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    Greater China
     Jun 27, 2012

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China's addiction to birth planning
By Peter Lee

Recently, the sad case of Feng Jianmei roiled public opinion, both inside and outside China. Feng, a young woman living in a rural corner of Shaanxi province in northwest China, was bullied into aborting her pregnancy in its seventh month. A family member took a terrible picture of the mother lying in a hospital bed with the stillborn fetus beside her and posted it on the Internet. Global shock and revulsion ensued, and the Chinese government dispatched municipal officials to issue an apology to Feng.

This is business as usual for the People's Republic of China's (PRC's) controversial birth-planning system. The central government fixes birth policy, the localities go too far in enforcing it, abuses occur, are reported and in some cases remedied. This is indeed how the case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist in Shandong, evolved. (His whistleblowing on the issue of birth-planning abuses elicited a limited positive response from the


center. When the local government decided to go after him in revenge, it trumped up public security charges that were unrelated to birth planning.)

China is the abortion capital of the world - although what vociferous anti-abortion activists tend to gloss over is the fact that the percentage and absolute number of coerced abortions and sex selection abortions driven by the one-child policy have shrunk dramatically in recent years. Many if not most abortions in contemporary China are completely voluntary and sought outside the birth-planning system by single young women with a weak grasp of the mechanics of contraception and no inclination to carry their babies to term.

But in China's countryside, the traditional, toxic birth-planning dynamic persists, abuses continue to occur, and China's rural women, in particular, suffer physical and psychological trauma on a massive scale.

The PRC government is addicted to birth planning as an instrument of social policy and social control. Local governments, in a time of strained budgets, also appear to be addicted to the generously funded birth-planning program as a prop to their local finances and authority.

Birth planning is near the core of the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to move beyond the rhetoric of class struggle and the command economy to social regulation based upon market forces and the rule of law.

Deng Xiaoping can be considered the father of China's birth-planning policy. When he took over after the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Deng wanted to make a break with the confrontation and chaos of the Cultural Revolution and liberalize economic life, and at the same time buttress the party's shaky authority by emphasizing its role as protector of the national interest.

Birth policy proved to be a useful tool. Infatuated with the unleashing of productive energies by socialism, Mao had rejected the Malthusian doctrine of population catastrophe (that a geometrically growing population will outrun an arithmetically growing food supply); Deng Xiaoping embraced it.

His sober-minded economic team projected the numbers, and anticipated that the steady, incremental economic progress they hoped to achieve would be eaten up by galloping population growth.

China's population growth was identified as a national crisis - a crisis, moreover, that only the Chinese Communist Party, with its unique ability to command and mobilize on a national scale, was qualified to solve. That population control also served as a repudiation of unscientific, reckless Maoism was an important side benefit.

The most infamous expression of the program was the "one-child policy". Implementation reached its climax in 1983 with a coercive campaign that yielded all-time records of 17.76 million IUD insertions, 16.4 million tubal ligations, 14.37 million abortions, and 4.36 million vasectomies (China's menfolk have successfully resisted vasectomies for the toll it reputedly takes on masculine vigor, despite the well-documented and extensive physical and psychological trauma that the more invasive procedures inflict on women).

The campaign generated numerous horrors that blackened the reputation of the People's Republic of China and shook the authority of the local governments charged with enforcing the detested policy.

In response, the central government pulled back, stepped up monitoring of abuses by adding an element of popular supervision, and tweaked the policy, but never abandoned it - even after some combination of the program's effects, economic development, and urbanization served to suppress birth rates to an acceptable level (and, in Shanghai, unacceptable levels far below the replacement rate).

In 2003, demographers were already suggesting that the official limitation on births be relaxed to permit two-child families. The government refused, and instead embarked upon several initiatives to cope with the undesirable side effects of the one-child policy, most notably the massive trend toward aborting female fetuses after Ultrasound B - which enabled gender identification in the earlier stages of pregnancy - became widely available in the countryside.

In an era of economic liberalization and massive movement of population toward towns and cities, birth planning appears to be one of the few tools available to the government to justify and enable the supervision and control of an increasingly independent rural and floating population.

As the Chinese social and political system evolves, the government has worked to sustain the viability of the rather anachronistic socialist experiment in birth planning by marketization (offering economic incentives to follow the plan), legalization (creating a structure of laws at least nominally derived from the governed instead of reliance upon party commands) and, imported from the West, "management by objective", an effort to improve the performance and prevent abuses by the birth-planning bureaucracy by moving beyond quotas to a dynamic system of checks and balances.

