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.

3 comments:

FOARP said...

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

Hmm . . . given that China's fertility rate (i.e., the number of children a woman would have in a lifetime if the birth rate that year remained constant) didn't dip below 2.0 until 1994, most people over the age of 20 were born at a time when more than one child was still the norm. The fertility rates for urban areas at that time may have been lower, but by how much I don't know.

"The Guardian has chosen to report this item of news by publishing a piece by Ma Jian, entitled "China's Barbaric One Child Policy"."

I know this is (almost certainly) just a turn of phrase, but of course the Guardian published a lot more about this than just the Ma Jian piece.

"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."

These facts are not unconnected, of course.

"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."

The problem with asserting that something is "not the official policy" is that many things are not "officially" official policy, but unofficially, they are. Just as often the logic of official policies demands activity that official polciy outlaws.

You point out that these things happen only in remote rural areas - but then you have to say that these are also the areas in which birth rates are still high and in which these policies can be kept relatively quiet.

The fact that these cases have been continuing, widespread, for years, almost always unpunished, indicates that actually there must be a degree of connivance at official levels. Since this is exactly the kind of thing we see in other areas of policy (e.g., freedom of speech, worker's rights, religious freedom etc.) this shouldn't surprise us.

All the same, you're right to say that this contradiction between official policy as declared in Beijing and the way that policy actually ends up being implemented should have been addressed in his article.

Personally, the most salient thing about the One Child Policy is the degree to which it appears to have been ineffective and unneccessary, but has been continued with. This is not to say that population control itself is unnecessary, but the means that the Chinese government has chosen do not appear to have been any more successful than what has been acheived elsewhere (e.g., Taiwan) through entirely voluntary measures.

The ineffectiveness of the One Child Policy is also reflected in the fertility rates immediately following its implementation. According to the World Bank, these are as follows:

1979 - 2.74
1980 - 2.63
1981 - 2.59
1982 - 2.59
1983 - 2.60
1984 - 2.62
1985 - 2.64
1986 - 2.63
1987 - 2.59
1988 - 2.53

That is, fertility rates in Mainland China in the ten years following the introduction of the One Child Policy did not see a significant fall, and actually rose in the period 1981-85. This is especially striking when you consider the fall from 5.51 in 1970 to 2.91 in 1978 that was acheived through largely voluntary means.

It is therefore hard to see how the steady fall from 1989 onwards can be attributed to the One Child Policy alone. Considering similar falls have been seen in all countries where significant and rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, and economic liberalisation has taken place, it seem quite reasonable to say that the decline may well have been largely related to economic growth in China instead.

Ji Xiang said...

Well, the one child policy must have had some effect on fertility rates, because at least in urban areas of China most families really do seem to only have one child, and I do suppose that many of them would have two children if not for the policy.

The thing is that in the countryside the one child policy has never really been respected. Most families have preferred to have two or three children, and pay the fines if necessary. All the young Chinese I know who come from rural backgrounds have brothers and sisters.

The figures you show are thought provoking. It is certainly true that fertility rates would nowdays be declining anyway due to increased prosperity. I suppose the policy must have made them decline a bit faster though.

Comparing Mainland China to Taiwan is always misleading by the way, since Taiwan is small and more prosperous.

It also strikes me that if the policy were really so ineffective in reducing the birth rate, then blaming it for producing spoilt "little emperors" as people do would obviously be wrong. The famous phenomenon of little girls being abandoned is also not necessarily connected to the policy (especially since rural parents can have a second child if the first on e is a girl). The imbalance in the male/female ratio can be seen in other poor Asian countries, including India.

You are right that the central government is probably to blame for not really doing anything to stop local officials from implementing the policy in brutal ways, and that official policy doesn't equate with the genuine policy.

The point is more that I felt the article gives the misleading impression that forced abortions are widespread all over China. I feel it should have made it clear that such things only occur in limited areas.

Ji Xiang said...

"Hmm . . . given that China's fertility rate (i.e., the number of children a woman would have in a lifetime if the birth rate that year remained constant) didn't dip below 2.0 until 1994, most people over the age of 20 were born at a time when more than one child was still the norm. The fertility rates for urban areas at that time may have been lower, but by how much I don't know."

I think the problem is exactly that you are not distinguishing between urban and rural backgrounds. I get the impression that most young people born after the eighties in cities are indeed single children. I think the degree to which the policy is respected in urban and rural areas has always been vastly different.