Chinese state media are trumpeting the Communist Party’s decision to loosen the restrictions, but the coverage is silent on the abuses – ranging from forced and sex-selective abortions to extortionate fines for offenders – that campaigners say lie at the heart of the policy.
There is also little discussion about the right of a government to dictate to citizens how many children they may have in the first place.
“It’s a girl,” a 2012 film by Tucson, Ariz. director Evan Grae Davis highlighting gendercide in China and India, will be screened in an Amnesty International documentary series event in Hong Kong on Monday and Tuesday.
The event organizers have also invited Women’s Rights Without Frontiers President Reggie Littlejohn to speak after the screening. Littlejohn has campaigned around the world against the one-child policy, but never in China itself.
She said from Hong Kong early Monday she was both humbled and “thrilled to speak out against forced abortion and gendercide in a public forum from Chinese soil, and to connect with the brave human rights community here in Hong Kong.”
“This is a terrific opportunity, and my hope is that I will forge friendships now that will grow and mature over time, so that together we can work for freedom and justice in China.”
“It’s a girl,” which has featured in events at the U.S. Congress, the House of Commons and the European Parliament, highlights the fact that – as stated by one expert in the film – “Today, India and China eliminate more girls than the number of girls born in America every year.”
On Friday, Beijing announced that the CCP’s central committee has approved a move to allow urban couples to have a second child if one of the parents is an only child.
Previously, couples in urban areas could only have a second child if both parents were only children. Before that, most urban couples were restricted to one child only. Limited exemptions apply to rural or ethnic minority couples.
The government stressed that the relaxation did not mean it would stop mandating the size of families: “China will implement this new policy while adhering to the basic state policy of family planning.”
On Saturday, a top family planning official also informed couples covered by the new regulation not to rush ahead, but to wait until it was formalized in their local jurisdictions.
“Different places will implement the policy at different pace according to individual situations,” said National Population and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) vice-minister Wang Pei’an. He added that “people will not have to wait too long.”
Wang’s warning is striking because some of the worst rights abuses recorded under the one-child policy have occurred at the hands of over-zealous local and provincial officials, with national authorities claiming to be neither aware nor at fault.
The decision to further tweak the one-child policy introduced in the 1970s was driven by economic factors – concerns about consequences of an ageing population and shrinking working-age population.
NHFPC officials and academics quoted in state media over the weekend discussed those issues at length, but coercion and abuses were not mentioned.
(One Xinhua article on Sunday did include a Chinese demographer’s comment that “the ultimate goal should be eliminating limits imposed by the government, leaving the decision to the families themselves.”)
The problem with China’s policy, said Littlejohn, was not the number of children “allowed” by the government.
“Rather, it is the fact that the CCP is telling women how many children they can have and then enforcing that limit through forced abortion, forced sterilization and infanticide. Even if all couples were allowed two children, there is no guarantee that the CCP will cease their appalling methods of enforcement.”
“The coercive enforcement of China’s one-child policy is its core,” she said.
China Aid president Bob Fu also noted that despite the announcement, “the whole coercive system” remains in place.
“Unless the whole family planning system is abolished, Chinese women and men will continue to suffer the cruelty of the forced abortion and forced sterilization,” he said.
The missing girls
Apart from reports of forced abortions carried out by family planning officials, China’s policies also have promoted abortion indirectly: In a society that favors boy children for cultural and economic reasons, couples allowed just one child but who learn they are expecting a girl have had abortions in the hope the next pregnancy will produce a boy.
The government said it outlawed the practice almost a decade ago, but that it remains widespread is clear from the increasingly unbalanced ratio of boys to girls.China has a national average ratio of 124 boys to 100 girls, rising in some provinces to 140 boys to 100 girls, according to a 2009 study in the British Medical Journal. The international norm is 103-107 boys for every 100 girls.
The study found that there were 32 million more males than females in China under the age of 18, and that “[s]ex selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males.”
Demographers warn of a growing army of frustrated young men unable to find wives. Already the policy has been cited as a factor in a recorded rise in cross-border trafficking of women and girls into China from south-east Asia and elsewhere.
A State Department report this year found that the gender unbalance arising from “the Chinese government’s birth limitation policy and a cultural preference for sons,” was “a key source of demand for the trafficking of foreign women as brides for Chinese men and for forced prostitution.”
“Instituting a two-child policy will not end gendercide,” said Littlejohn.
All Girls Allowed, another rights group focused on gendercide in China – launched in 2010 by U.S.-based Chinese dissident Chai Ling – said it welcomed news of the Chinese shift but was disappointed that the government “has not gone the logical and compassionate route – abolishing the policy altogether.”
“This foolish and cruel policy should have been abolished in its entirety yesterday, not merely tweaked today,” it said in a statement.
“To China’s senior leadership, we call upon you to listen both to wisdom and to the cries of your people. Most importantly, we implore you to heed the commands of God, who blessed mankind and commanded them to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28) As the psalmist writes, “Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him.” (Psalm 127:3).”