The facts of Feng Jianmei's sad case provide an insight into how the system is working and not working.

In keeping with the birth-planning system's enforcement model of permitting some down-up reporting of abuses to keep public dissatisfaction with the unpopular and extremely intrusive regime within bounds, local Chinese media exhaustively reported the Feng case after the photos hit the Internet.

In particular, an eight-page report posted on the media outlet Chinanet attributed to reporters Jiang Yue and Lei Ying drew on extensive interviews with Feng, her family, and friends to paint a detailed report of the birth-planning system and life in rural China today. [1]

The report revealed that Feng and her husband, Deng Jiyuan, had acted on the assumption that they would have their second child without processing a birth permit, then pay a fine and square things away after the fact. This is how they had their first child, a daughter. Even though the gap between pregnancies met the official target of a five-year span, they couldn't process a birth permit since Feng was an outsider, from northeast China, and her residence permit had not been transferred to her current village of residence in Shaanxi, Zeng Jia Township for inclusion in the local birth-planning regime. This situation was common in the village, according to Deng. It was a poor town and most of the girls married out; the local men found brides elsewhere, brought them home without transferring residency and, when they had children, paid the fine retroactively.

The birth-planning office had known of Feng's pregnancy in March two months before. Apparently, the township planning office's lack of activity convinced Deng and Feng that there would be no problem dodging the system and having the baby. However, the desultory performance of the township birth-planning office had also attracted the unfavorable attention of the higher-ups in the county government.

Zeng Jia Township's birth-planning work had been "slipping" for two years; sampling revealed that "on spec" performance was less than 95%. As a result, the township had been issued a "yellow card", warning. Anxious to remove the yellow card, the township cadres decided to intensify their birth-planning work. Fatefully, the heightened push was scheduled for June.

Oblivious, Deng left to work at a mine in Inner Mongolia on May 30. His five siblings were also out of town, leaving his father the only close relative on the scene. On the same day, the birth-planning van pulled up in front of Feng's apartment and cadres began the long, slow-motion process of coercing Feng into going to the hospital to have labor induced.

Feng claimed her stomach hurt, and the cadres did not force the issue. Then, after a few hours at home, she told them she was going out to buy some food. Instead, she walked down the street, trailed by 15 or so people, and slipped into an aunt's house. The cadres tracked her down but did not make a move to seize her. Instead, they occupied the living room of the house, rotating six people in for four-hour shifts while she stayed in a back room.

In the middle of the night, her uncle found out that eight or nine heavy stones had been piled against his back door, presumably to prevent Feng from sneaking out that way. The next morning she went to the kitchen for breakfast - and disappeared, sparking a frantic hubbub as the minders, who spent their shifts drinking, smoking, and playing cards, tumbled out into the street looking for her.

It turned out that Feng - "champion in the 100-yard dash at her middle school" - had dashed out of the house and flagged down a mini-van, begging for a ride "because there's some people chasing me". The driver wordlessly let her get in and dropped her off further down the road. She hid in some hillside brush for 14 cold, miserable, and rainy hours, and then made her way to another relative's house in the country.

This picture of abject misery is somewhat relieved by the fact that Feng had a cellphone and was able to keep in contact with her family to discuss strategy and arrange refuge during her 70 hours on the run.

Somehow, she was soon found hiding under a bed by a group of searchers, who let her get a night's sleep before bundling her into a van on the morning of June 2. She did not go willingly or quietly, according to several witnesses. She was carried out of the house and into the van by four men, with her face covered by a piece of clothing, and transported to the grim confines of the Zhen Ping county hospital and isolated from her father-in-law, the only close family member at hand.

Feng told reporters that, inside the hospital, she was restrained by two men, one of whom forcibly applied her fingerprint to a consent form, and another made her sign a document:
They forcibly applied my fingerprint to the consent form. I was unwilling. They used a pillowcase to cover my head. There were two men, one grabbed by left side, the other my right, they forced me to sign my name with my right hand, and they forcibly applied the fingerprint with my other hand. The fingerprint on the document is a mess.
Subsequently, she was wheeled into the operating room and was injected with a drug to induce labor. 

Continued 1 2  

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