The brutal truth behind China's one-child policy

By: The Economist
Posted: 3:17 AM |

In the photographs the young mother lies on a clinic bed, her hair obscuring her face. She appears as inert as the baby lying beside her.

Nevertheless 23-year-old Feng Jianmei is still alive, whereas her baby girl is not. The baby was killed while still in the womb by an injection arranged by local family-planning officials. They restrained Feng, who was seven months pregnant, and then induced her to give birth to the dead baby.

Even three years ago, Feng's suffering might have gone unnoticed outside the remote village in the northwestern province of Shaanxi where she lives, simply another statistic in China's family-planning program.

Her relatives uploaded the graphic pictures onto the Internet, however, and soon micro-blogs had flashed them to millions of people across the country. Chinese citizens expressed their outrage online.

It is not simply the treatment of Feng that they deplore. It is the one-child policy itself.

Prominent voices joined in the criticism: "The outrageous and violent forced-abortion incident in June is not unique to Shaanxi," Liang Jianzhang wrote on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter. "Abolition of the absurd family-planning policy is the only way to root out this kind of evil."

Liang is chief executive of Ctrip, one of China's most successful travel companies. His post has been retweeted more than 18,000 times.

The scandal is a blow to the one-child policy's public image, says He Yafu, a demographer and critic of the policy. That image has never been good, even if in recent years many have learned to live with it. In 1983, 14 million women had abortions organized by family-planning committees, many of them coerced. In 2009 there were six million.

The number has declined in recent years, because local officials have more incentives to impose fines on extra births rather than to prevent them altogether.

The fine for having extra children is known as the "social-maintenance fee." He estimates that the government has collected more than $314 billion in such fees since 1980. Failure to pay means the second, "black" child cannot obtain a household-registration document, or hukou, which brings with it basic rights such as education.

The amount of the fine varies from place to place. A husband and wife in Shanghai will each pay $17,300, three times the city's average annual post-tax income, for a second child. The fine increases with income: The rich can shell out millions.

For Feng, living in a rural area, the fine was lower -- $6,300. She was given the option to pay and keep the baby, but could not afford it. Her husband, Deng Jiyuan, earns $630 a month at the local hydroelectric power station, but needed more to pay the fine. So on May 30 he set off for the coal mines of Inner Mongolia to boost his income. It was then that family-planning officials swooped.

At first a dozen officials tried to force Feng into a car. She fled to an aunt's house, but they broke through the gate, so she escaped to the mountains nearby, where she hid under a bed in the house of a friend.

"They laughed when they found her," Deng says.

An official forced her to sign a form -- in theory, consent is needed -- and, after an injection into her belly, Feng gave birth to the dead baby 30 hours later.

The public telling of Feng's story has come when others were already assailing the one-child policy.

Yang Zhizhu is one of a handful of people who have publicly criticized the heavy fines. He calls them China's "terror fee." Yang and his wife refused to pay a fine for their second daughter. The transgression cost Yang his job as a law professor. In April a sum of 240,300 yuan was taken from his wife's account. In protest he launched an online "begging" campaign through his micro-blog account.

Another reason the hold of the one-child policy has been weakening is that it is so full of loopholes.

In 2007 a family-planning official estimated that the one-child policy applied to less than 40 per cent of the population. The right personal connections can secure discounts on fines. Couples in rural areas have long been allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl.

Many other rules seem almost arbitrary: In Shanghai, if either man or wife works in the fishing industry and has been going to sea for five years, the couple may have a second child without facing punishment.

But no loophole could help Feng Jianmei. On June 14, the provincial government apologized to Feng, and said that family-planning officials in Shaanxi would be fired. That deals with the symptoms, however, and not the cause.

"I had no money to pay the fine," her husband says. "But does that mean we should suffer the grief of losing a child?"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2012 A13