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Controlling China's baby boom.

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.

The policy has been gradually altered and refined since it was first introduced in 1979. In rural areas a second child may be allowed, on the basis of proper spacing to avoid peak years, if the first born was a girl. The Government also wants to be fair to minority groups (i.e. non-Han ethnic groups) with less than 10 million people which could otherwise be in danger of dying out. Fifty-six minority groups exist in China today including Tibetans, Yi, Pumi and Lisu and they are allowed to have two or more children per couple. The One Child Policy has had dramatic social implications since it was first enforced. Many of the disturbing problems that have been witnessed since the policy's introduction stem from the fact that women in Chinese society, although their status is changing, are still considered subordinate to men. This is epitomised by the Chinese saying, `If a woman does not have a husband, her body does not have an owner'.

Binding of a woman's feet at birth was an act which illustrates the inferior status of women - it was introduced in China about a thousand years ago by the concubine of an emperor because men considered small feet erotic and there are still elderly women alive today in China who are suffering at the hands of this inhumane tradition. Mothers had to bind their daughters, toes under the sole of the foot and then break the arch using a rock. This crippled the daughter for life but it was vital if she was to have a worthy marriage. As soon as a woman was married, the bridegroom's family would examine her feet and if her feet were much over four inches long she was looked upon with disdain and contempt.

Results of a survey by the State Statistics Bureau indicate Chinese women have achieved dramatic progress, especially over the past decade with their status being improved both at home and in society. However, male babies are still considered more valuable than females. The most important reason for this is that the family line dies out if there is no boy. A boy will also bring prestige in a male dominated society and women in the countryside are often considered inferior if they cannot produce a son. They also have greater economic potential and are more likely to look after their parents in their old age because daughters are usually expected to live with their husband's family. Sons are particularly in need in the countryside where at least 80 million do not have enough to eat. Eighty per cent of the Chinese population earn their living from the land and the work is often heavy and demanding so those who have not had a son often go on to have two, three or more children until they do so. As a result, the policy has been more effective in the cities than in the countryside where the demands of agricultural work and stronger traditions have meant the rules are bent more readily.

Six million females in China are called Laidi, Zheodii or Yindi, all of which mean `Bring a little brother'. In rural areas, daughters are nicknamed `maggots in the rice bowl'. Restricting a family to one child results in many couples going to any lengths to have a boy baby. Abortion after discovering an unborn child is female and infanticide are on no account isolated cases. When questions are asked of the whereabouts of the 1.7 million female babies that fail to show up in birth statistics each year there are disturbing explanations. The pre-revolutionary custom of killing female or handicapped infants has revived, especially in rural areas, since the introduction of the policy. The parents hope that their next pregnancy brings them a boy. In the eastern district of Hefei city, for example, over 50 baby girls were drowned within two months of the implementation of the policy.

China's booming economic growth results in easier access to ultrasound machines which can detect the sex of the foetus. Many women are now taking ultrasound tests to control the sex of their unborn child, aborting the female foetus after the examination. In 1991 it was made illegal for Chinese doctors to tell parents the sex of their unborn child but since doctors are so poorly paid, a lot of underhand dealings go on. The campaigns of Western `pro-life' groups, incited by reports like these, have resulted in the US government withholding 13 million[pounds] a year from the United Nations Population Fund, a major source of finance for family planning projects in developing countries.

Hong Kong recently planned to ban trading in human foetuses which are being imported from China and used in traditional remedies and health foods. One Hong Kong man recently admitted that he brought back foetuses in a thermos flask for an asthma cure. With such high numbers of abortions carried out each year due to the One Child Policy, there are large numbers of aborted foetuses which can be sold for as little as 1[pound] each. In Shenzhen, southern China, approximately 7,000 abortions are carried out each year, one doctor in the town said she ate 100 in six months to preserve her complexion. `They are wasted if we do not eat them ... making soup is best'.

The male to female ratio in China has been seriously unbalanced since the policy's introduction. In 1992, Chinese birth figures indicated the proportion of boys to girls was 118.5 to 100. The United Nations suggested international norm is 106 to 100. This equates to 36 million more males than females at present and a predicted surplus of 70 million single males by the end of the century as a result of the policy. This will inevitably enhance the success of the policy but it is already having injurious consequences. The abduction of women is now widespread, especially from rural areas such as Yunnan and Sichuan in the poor south-west, to the rich east coast. The trade is worth over 700 million[pounds] a year and the problem is likely to escalate as men find it increasingly hard to find a wife. Although women are still considered inferior to men, they are now beginning to be considered more `valuable'.

