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Busting the baby boom.

About 15 million baby girls have vanished in China since 1979. That's when the government introduced its One-Child Family Policy to help slow down population growth. In a culture that values boys more than girls, the latter are starved, maimed, and exploited as beggars by criminal gangs.

Toronto Star columnist Michelle Lansberg describes the situation as: ". . .mass suffering and child death, caused not by unavoidable drought or starvation, like the disaster in Ethiopia, but rather by a cold and deliberate famine of the heart."

As the South China Morning Post reported in 1995, the birth of a girl has never been a cause for celebration in China: Girls marry away from the family; boys remain with their parents, support them in old age, and carry on the family line. Stories of peasant farmers drowning newborn girls in buckets of water have been commonplace for centuries. But now, as a direct result of the one-child policy, the number of baby girls being abandoned, aborted, or dumped on orphanage steps is unprecedented.

In a Nanjing orphanage in 1993, staff and visitors freely admitted that 90% of the 50 to 60 baby girls who arrived at the orphanage each month would end their lives there.

Rumours of "dying rooms" in China's state orphanages -- where infants and toddlers are left to die through sheer neglect -- were confirmed when three British journalists captured the horrifying reality in a 1995 documentary, The Dying Rooms. The orphanages are filled mostly with abandoned girls -- only severely handicapped boys are abandoned to the state orphanages. Filmmakers Kate Blewett, Brian Woods, and Peter Hugh estimate that about one million female infants are abandoned every year. Millions more women abort their female fetuses, fail to register their births, or even drown or smother them, according to the documentary.

Under the one-child policy, the government punishes the second-time-pregnant with enforced abortions, sterilizations, and even imprisonment. The policy has been given some credit for lowering fertility rates. It was officially estimated in 1984 that 70% of all married couples of child bearing age were using contraceptives; 24 million couples had formally pledged to have no more than one child.

Between 1953 and 1989, the birth rate dropped from 45 to 23 per thousand people. The natural population increase (calculating birth and death rates) declined from about 22.5 per thousand in 1953 to 16 per thousand in 1989. In 1993, for the first time since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, deaths in Shanghai outnumbered births, decreasing the city's natural growth rate to 8.8 per thousand, compared to 11.45 nationwide. According to official reports, China's big cities have curbed growth in part because some young couples are choosing not to have children in order to achieve higher living standards.

But, with a population of 1.2 billion, and 21 million new births a year (one baby every 1.5 seconds), many fear that China faces economic collapse, environmental ruin, and famine if it doesn't take drastic action. Even at its low current growth rate of about 1. 4% a year -- down from a peak of more than 3% in the mid-1960s--the population will double in the next half-century.

Curbing population growth will continue to be a tough task in a nation with so many young people. In 1980, the government reported that 65% of the population was under 30 years of age. That means a substantial portion of Chinese will be of child-bearing age for at least the next several decades. Already, the government has missed its ambitious target of limiting population to 1.2 billion by the end of the century.

The growth of private wealth has added another stumbling block, enabling many couples who want more than one baby to bribe officials to overlook the transgression. Shifts to private farming are also an incentive to produce larger families, to help carry the workload.

But, the government is setting new, tougher population control policies and tougher punishments for those who ignore them. China's new family-planning law took effect in June 1995. The Maternal and Infant Health Care Law, described by one writer as 'a sinister plan to create a master race by eliminating those who are less than perfect," requires all couples planning marriage to undergo comprehensive medical screening. Those who carry genetic conditions, such as medical or mental disabilities that might be passed on to succeeding generations, may be barred from marrying unless they agree to sterilization.

As with all its family-planning policies, the government says the new law is 'aimed at improving China's population both in quantity and quality."

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES:

1. Although Beijing's proposed law mandating sterilizations and abortions to halt the birth of handicapped children shocked many in the West, it caused barely a ripple in China, according to Globe and Mail writer Jan Wong. The policy may make Westerners cringe, but how is it different from Western couples screening fetuses with prenatal tests (amniocentesis and ultrasound) to decide whether abortion might be preferable?

2. China's one-child policy is creating a generation of "Little Emperors' -- pampered, over indulged only children -- who are growing up to be self-centred, strong-willed individualists. Some see this Me generation paving the way to democracy. As one Chinese observer said, "This (self-serving lot) will never work for Communism, will it?' Is selfishness a necessary part of democratic freedom? Discuss.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Chinese government's controversial policies to control population growth
Author:Taylor, Linda E.
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Words:889
Previous Article:Bloodbath in Tiananmen Square.
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