consequences.
And while the government is busy limiting the
reproductive lives of married women, it has done
far too little to provide basic sex education to
those who are single - a lesson that might start
with the health risks of multiple abortions, which
With some of the
young women mentioned in Yardley's article losing
count - at six or seven - of the number of
abortions they have had, clearly it is time for
health officials to think outside their nearly
30-year-old box of family planning. A survey
conducted in Shanghai showed that 69% of single
women have engaged in premarital sex and, taken
together, seven other studies cited in the Times
article found that 20-55% of single women surveyed
in a variety of cities have had at least one
According to the International
Planned Parenthood Association, there are about 7
million abortions per year in China. But the
association's estimate is based on spotty Ministry
of Health statistics that probably undercount the
number of abortions performed at public hospitals
and do not count any of those performed at the
country's private hospitals, many of which openly
advertise their abortion services despite a
government ban on such advertisements last year.
Women who take abortion pills are also not
counted. In the end, abortions could be nearly
twice the official figure.
agree that notwithstanding the ugliness of forced
abortions reported recently in Guangxi, the
abortion rate among married women is down. But the
rate is clearly rising fast among single women who
have made the practice a form of contraception.
Chinese leaders boast that their one-child
policy has kept the country's population, which
now stands at 1.3 billion, from an unmanageable
explosion, and the policy has been reaffirmed at
least through 2010 to meet a population target of
1.36 billion. Admittedly, managing a population
the size of China's is no easy task, but a sound
and thorough education program might have achieved
the same - if not better - results without the
terrible side-effects. The one-child policy has
combined with the traditional Confucian preference
for male children to produce a ratio of 119 boys
per 100 girls under age five. The ratio is as high
as 130:100 in some regions.
growing class of urban single women is taking that
abortion culture to another level. No matter one's
moral stance on abortion, the practice has taken
on perverse new meanings in today's China.
Kent Ewing is a teacher and
writer at Hong Kong International School. He can
be reached at email@example.com.