Editorial: Riots underline development dilemmas
Editorial | Gender | Governance and Social Policy | Health
Violent protests this month in Guangxi’s Bobai (博白) County—sparked, according to international press reports, by heavy-handed implementation of birth control rules—are a tragic reminder of the pain caused by a policy that has, nevertheless, played a key role in China’s social and economic transformation.
According to the National Population and Family Planning Commission, the tough measures introduced at the end of the 1970s have prevented 400 million births—more than the entire, current population of the United States of America. Foreigners have generally been quick to deplore the authoritarian nature of the policy but slow to acknowledge its role in China’s escape from poverty. Even as the world at large grows anxious about China’s carbon footprint and about the spillage of its population overseas, there is widespread reluctance to acknowledge that if might have been a good idea to prevent an extra 800 million Chinese feet from treading on the planet.
No-one in China likes the family planning policy but very few Chinese deny the need for population control. Most, of course, would like to be personally exempt from the draconian rules, yet fully understand that Mao Zedong’s attitude to population growth was as calamitous as it was cavalier and that urgent action was overdue.
After nearly 30 years of a strict regimen, surveys suggest that few Chinese women now want large families, although many would like a second child and some would like three. Improvements in women’s education and literacy (although faltering in recent years) have probably contributed more than state propaganda to the new preference for smaller families. Market mechanisms now also complement state rules. Steep rises in the costs of education and health care have made procreation expensive, and today’s parents yearn to give their young a higher level of material consumption than previous generations aspired to. So the gap seems to be narrowing between what is permitted and what is desired.
But economic reform has also meant that China’s population sacrifice is becoming unevenly distributed. For it is now relatively easy for well-off urban couples to buy the right to have a second child; whereas in Guangxi local officials were reportedly breaking and entering rural homes to seize goods in lieu of outstanding fines for bearing “out-of-plan” children.
Family planning is one of the very few areas in which rural people (especially ethnic minorities) enjoy some measure of preferential treatment compared to city dwellers—for the ‘one child policy’ is in fact generally implemented in the countryside as a ‘one boy policy’ and in many rural areas families with three children are quite commonplace.
Yet now, to the high human costs and adverse social impacts of the family planning regimen—which include skewed sex ratios at birth, “missing girls,” unregistered children, child trafficking and an undersupply of younger people to care for seniors—
must be added the gross injustice of China’s nouveau riche being able to buy their way out of strictures forcefully applied to the rural poor. Small wonder that there was a domestic news black-out on the events in Guangxi, lest they spark simmering resentments elsewhere.
So what is to be done?
For more than a decade, several international agencies, including the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) have been working with China’s family planning authorities to temper and moderate the implementation of the latter’s tough mandate. China’s central authorities are far from stupid and they recognise the need to do this, for China’s sake if not for the world’s. Pilot initiatives have included the provision of more comprehensive and “client-oriented” sexual health services; greater contraceptive choice; a counselling, rather than a hectoring approach to child spacing; more freedom for rural couples to decide upon this; the relinquishing, in some places, of the annual birth quota system; and a shift from financial sticks to carrots, including cash payments for observance of birth control requirements.
This has been honourable and humane international engagement. For their pains, the international agencies have been vilified by China’s critics overseas, and the United States government has punished UNFPA with funding cuts. After Guangxi’s spectacularly stupid return to the big stick approach, these international agencies will doubtless come under renewed pressure to abandon work with the “oppressive” Chinese. But events in Guangxi show the need to redouble those efforts, not to abandon them.
May 30, 2007