The one-child policy was first introduced in China in 1979, soon after liberalization to control the growing population. The policy exempted only ethnic minorities and also relaxed some norms for rural couples. Its ruthless implementation resulted in averting many child births and paved the way for an increase in female foeticide. Both within and outside China, many people held the one-child policy responsible for the country’s skewed sex ratio, which recently led Chinese officials to take a close second look at the feasibility of the policy. After much hype that the policy might be repealed, the central government decided aginst it. According to latest reports, a fresh debate is raging after Feng Jianmei’s relatives posted photographs of her dead 7 month old foetus on the internet. This incident has led to public outrage within and outside China. So then, why is the policy still not being repealed? What sections of society are pressurising the government to continue with this policy and for what reasons?
Incidents fuel demands for repeal
Pan Chunyan of the south-eastern province of Fujian was forcefully grabbed from her grocery store when she was eight months pregnant. She was coerced into putting a thumbprint on a document which said that she agreed to abort her foetus, and was subsequently injected with a drug. Left on a hospital bed by doctors, she gave birth to a stillborn baby. A chemistry professor, Cao Tingbing, at Remin University in Beijing, committed suicide by jumping off a nine-storey school building in March. He was under the stress of losing his job and also facing punishment after being accused of violating the one-child policy by his colleagues through a message on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. In another incident in early June, Jianmei, from Shaanxi province failed to pay her fine. Her husband posted photos on Weibo to take on the authorities. The recent diplomatic crisis over Chen Guangcheng was also linked to this issue as he was an advocate who fought against forced sterilisations and abortions in China and was punished for the same by local officials.
The debate that has started after these incidents through Weibo and also surprisingly through state-run newspapers is not limited to human rights violations alone. Scholars and economists have jumped into the debate and have demanded repealing the policy on the grounds of an aging population, which is resulting in labour shortage. Liang Jianzhang, an economist and Li Jianxin, a demographer have estimated that by 2040 the number of people above 60 years in China will be 411 million, and the working population between the ages of 20-40 would drop from the present 817 million to 696 million. A group of scholars and policy advisors criticised the policy at a discussion at Peking University, co-organized by the National Bureau of Statistics, to discuss the results of the 2010 census. The participants, who were outraged by the Feng Jianmei incident, sent a petition signed by scholars and business executives to the National People’s Congress demanding repeal of the law. Even some former officials who were instrumental in formulating the policy were present at the forum, which raised hopes that the petition will reach the members of the National Population and Family Planning Commission.
Many groups have also argued that a county in Shaanxi province relaxed the policy as part of an experiment to analyse its impact on the acceleration of the birth rate. It was noticed that not many families went for more children. Thus, the repressive policies are not needed as the people themselves will not go for more children due to the huge cost incurred in their upbringing, especially in urban areas. The rural areas already enjoy relaxation up to two children per couple.
Abortions in the last trimester are illegal in China. However, the law has been openly flouted. Local officials are forcing abortions to meet the government’s population control goals, failing which they will be penalised and not promoted. The Family Planning Commission continues strict adherence to the policy citing numbers to highlight its success. Even the National People’s Congress is unlikely to consider any petition for repealing the act unless it is supported by the top levels of the Communist Party. Incidents like Feng Jianmei are addressed in a uniform pattern - the local officials apologize and the central authorities pitch in with some remedies. Time and again party leaders do give lip service and publicly acknowledge that they are rethinking about the policy. One or two incidents spark a debate about repealing the act, but, the question of repealing the policy largely looms into oblivion, even with immense pressure from all quarters.