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China's Second Thoughts About Family Planning

10/23/2005 - 5:30 AM PST

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Amid New Doubts, Harsh Policies Linger

BEIJING, OCT. 23, 2005 (Zenit) - China's fierce demographic control policies have exacted a heavy toll during the last quarter-century. An overview of the consequences appeared in an article in the Sept. 15 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"The Effect of China's One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years," authored by Therese Hesketh and Zhu Wei Xing, noted that the regulations cover matters ranging from family size, late marriage and the spacing of children. The term "one-child policy" is, in fact, misleading in that it is applied only to a part of the population, primarily government workers and those living in urban areas. Rural families are generally allowed a second child, five years after the birth of the first, especially if the first was a girl.

The restrictions are underpinned a system of rewards and penalties, which are administrated by local officials and which vary widely. They can include economic incentives for compliance, as well as substantial fines, including confiscation of belongings and dismissal from work, for noncompliance.

Contraception and abortion are the backbone of the implementing the policy. Long-term measures are favored, with intrauterine devices and sterilizations together accounting for more than 90% of contraceptive methods used since the mid-1980s. The authors note that the majority of women are offered no choice in contraception.

Hesketh and Zhu note that authorities claim that the policy has prevented 250 million to 300 million births. The authors caution that population statistics in China are known to be subject to government manipulation. The total fertility rate -- the mean number of children born per woman -- decreased from 2.9 in 1979 to 1.7 in 2004, with a rate of 1.3 in urban areas and just under 2.0 in rural areas.

Girls eliminated

One consequence of the family planning restrictions has been the growing disproportion between male and female births. The proportion of male live births to female live births ranges from 1.03 to 1.07 in industrialized countries. In China the ratio was 1.06 in 1979, but climbed to 1.17 by 2001.

Sex-selective abortion, facilitated by the use of ultrasound images to find out the sex of unborn children, accounts for a large proportion of the female babies killed. And while infanticide is thought to be rare, sick female infants are known to receive less medical care. The growing scarcity of females has already resulted in kidnapping and trafficking of women for marriage, and could well be a threat to the country's stability in coming years, according to some analysts.

The low birthrate has set the stage for a rapid aging of China's population. The percentage of those over age 65 was 5% in 1982 and now stands at 7.5%. It might top 15% by 2025. These figures are low compared to industrialized nations. But the lack of an adequate pensions system in China means that most of the elderly depend on their children for support, leading to concern over how the ever-smaller numbers of children will cope in coming years.

Authorities have tacitly acknowledged some of the problems caused by the family planning system, by adopting a more flexible policy in various regions. A more-open admission came at the start of this year, Reuters reported Jan. 6. On the occasion of China's population reaching the 1.3 billion mark, an editorial in the China Daily supported the one-child policy but conceded: "Admittedly, the family planning policy has gone awry in some places."

Reuters also reported the same day that China was taking further steps to avoid the selective abortion of females. The news agency said that government data showed 119 boys were being born for every 100 girls. Sex-selective abortion was already illegal, but the new plans involve a further tightening of regulations, including banning the use of ultrasound machines to detect the sex of fetuses.

Authorities, however, made it clear that they will not countenance opposition to family planning policies. The Associated Press reported Jan. 5 that a Shanghai woman, Mao Hengfeng, was sentenced to an additional three months in a labor camp because of her opposition to the policies. She was already serving a one-and-a-half year sentence for her campaign to abolish the family planning policies.

Repression intensifies

Recent events in the eastern province of Shandong indicated just how harsh the family planning policies still are. On Sept. 7 the Washington Post reported that Chen Guangcheng, a blind peasant who campaigned against the use of forced sterilization and abortion, had been seized by authorities. Chen was visiting Beijing while preparing a lawsuit to challenge the abuses.

Chen, who lives in Linyi, a city to the southeast of the capital, had protested against local measures that ...

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