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China 2.0

The Brutal Tactics For Enforcing China's One-Child Policy

Setting limits on having children has meant an army of Chinese civil servants systematically employing kidnapping, torture, forced sterilization and abortions. And for what?

A 1986 poster promoting China’s One Child Policy
A 1986 poster promoting China’s One Child Policy
Bruce Pedroletti

BEIJING – Since it was first applied in 1979, China’s One Child Policy has led to 281 million abortions and 516 million operations to implant intrauterine devices to sterilize women, according to official data from the Chinese Ministry of Health.

For the Chinese government, the One Child Policy (OCP) was a constant excuse for the invasion of their citizens' civil rights, carried out by an army of civil servants and enforcers tasked with making sure the policy was applied. This army did all it could to expose the women hiding their illegal pregnancies.

Gao Liguo, from the small town of Pizhou in eastern China, knows all about this army. His wife, a controller at the local audit office in Jiangsu province, was turned in while she was on “holiday” to hide her pregnancy. The couple already had one child.

On Aug. 23 2010, around noon, more than 10 people arrived at Gao’s home. “They locked me in hotel. For three days, they prevented me from sleeping by leaving the lights and the TV on. They took turns to wake me up and lecture me. We were ready to quit our jobs and pay the fine, but they told me it was impossible; they were acting on orders from the Party Secretary,” recalls Gao.

Gao ended up revealing the location where his wife was hiding. It was her turn to be sequestrated for a day, and lectured. Finally, she was taken to the hospital where the doctor refused to take responsibility for her abortion, because she was in her 32nd week of pregnancy.

“I had to sign a liability waiver,” says Gao. His wife survived the operation and kept her job. The couple tried in vain to report what they had been through. “I tried to complain to the Family Planning commission, and the discipline commission, but no one cared. I talked to a lawyer, but he got cold feet. As if we had no rights, not even the right to survive,” says Gao bitterly.

The methods of the National Population and Family Planning Commission – which was abolished in March 2013 and merged with the Ministry of Health – were often illegal, something that shouldn’t exist in a country where there is rule of law, explains Yang Zhizhu, a professor of law at the China Youth University for Political Sciences in Beijing – a long-time activist for the right to have children. “There were all sorts of major crimes which were not prosecuted: abductions, torture, and some cases of homicides,” he says.

Huge ransoms or forced abortions

“The courts and the police wouldn’t do anything. They probably had instructions to let the policy enforcers do their jobs.” Depending on the time and the place, “you could be asked to pay a huge ransom, a fine or forced to have an abortion. Whatever they needed for their statistics or their finances – it wasn’t very clear,” says Yang.

In many poor rural administrations of the west and the center of the country, the money collected thanks to the OCP fines represents a hug part of the local budget. “In the rural areas, authorities try to get people to pay the fines even before the baby was born, because youths often work far from home, and leave after the birth, without paying the fines. Then when they come back to visit their families for Chinese New Year, the father would be kidnapped until he paid up,” says Yang.

In the cities however, the pressure is applied through the workplace – each administration has a person in charge of monitoring the employees. Yang himself lost his teaching job in 2010, after the birth of his second daughter.

Despite its 500,000-member strong army of OCP enforcers, the Family Planning Commission also employed two million additional enforcers. “Usually, the village authorities created a special group made of ordinary people, low-level village officials, whose sole goal was to enforce the policy – some of them did this for years,” explains Yang.

The very public case of Feng Jianmei last year, had huge consequences for the Family Planning Commission. Feng was forced to have an abortion when she was already seven months pregnant – creating uproar on China’s micro-blogging sites and forcing the Commission to issue a new rule banning abortions after six months of pregnancy. Finally, the Commission was abolished in March this year.

If the OCP netted such huge results, it is because it relied on systematic management of contraception: in rural regions, where a couple is allowed to have a second child when the first one is a girl, women are forced to be fitted with an intrauterine contraceptive device in between pregnancies. After the second pregnancy – or the first if the first child was a boy – women have to have their tubes tied, while men are encouraged to have a vasectomy. All these operations – except late-term abortions – are done in rural areas, at the local Family Planning centers, where only half of the medical personnel is certified, according to data from the Chinese Ministry of Health.

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