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The Dawn of a Perfect Family Planning Policy

February 6, 2001

By Steven W. Mosher

Every year or so, some enterprising young Western reporter (usually greatly aided and abetted by China's State Family Planning Commission) declares that China's draconian population control policies are a thing of the past.

The truth, on closer examination, always appears rather different.

Leslie Chang of The Wall Street Journal is the latest breathless convert to the notion that China's "Womb Police" are a thing of the past, replaced by "kinder and gentler" family planning workers who practice sweet persuasion rather than compulsion. Reporting from Minglan village a couple of hundred miles north of Shanghai (a trip undoubtedly sponsored by the Chinese government) Chang writes that China is "easing [its] once-brutal approach to family planning."[1]

She offers as evidence the story of Mrs. Sun Fang who, following the birth of her son, was visited by family planning workers who came to her house bearing "a wooden box filled with all kinds of contraceptives, whose merits and side effects they proceeded to explain. Which one, they asked, would she like to try?"

Now some of us would find intrusive the idea that agents of the state would visit you in the privacy of your home and insist - ever so gently, of course - that you contracept. But not Ms. Chang, who describes this as a "remarkable experiment . . . replac[ing] coercion with choice, in matters such as when to give birth and what type of contraceptives to use." But not, mind you, whether to contracept at all.

Ms. Chang's eye-opening tour continues in the villages of Yicheng county, where "something surprising emerges: Almost everyone has two children. . .. families in Yicheng have been permitted since 1985 to have two children as long as they space them five years apart."

But what Ms. Chang presents as a "pioneering project" is anything but unique. The Chinese government relaxed the one-child policy throughout rural China in 1985 in order to staunch the rising tide of female infanticide. The new rules originally allowed rural couples a second child only if their firstborn had been a girl. But local officials found this two-children-for-some, one-child-for-others policy difficult to enforce, and over time it degenerated in most places into a de facto two-child policy. The four-to-six year waiting period that had been mandated at the same time, however, survived.

Ms. Chang also suggests that the Beijing regime has abandoned its earlier practice of setting birth quotas for provinces and counties. Yet all indications are that Beijing continues to rely upon national and provincial population targets and goals. In fact, the State Family Planning Commission, in its December 19 White Paper on Population, announced a new population cap of 1.6 billion people by the year 2050. It also asserted that the one-child policy, which limits urban couples to one child and farmers to two if the first is a girl, would remain in place. To be sure, the White Paper was at pains to emphasize that these targets and quotas will be achieved by "education" and "persuasion," but this has been the constant refrain of the Chinese government for the past twenty years.

The conclusion of Ms. Chang's article is almost amusing, in a grim sort of way. She quotes "a group of Chinese social scientists" as saying "This [Yicheng county] policy of widely allowing two children, with proper spacing, can be extended to all of China's large farm villages."

As these scholars well know, but Ms. Chang apparently does not, they are merely suggesting that official policy be brought into conformity with what has, for over a decade now, been the actual practice of population control workers in China's villages.

In the judgment of these scholars (one hobbled, perhaps, by fear of political persecution), "a perfect family planning policy" would restrict everyone to two children.

I, for one, would not celebrate this change. A two-child policy, no less than a one-child policy, would violate the rights of parents to decide for themselves the number and spacing of their children.

Steve Mosher is President of Population Research Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to debunking the myths of overpopulation.

[1] Leslie Chang, "China Tries Easing once-Brutal Approach to Family Planning," The Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2001, A1.

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