China's Population Policies

Author(s): Kay Johnson
Date Published: July 15, 2006
Source: Political Environments #2, Summer 1995

A COLLEAGUE OF MINE WHO IS ACTIVE in the international women's reproductive rights movement recently told me that she was surprised at how little knowledge women activists in her field seemed to have about China's population policies. China has had the most extensive, high pressure fertility limitation program in the world for nearly two decades. Yet at international conferences that discuss family planning and reproductive rights, China's policies and the problems they create for women and children are rarely discussed. There is no doubt that China's policies have severe consequences, ranging from extreme coercion in inducing women to have birth control operations (abortion, sterilization, IUD insertions) to producing behavior that has resulted in seriously and increasingly skewed sex ratios among young children.

One of the reasons for the silence surrounding these problems is that Chinese women are not free to discuss their government's population policies in a critical way, especially in an international forum. In addition, many educated urban Chinese believe the strict policies, however painful, are necessary to deal with China's "population crisis," and they are therefore reluctant to discuss the negative consequences such policies may have for women and girls. The enormous social and cultural gulf that separates urban and rural women reinforces this silence, for it is in rural areas that the most severe abuses of reproductive rights and the worst suffering from the state's population policies tend to occur.

The silence may be ending; there has been some criticism of the population policies raised by Chinese scholars and activists outside of China, as well as some very cautious criticism of some aspects of the policies inside China. Recently Li Xiaorong, a member of the Executive Committee of Human Rights in China, wrote in China Rights Forum (Spring 1995) that China's economic "miracle" was weakening the government's justification for its high pressure population control policies. According to Li,

The official reaction to criticisms of China's policy has consistently been that population pressure threatens this poor nation's survival and justifies urgent and unusual measures to reduce the birthrate. Now the basis of this defense has been weakened. If the "crisis" of survival can be resolved partly through economic growth… the use of coercive measures in the implementation of the family planning policy can no longer be justified in the name of necessity.

As Li's argument indicates, before any serious questioning of the policy and its consequences are likely to be raised, inside or outside China, the assumptions of necessity and crisis must be challenged. There is no doubt that the Chinese people are better fed, clothed and housed today than at any time in their history. In the last 15 years China has experienced one of the most dramatic improvements in economic growth and standards of living in the world this century. Although there have been recent cries from some "population crisis" alarmists-such as Lester Brown of Worldwatch who claims, in an article riddled with factual errors as well as misleading logic, that China will soon be unable to feed itself-China is not on the verge of running out of food. (Worldwatch, Sept./Oct. 1994) While, of course, China has many serious economic and environmental problems, it has not reached the limits of its ability to feed a growing population.

Furthermore, various institutional and socioeconomic changes have already reduced fertility desires in China and these desires could be lowered even further if greater attention were given to the kinds of investments that are known to lower fertility voluntarily, such as increasing education for rural girls and women and instituting a universal social security system for the countryside. While it seems certain that population growth would increase temporarily if the high pressure methods currently used were ended, further socioeconomic changes would eventually bring growth rates down to near replacement levels where they now stand. While there may be various advantages to keeping population growth as low as possible, it is not reasonable to argue that it is "necessary" to do so. At the very least, whatever benefits may accrue to attaining the lowest possible population size, these must be weighed against the costs of attaining that goal. And the costs, in human terms, have proven to be enormous.

It is by now very clear that there are a number of severe negative consequences for girls and women that result from the stringent fertility limitation policies and the extreme pressure that is necessary to implement them. The government's official policy prohibits coercion, but the targeting of local birth quotas and the high pressure, top-down nature of the political apparatus that is held responsible for implementing the targets routinely result in excesses and coercion at the local level. The pressure waxes and wanes. In the mid-1980s there were widespread reports that coercion had been sharply curtailed and pressure from the top eased. The strict one-child policy was formally modified in most parts of the countryside to allow couples who gave birth to a girl to have a second child several years later. This in effect changed the one-child policy to a one-son-two-child policy. More importantly, local cadres were, de facto, given more leeway and they used this to give more consideration to villagers' needs and hence to allow more births. While the slightly revised one-son-two-child policy has remained in place in most rural areas, the high levels of upper echelon pressure to implement the policy were renewed in the late 1980s, severely curtailing local discretion. Recent years have seen sustained levels of high pressure, especially in the countryside.

The most widely known problems associated with high pressure implementation are coerced "birth control operations"-primarily abortions, sterilizations (mainly of women) and IUD insertions. Clearly, women are the main targets of these campaigns and women bear a disproportionate cost of the government policies. In any other country, the level of pressure used to attain compliance with these population policies would be viewed by women's rights activists as severe human rights abuse.

Probably the highest cost of the policies is paid by China's little girls. Reported sex ratios at birth have become increasingly skewed due to the state's population policies since the late 1970s. Today, it is estimated that over a million infant girls are "missing" each year. This is not a reflection of the fact that Chinese "do not like girls." In fact, fertility survey data from the early 1980s on has consistently indicated that the vast majority of rural as well as urban Chinese would prefer to have a boy and a girl rather than two boys if allowed to have two children. Most peasants desire daughters, some even risk breaking population control regulations to try to have one. But most still feel that, however much one might desire a daughter, it is absolutely necessary for minimum old age security and to "continue the family line" in a rigidly patrilineal culture to have at least one son. Under severe pressure from the state, desperate parents are sometimes driven to find surreptitious ways of obtaining this felt need. In the process, little girls "disappear."

Exactly what happens to these girls has been the subject of inquiry and much debate among Chinese and western demographers. While female infanticide immediately comes to mind, nearly all agree that infanticide is not the primary factor in skewing the sex ratios; some demographers believe it is statistically negligible although the actual extent of the practice is unknown. Most explanations involve various means of statistical disappearance, such as literally hiding the birth of a daughter from local officials or arranging informal adoptions by friends or relatives who live in other areas. While such a fate is obviously far less tragic than infanticide, it disadvantages these "illegal" children in many ways, including, no doubt, emotionally.

Prenatal sex-selective abortion also figures prominently in the explanations for skewed sex ratios, especially in recent years as ultrasound technology has spread throughout the country. Although the use of ultrasound and other prenatal testing for the purpose of sex-selective abortion is strictly illegal, it is extremely hard to detect or prevent and is likely to continue, even escalate, as long as pressure to implement the current population policies remains high. Although few demographers have looked at abandonment, this too has become a serious problem in some parts of the country since the late 1980s. Nationwide tens of thousands of infant girls may be abandoned each year. Evidence indicates that, in a country that can generally be extremely proud of its low infant mortality rates, the mortality rate of abandoned children is very high, even among those who are lucky enough to be found and brought to a welfare center.

All of this adds up to a huge human and social toll that must be laid at the feet of the current Chinese population policies. If these policies are not truly and urgently necessary, it must be asked "Are they worth it?" Far more serious consideration and open debate needs to be directed toward this question. Toward that end, I offer the following short bibliography for those who would like to learn more about China's population control policies.

For a general overview see:

•Betsy Hartmann, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, rev. ed. (Boston: South End Press, 1995), chapter 9.

Two articles that offer critiques of the notion of “population crisis” and argue for alternatives to Chinese population control policies:

• D. Gale Johnson, “Effects of Institutions and Policies on Rural Population Growth with Application to China,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Sept.1994).
•Amartya Sen, “Population: Delusion and Reality,” The New York Review of Books, September 22, 1994.

Articles that investigate various negative consequences of Chinese population policies for women and girls:

• Susan Greenhalgh, Zhu Chuzhu, and Li Nan, “Restraining Population Growth in Three Chinese Villages, 1988-93,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (June 1994).
• Susan Greenhalgh, “Controlling Births and Bodies in Village China,” American Ethnologist, Vol. 21, No. 1 (1994).
• Susan Greenhalgh and Jiali Li, “Engendering Reproductive Policy and Practice in Peasant China: For a Feminist Demography of Reproduction,” Signs, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Spring 1995).
• Sten Johansson and Ola Nygren, “The Missing Girls of China: A New Demographic Account,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 17, No. 1 (March 1991).
• Kay Johnson, “Chinese Orphanages: Saving China’s Abandoned Girls,” Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 30 (July 1993).
• Zeng Yi, Tu Ping, Gu Baochang, Xu Yi, Li Bohua, and Li Yongping, “Causes and Implications of the Recent Increase in the Reported Sex Ratio at Birth in China,” Population and Development Review, vol. 19, no. 2, (June 1993).