The Enlightened Despotism of Chinese-Style Family Planning


Last year Financial Post columnist Diane Francis declared that "a planetary law, such as China's one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birthrate." New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who admires what a "one-party autocracy" such as China's can accomplish when it is "led by a reasonably enlightened group of people," likewise praises the one-child policy in his 2008 book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, where he says it "probably saved China from a population calamity" and hopes the current regime will show the same dictatorial fervor in pursuit of "net-zero buildings." If you wonder whether overpopulation really is a problem, read Ron Bailey's recent discussion of the subject. If you wonder what the solution endorsed by Francis and Friedman looks like in practice, read a new report from Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), which lays bare the brutal reality of the violently oppressive policy so glibly supported by rich Westerners who take their own reproductive freedom for granted.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the open letter from the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee that said "a couple should only have one child." Early on, the government felt compelled to make exceptions to this rule (for ethnic minorities and rural couples whose first child is a girl, for example), and over the years those exceptions multiplied. The Shandong Provincial Population and Family Planning Regulations, for instance, list "14 circumstances in which couples are permitted to have more than one child." CHRD neverthless estimates that 60 percent of couples are affected by the one-child rule, and it emphasizes that even those allowed a bit more leeway are still subject to an odious policy under which "the Chinese government continues to use coercion and violence to control the number of children its citizens have, depriving its citizens of their reproductive rights and intruding into one of the most private areas of their lives."

The tools that Chinese officials use to enforce this policy include "family planning contracts," birth permits, gynecological surveillance, fines that may amount to several years of income, denial of employment and government services, and forced abortions, sterilizations, and IUD insertions. CHRD finds that enforcement is wildly uneven, varying from one jurisdiction to another and over time in the same jurisdiction. While women in some parts of the country may get away with bearing an "over-quota" child by paying a fine, elsewhere women in the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy are abducted so their not-quite-born children can be killed and extracted. Areas where limits on family size are flouted for years with impunity may be suddenly subject to crackdowns in which population control officials use fines, property seizures, beatings, arbitrary detention, and kidnapping of relatives to whip people into line. CHRD describes the incentives facing local officials:

Family planning officials at the grassroots level are given incentives as well as pressure by their superiors to fulfill certain targets in carrying out the policy. Individual officers and their teams are pitted against each other in competition to meet these quotas, and those who excel in enforcing a certain number of the "four surgeries" (insertion of IUDs, sterilizations, abortions and late-term abortions) or the "three examinations" (examinations for pregnancies, the status of IUDs, and for gynecological diseases or illnesses) are given better pay, bonuses and promotions. Those who do not are criticized and their careers are jeopardized. The women and men whose bodies are concerned are seen as numbers, rather than people whose choices should be respected.

The "social maintenance fees" imposed on couples who exceed birth quotas provide a further incentive to enforce the rules:

Local governments often dedicate a particular percentage of the collected fines and fees to pay for the operation costs of the same family planning offices that enforce the policy. Staff members are therefore motivated to levy fines, especially since these offices are often required to provide services and bonuses with insufficient resources…Family planning-related fines have become an important source of income for township-level governments.

The report, which says "the family planning policy, as it exists now, should be abolished," describes many examples of egregious abuses condoned under this system, including confiscation of land for a missed pregnancy test, forced late-term abortions, and a mass kidnapping of elderly villagers to encourage compliance with sterilization edicts. Even if we can imagine a kinder, gentler version of this policy, it still could not be enforced without the use or threat of violence, and it would still represent an outrageous violation of individual freedom. "I don't have a choice over my own body," says one woman forced to use an IUD. "If I don't insert it, I'll be detained." Another woman writes: "I discovered that in China, in this society, women in villages have no human rights. [Local family planning officials] even said that I am under their management, that I do not have a choice, that whatever they say I have to do." A law school lecturer who lost his job and was hit with a $30,000 "social maintenance fee" after he and his wife had a second child refused to pay the fine. "Why should I pay money for having my own kid?" he told China Daily. "It's our right as citizens." Perhaps these people understand something about China's wonderfully successful population control program that eludes its foreign fans.

Matt Welch notes Tom Friedman's admiration for China's enlightened despots here and here. In "Thank Deng Xiaoping for Little Girls," a 2007 Reason article, I explored the link between China's population control policy and international adoption.