Saturday, November 23, 2013

Ma Jian and the "barbaric one child policy"

The third plenary session of the CCP, which ended last Tuesday, produced a few legal reforms which have given me some hope China might actually move closer to international human rights standards under this new leadership. "Re-education through labour" was abolished, and the use of the death penalty further limited (although we are a very, very long way off from its abolition).

The measure which will probably have the biggest impact on the Chinese people's lives is the reform of the notorious one-child policy. The main alteration to the existing policy seems to be that in future, couples where either the husband or the wife is a single child will be allowed to give birth to two children. The previous rule was that both members of the couple had to be single children for them to receive permission for a second child.

This should mean that basically, a majority of young couples in urban areas will now be able to have two children by law.

The Guardian has chosen to report this item of news by publishing a piece by Ma Jian, entitled "China's Barbaric One Child Policy". Ma Jian is a Chinese author who hasn't lived in the Mainland for over two decades, and is a vocal critic of the Chinese government. He isn't at all well known within China, although to be fair that might be because his works are censored here. Even so he is not strictly speaking an exile, since he appears to be able to happily travel back to China at will.

I do not doubt that some of the facts described in Ma Jian’s article are true. Indeed, forced abortions and sterilizations clearly do still happen in China. If this were a piece of denunciation aimed at the Chinese public, it would have its worth. However, as an article aimed at Western readers who aren't familiar with China and can't put these terrible events into context, I find it rather misleading. 

What is missing from the article is any reference to the fact that forced abortions and sterilizations are just not the official policy in China, and also not the norm. Such aberrations normally only occur in remote rural areas, where local officials will resort to such measures to achieve quotas. 

In fact, in 2002 the use of physical force to make a woman subject to an abortion or sterilization was outlawed, although enforcement is patchy. At the very least, we can say for sure that there is a large chunk of China where such things would never happen. Official government policy is to fine couples which break the birth control policy, and this is what usually occurs.

Of course, the Chinese government can and should be criticized for not making a real effort to stamp out such practices for good. Reading Ma Jian's article, however, one would get the impression that China is just one big hellhole full of goon squads running around forcing women to have abortions and terrorizing families. This is just not the case, and articles like this one probably don’t help to bridge the gap in understanding between Westerners and the modern urban Chinese, who live in a very different world from the one which Ma Jian describes.