Monday, 23 July 2012

Forced abortions in China

Pan Chunyan was grabbed from her grocery store when she was almost eight months pregnant with her third child. Men working for a local official locked her up with two other women, and four days later brought her to a hospital and forced her to put her thumbprint on a document saying she had agreed to an abortion. A nurse injected her with a drug.

“After I got the shot, all the thugs disappeared,” Ms. Pan, 31, said in a telephone interview from her home in the southeastern province of Fujian. “My family was with me again. I cried and hoped the baby would survive.”

But after hours of labor, the baby was born dead on April 8, “black and blue all over,” Ms. Pan said.
Recent reports of women being coerced into late-term abortions by local officials have thrust China’s population control policy into the spotlight and ignited an outcry among policy advisers and scholars who are seeking to push central officials to fundamentally change or repeal a law that penalizes families for having more than one child. Pressure to alter the policy is building on other fronts as well, as economists say that China’s aging population and dwindling pool of young, cheap labor will be a significant factor in slowing the nation’s economic growth rate.

“An aging working population is resulting in a labor shortage, a less innovative and less energetic economy, and a more difficult path to industrial upgrading,” said He Yafu, a demographics analyst. China’s population of 1.3 billion is the world’s largest, and the central government still seems focused on limiting that number through the one-child policy, Mr. He said. Abolishing the one-child policy, though, might not be enough to bring the birthrate up to a “healthy” level because of other factors, he said.

Beyond debate about the law itself, critics say that enforcement of the policy leads to widespread abuses, including forced abortions, because many local governments reward or penalize officials based on how well they keep down the population.

Judging from the talk on microblogs across China and articles in state-run newspapers on forced-abortion cases, the one-child policy is being questioned more widely than in recent years. Last month it came under sharp criticism from a group of scholars and policy advisers at a forum at Peking University co-organized by the National Bureau of Statistics to discuss the results of the 2010 census. Scholars at the meeting were outraged by the plight of Feng Jianmei, a victim of a forced late-term abortion in early June whose case became widely known after photographs of her dead 7-month-old fetus were posted on the Internet by a relative.

“I think the right to have children is the right of a citizen,” said Zhan Zhongle, a law professor at Peking University who has sent a petition signed by scholars and business executives to the National People’s Congress urging its members to repeal the law.

Officials have made changes to the policy over the years, and by one estimate there are now at least 22 ways in which parents can qualify for exceptions to the law. But the majority of adults remain bound by it, and there is no sign its repeal is in the works. The National People’s Congress, largely a rubber-stamp legislature, is unlikely to take up Mr. Zhan’s petition without support from the top levels of the Communist Party.

Still, some former officials and scholars instrumental in helping to formulate the original policy were at the forum, raising hopes among longtime critics that the concerns would be heard among members of the National Population and Family Planning Commission.

The diplomatic crisis in the spring over Chen Guangcheng has also brought more attention to the policy. Mr. Chen, a self-taught lawyer who recently escaped from house arrest and left for New York, is perhaps the most famous advocate for women who are forced to undergo sterilization and abortion; his work incurred the wrath of local officials, and the central government ignored his persecution in Shandong Province.

There are no reliable estimates on the number of forced sterilizations and abortions, but it does not seem to be as rampant as it was a decade or two ago. Still, the recent cases show overzealous enforcement of the one-child policy remains a problem. Xinhua, the state news agency, has reported that forcing pregnant women who are in their third trimester to abort is illegal.

Besides the concerns of lawyers and human rights advocates, economists and business executives have expressed anxiety about the impact of a slowing population growth rate on the economy. Liang Jianzhang, a well-known executive with a doctoral degree in economics from Stanford University, and Li Jianxin, a demographer at Peking University, have estimated that by 2040, the number of Chinese older than 60 would be 411 million, up from 171 million today. The working population — people between the ages of 20 and 60 — would drop to 696 million from 817 million today.

The 2010 national census shows that the average birthrate for a Chinese household is 1.181; it is lower in cities and higher in rural areas. There have been some studies, including a long-term experiment in a county in Shanxi Province where the family planning law was suspended, that show that families would not have many more children even if the law were abolished. Scholars say the reasons are rapid modernization and a mass movement toward urban areas — parents often say they cannot afford to have more than one or perhaps two children. This means not only that the one-child policy may no longer be necessary, but also that its repeal would not necessarily benefit the economy.

While more debate may be under way, the family planning commission itself continues to stand behind the one-child policy. It held a semiannual work conference on Thursday and posted a statement on its Web site afterward that praised the policy as having helped avoid 400 million births since it was put in place in 1980.
Starting in the 1980s, local officials who failed to meet a set standard of controlling population growth were generally penalized in their evaluations for promotion, no matter how well they did in other categories.

Mayling Birney, a scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science who is studying the evaluation system, said many local officials say the population control quota remains among the so-called one-veto criteria for promotion and is about as significant a goal as maintaining stability or growing the local economy. “This pressure really comes from the higher government,” she said. “The actions of lower officials are very much driven by how higher officials are rewarding and punishing them.”

Some township government Web sites that give a breakdown of goals for officials list population control as a priority. In a survey Dr. Birney conducted last year, some officials said they could be given a warning, fined or even removed from office if they did not meet family planning targets.

Such is the case in Daji Township, said Ms. Pan, the woman forced to have the late-term abortion in April.
Ms. Pan, a resident of Daji, said Ma Yuyao, the head of the township’s family planning commission, “scores points for promotion” by keeping the population down. Many parents ready to pay the fine of $7,200 for a third child are still coerced or forced into having abortions to make sure targets are met, Ms. Pan said. (Daji is a rural area, and couples there are apparently allowed two children without penalty.)

Ms. Pan’s husband, Wu Liangjie, said the couple gave Mr. Ma $8,700, as he had demanded, but Mr. Ma still ordered the abortion.

Mr. Ma could not be reached for comment. A woman answering the telephone at the township government office said officials had no comment.

Mr. Wu traveled to Beijing several weeks ago to seek the advice of lawyers on filing a lawsuit. But in the last week, neither he nor Ms. Pan have answered their cellphones, raising suspicions that officials from Daji may have intimidated them.

Ms. Pan said earlier that men had begun following her after photographs of her in the hospital were posted by sympathizers on the Internet.

As for the future, she said she and her husband did not plan to try having another child again.

“We both feel like we almost died,” Ms. Pan said, “or lost half of our lives.”

(Source: The New York Times)

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