Last June a case in which a 23-year old Chinese girl called Feng Jiamei, from Shaanxi province, was forced into abortion in the seventh month of pregnancy -even when Chinese law clearly prohibits abortions beyond six months- opened the pandora box in China, and outside the country. The baby was killed while still in the womb by an injection arranged by local family-planning officials.
After the event took place the Shaanxi Provincial Population and Family Planning Commission said in an official statement:
“Such practice has seriously violated the relevant policies set by national and provincial family planning commissions, which harmed the image of our family planning work, and caused extremely poor effects in society,” said the statement. Based on the findings, we have requested the local government to punish the relevant officers according to law.”.
It was too late to apologize. Millions of messages from outraged people circulated on social networks in China when they realized about the news. Also prominent voices joined in the criticism. “The outrageous and violent forced- abortion incident in June is not unique to Shaanxi”, wrote Liang Jianzhang (chief executive of Ctrip, on of China’s most successful travel companies), 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,” he went on. Mr Liang’s post has been retweeted more than 18,000 times.
In 1983, 14 million women had abortions organised by family-planning committees (many of them coerced). In 2009, there were 6 million. The number has declined in recent years as local officials have more incentives to impose fines on extra births rather than prevent them altogether.
So does it make sense to undertake such a policy in current China? Here we break down some arguments why the one-child policy is defended and some of why is heavily criticized.
Arguments in favor of the one-child policy
Social problems alleviation: this policy was introduced in 1978 and initially applied to first-born children from 1979. It was created by the Chinese government to alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems in China, and authorities claim that the policy has prevented more than 250 million births between 1980 and 2000, and 400 million births from about 1979 to 2011.
Lower the fertility rate: After the introduction of the one-child policy, the fertility rate in China fell from 2.63 births per woman in 1980 (already a sharp reduction from more than five births per woman in the early 1970s) to 1.61 in 2009. However, the policy itself is probably only partially responsible for the reduction in the total fertility rate.
Poverty eradication: In China’s poor areas, economic and cultural backwardness and too many births often interact as both cause and effect. The Chinese government has taken a step in giving support to the development of poor areas to alleviate poverty by promoting family planning, holding population growth under control, and raising the life quality of the population in those areas.
Public support: a 2008 survey undertaken by the Pew Research Center reported that 76% of the Chinese population supports the policy.
Arguments against the one-child policy (text taken from Wikipedia)
Other available policy alternatives: One type of criticism has come from those who acknowledge the challenges stemming from China’s high population growth but believe that less intrusive options, including those that emphasized delay and spacing of births, could have achieved the same results over an extended period of time. Some critics stress that some of these alternatives were known but not fully considered by China’s political leaders.
Policy benefits exagerated: Another criticism is that the claimed effects of the policy on the reduction in the total fertility rate are exaggerated. Studies by Chinese demographers, funded in part by the UN Fund for Population Activities, showed that combining poverty alleviation and health care with relaxed targets for family planning was more effective at reducing fertility than vigorous enforcement of very ambitious fertility reduction targets.
Human rights violation and forced abortions: The one-child policy is challenged in principle and in practice for violating a human right to determine the size of one’s own family. According to a 1968 proclamation of the International Conference on Human Rights, “Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children.” In 2002, China outlawed the use of physical force to make a woman submit to an abortion or sterilization, but it is not entirely enforced. In the execution of the policy, many local governments still demand abortions if the pregnancy violates local regulations, or even force abortions on women violating the policy, such as Feng Jianmei’s case.
The “four-two-one” problem: As the first generation of law-enforced only-children came of age for becoming parents themselves, one adult child was left with having to provide support for his or her two parents and four grandparents. Called the “4-2-1 Problem”, this leaves the older generations with increased chances of dependency on retirement funds or charity in order to receive support. If personal savings, pensions, or state welfare fail, most senior citizens would be left entirely dependent upon their very small family or neighbours for assistance.
Possible social problems for a generation of only children: Some parents may over-indulge their only child. The media referred to the indulged children in one-child families as “little emperors”. Since the 1990s, some people have worried that this will result in a higher tendency toward poor social communication and cooperation skills among the new generation, as they have no siblings at home. No social studies have investigated the ratio of these over-indulged children and to what extent they are indulged. With the first generation of children born under the policy reaching adulthood, such worries were reduced.
Unequal enforcement: Government officials and especially wealthy individuals have often been able to violate the policy in spite of fines. For example, between 2000 and 2005, as many as 1,968 officials in central China’s Hunan province were found to be violating the policy, according to the provincial family planning commission; also exposed by the commission were 21 national and local lawmakers, 24 political advisors, 112 entrepreneurs and 6 senior intellectuals. Some of the offending officials did not face penalties, although the government did respond by raising fines and calling on local officials to “expose the celebrities and high-income people who violate the family planning policy and have more than one child.”
Birth tourism: A way to escape the strict rules of the one-child policy is for Chinese women to give birth to their second child overseas. A favourite destination was Hong Kong. Hong Kong is exempt from the one-child policy and the Hong Kong passport, which is different from a China mainland passport, provides additional advantages. Recently though, the Hong Kong government has drastically reduced the quota of births set for non-local women in public hospitals. As a result fees for delivering babies there have surged.
UPDATE (Dec, 2013): Chinese government has announced changes to ease the One-child policy which will allow more parents to have a second child, starting the roll out early 2014, according to state media.
For further information:
Chinese academics urge end to one-child policy
China one-child policy leads to forced abortions, mothers’ deaths
The one-child policy: The brutal truth