Dr. Jackie Sheehan says powerful financial and personal incentives for local officials will ensure forced abortions and sterilisations continue on mainland despite calls to reform family planning laws
Updated on Jul 25, 2012
Two recent high-profile forced abortions have again fuelled debate over Beijing’s controversial one-child policy.
In June, a photograph of Feng Jianmei lying exhausted in her hospital bed next to the seven-month-old fetus she was compelled to abort was published across the world’s media. If the publication of such graphic evidence is unusual, forced third-trimester abortions on the mainland are not.
In April, Pan Chunyan was forced to put her fingerprint on a document, unwittingly agreeing to undergo an abortion in her eighth month of pregnancy, having already paid a 20,000-yuan (HK$24,500) “social compensation fee” and agreed to pay 55,000 yuan more.
In Feng’s case, the authorities have agreed to a 70,600-yuan compensation deal with her family. But despite renewed calls from government researchers and academics to amend the one-child policy, these abuses will continue.
Coercion and violence are integral parts of the system. The people who track down pregnant women to carry out unwanted terminations do it not because they are evil or unfeeling. They do it because of powerful incentives to meet family-planning targets.
Disappointing their superiors by failing to meet targets has serious career consequences, whereas violating the rights of ordinary citizens, an occasional international scandal notwithstanding, results only in temporary suspension or demotion. The understanding is that local officials do whatever dirty work is necessary to keep the numbers right and in turn their bosses look after their interests.
The head of Feng’s local family-planning bureau has reportedly been removed from his post. It would be surprising if he were not, inside a year, either back in the job or in another one of equal or greater rank.
Take the case of Li Qun, mayor of Linyi , a small city in eastern Shandong province. In 2005, activist Chen Guangcheng , now in the United States after his dramatic escape from more than two years of house arrest, exposed forced abortions and sterilisations in the city.
Li lost the mayor’s job, but was later appointed to the more prestigious post of Communist Party secretary of Qingdao , Shandong’s major commercial city.
Others implicated in the Feng affair face only “administrative demerits” and, if they continue their jobs with enough zeal, there will be opportunities to move up the career ladder.
Beijing introduced the one-child policy in the late 1970s. In 2002, the law was amended to allow certain couples to have a second child, provided they pay a penalty.
These social compensation fees have become a vital component of local officials’ income, covering overtime, bonuses, pensions and travel expenses. China Human Rights Defenders has highlighted the financial rewards and penalties on offer to family-planning officials on performance-related pay. Officials lose points for every out-of-quota birth in their area and earn cash bonuses for every abortion and sterilisation they enforce.
In a township in Anhui province, for each birth out of quota and each mandated sterilisation not carried out, five points were deducted from an official’s score. Teams of village officials competed for a 1,000-yuan bonus for the top-scoring team, while those from the last-placed village were named and shamed.
In one Guangdong county, it was officials who did not apply illegal methods who were disciplined, not the ones who “spared no effort” to carry out 5,601 sterilisations out of a target of 9,559 in April 2010.
During a “spring enforcement campaign” – taking advantage of migrant workers returning to their home provinces for the Lunar New Year – or any time an area is over its quota for unauthorised pregnancies, desperate officials resort to forced abortions and sterilisations.
Other illegal methods, aside from detentions and beatings, include the cancellation of hukou – the official household registration that governs access to basic services. Officials can deny parents permission to register a child born in contravention of family-planning regulations until a social compensation fee has been paid. Without hukou, “black” children – as in “black market” – cannot get a place at school.
Some schools will take them for a substantial fee, but it does not buy an equal education. They may be taught by different teachers and even have to wear different uniforms. The problems for unregistered children persist into adulthood, barring their whole family from state employment and the child from applying to university. In addition, most hospitals refuse to treat anyone without local hukou.
The hukou system and one-child policy are interlinked, and not only by calls for their abolition. Hukou is essentially a system for rationing access to scarce urban housing, jobs and welfare, and the central government can’t afford to abandon it just yet.
As urbanisation creates better opportunities in smaller cities, the pressure of people wanting to move to the biggest cities will ease, making both hukou and the one-child policy less necessary. Urban couples do not depend on their sons for security as rural families do and have fewer children.
This obedience to the rules of urban couples will kill the one-child policy eventually, when the mainland’s swelling generations of grandparents and great-grandparents can no longer be supported by the working-age population.
Feng Jianmei’s family have been called traitors for speaking to foreign media and have had demonstrators organised by officials surrounding their home. Even if more women were to brave the risks of going public, until it ceases to be in the state’s interests to enforce the one-child policy, the complaints of a few brave individuals will not stop official abuses of power.
Dr Jackie Sheehan is senior fellow at the China Policy Institute and associate professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham