Who Controls the Family?

Chen Guangcheng, who has organized a class-action lawsuit against forced abortion and sterilization in China, listens as women describe their experiences.
Chen Guangcheng, who has organized a class-action lawsuit against forced abortion and sterilization in China, listens as women describe their experiences. (By Philip P. Pan -- The Washington Post)
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 27, 2005

LINYI, China -- A crowd of disheveled villagers was waiting when Chen Guangcheng stepped out of the car. More women than men among them, a mix of desperation and hope on their faces, they ushered him along a dirt path and into a nearby house. Then, one after another, they told him about the city's campaign against "unplanned births."

Since March, the farmers said, local authorities had been raiding the homes of families with two children and demanding at least one parent be sterilized. Women pregnant with a third child were forced to have abortions. And if people tried to hide, the officials jailed their relatives and neighbors, beating them and holding them hostage until the fugitives turned themselves in.

Chen, 34, a slender man wearing dark sunglasses, held out a digital voice recorder and listened intently. Blind since birth, he couldn't see the tears of the women forced to terminate pregnancies seven or eight months along, or the blank stares of the men who said they submitted to vasectomies to save family members from torture. But he could hear the pain and anger in their voices and said he was determined to do something about it.

For weeks, Chen has been collecting testimony about the population-control abuses in this city of 10 million, located about 400 miles southeast of Beijing, beginning in his own village in the rural suburbs, then traveling from one community to the next. Now he is preparing an unlikely challenge to the crackdown: a class-action lawsuit.

"What these officials are doing is completely illegal," Chen said. "They've committed widespread violations of citizens' basic rights, and they should be held responsible."

It might appear a quixotic crusade -- a blind peasant with limited legal training taking on the Communist Party's one-child policy, which has long been considered a pillar of the nation's economic development strategy and off-limits to public debate. But the Linyi case marks a legal milestone in challenging the coercive measures used for decades to limit population growth in China.

While there have been scattered cases of individuals suing family planning officials, legal scholars say the Linyi farmers appear to be the first to band together and challenge the state's power to compel people to undergo sterilization or abort a pregnancy since the enactment of a 2002 law guaranteeing citizens an "informed choice" in such matters.

"The population and family planning law affects everyone's individual rights, so a case like this is an important test," said Zhan Zhongle, a law professor at Beijing University who helped draft the legislation. "By suing the government, the Linyi peasants are merely asserting their legal rights. Whether the courts accept the case, and how they handle it, will be a test of China's justice system and of whether China can govern according to law."

Forced abortions and compulsory sterilization, though never openly endorsed by the government, have been an element of China's family planning practices since at least 1980, when the national population topped 1 billion and the party concluded that unchecked growth could undermine economic development and launched the one-child policy. But resistance has always been widespread, especially in the countryside, where farmers depend on children to help in the fields and support them in their old age.

As rural anger mounted and international criticism of such practices grew, the party began experimenting in the mid-1990s with less coercive methods, expanding health services for women, providing more information about contraception and implementing regulations barring involuntary sterilization and abortion. The government adopted the law granting citizens the right to make an "informed choice" in family planning, and in recent years it has moved toward a system of economic rewards for couples with only one child and fines or fees for those with more.

But many local officials continue to rely on forced abortion and sterilization, in part because the ability to limit population growth remains a top consideration in party deliberations about promotions and raises. In much of China, an official who misses a population target, even if he or she excels in other fields, is dismissed, according to researchers and family planning officials.

In Linyi, residents said local officials ordered couples to come in for sterilization even if they had been given permission to have a second child. Women with intrauterine birth-control devices were not exempt.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company