Another course of action for desperate parents who give birth to a female baby is to abandon their child. The recent controversial documentary `The Dying Rooms' revealed the harrowing situation in many of China's state-run orphanages. The British television crew filmed secretly and found that thousands of unwanted toddlers were abandoned to die in the dark, soaked in their own urine. Many babies are also abandoned if they are handicapped. There are an estimated ten million handicapped babies in China today. Wang Rui Quiong, director of the municipally funded Shenzhen Society Welfare Centre in southern China says, `Because Chinese law allows couples to have only one child, everyone wants a good one. Parents do not want to be burdened with a stupid child.'

The One Child Policy is rapidly changing the family system. In the space of two generations there will be no siblings, no cousins, no aunts, no uncles, just in-laws. This too has further knock-on effects. The authorities in China are worried about the implications for society of a generation of spoilt, egotistical children known as `little emperors'. `The fear is that if a whole generation are brought up as selfish, self-centred, little emperors and empresses the whole socialist system will not survive', says Dr. David Wu, head of the department of anthropology at Hong Kong's Chinese University who has carried out extensive research in China comparing single children to those with siblings.

In the 1980s there was a huge expansion in the number of kindergartens, nurseries and child care centres in an attempt to counteract the indulgence of China's children. In major cities, approximately 90 per cent of three to five year olds now attend kindergarten. In a recent study by Doctor Wu, 31 per cent of Chinese interviewed said the most important thing for children to learn is concern for others, in sharp contrast to 4 per cent in the US and 5 per cent in Japan.

Yet another effect of the policy is the growth in aged population. China is currently faced with the echo, effect from demographic developments that occurred over twenty years ago. Between 1958 and 1962, the Great Leap Forward occurred, a campaign which was aimed to boost the output of iron and steel. It focused entirely on industrial development at the expense of agricultural production and subsequently resulted in a massive famine in which as many as 30 million people died. The post-famine baby boom that ensued, produced some 90 million births over the following two years. At present only 5 per cent of China's population are over 65 years but the baby boom, coupled with the One Child Policy, could raise this figure to over 25 per cent by 2030, causing a huge retirement bulge.

Government expenditure on support for the elderly, in the form of retirement pensions and medical care, has increased rapidly each year in urban areas but the retirement bulge will cause intense pressures in future. In rural areas, where there is no established pension scheme and parents rely on their children for security, a one-child society will result in too many dependent old and too few working young to fulfil these social obligations.

The One Child Policy has been successful to a large extent. Although the population is not predicted to start falling until the 2030s, important advances have been made in reducing the fertility rate, growth rate and death rates. According to the State Family Planning Commission vice minister, Peng Yu, 25 babies per 1,000 were born in 1970, but the birthrate was reduced to 11 in 1993. In a survey in Peking, 80 per cent of people questioned said they would still prefer two or more children, even though they agreed with government policy. Many families, while not liking the policy, understand the need for it.

The generation of single children who will be coming to procreative age in the next few years will have a very different view from its parents. They have grown up considering single children as the norm. They will desire more than one child much less strongly than their parents and then the following generation, even less so. After a period of a few generations, most families will fully understand and support the One Child Policy.

Yes, there have been a great deal of adverse effects of the policy, but the majority of these stem from the poor status of women in China - female infanticide and abortion of female foetuses which has subsequently resulted in a disproportion in male and female numbers which has led to a rise in the number of bachelors and in the abduction of women. It is hoped that China's economic progress will bring with it progress for women since a technology-orientated economy has less need, for males. As views change, the policy will have fewer adverse effects resulting in it being more widely accepted and encountering less opposition. Should not the Chinese government be praised for having the initiative to actually act when confronted with such a population crisis and for having the courage to implement such a controversial but vital policy while other governments would have accepted over-crowding and resource shortages in order to retain popularity and power? Yes, the policy is very severe, but so is the problem.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Richards, Lucinda
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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