The China series by Michael Weisskopf, the Post's correspondent in Peking for the last four years, illuminates the scope and type of measures the authorities there employ to limit their country's population. This is, for Westerners, a difficult subject. Many Americans, we would surmise, accept that the world's most populous nation must do something to cap and eventually trim the growth of a population already estimated at over 1 billion. But while some of the means are what you could call extremely rigorous -- education, propaganda, economic leverage, social pressure -- other methods fall into the realm of the openly coercive and brutal: mandatory abortion, induced stillbirth, the strangling of the newborn. That the state actively sanctions and sponsors these means underlines the dilemma.
Having favored first three children and then two children per couple earlier in the 1970s, an alarmed government went to "one couple, one child" in 1979. The difference between two and one, it calculated, was the difference between reaching 1.54 billion people in the year 2052 and peaking at 1.05 billion in 2004.
Many Chinese, especially tradition-oriented peasants, have gone to strenuous lengths of resistance and evasion to have more than one child. Even among those willing to stop at one, however, tradition and individual preference have led many to want a son. What happens when the one child officially permitted turns out to be a girl? The saddest fact of all those recounted by Mr. Weisskopf is the short count of healthy baby girls. It is measured in the hundreds of thousands each year. The explanation for it is the practice of infanticide, the horrible response of desperate parents to the official edict. The government decries it, feebly.
It is sometimes suggested, in mitigation of reports like this one, that China can ill afford the ethical standards of more affluent societies and that its policy is not without its own considered and defensible moral basis: better that some suffer now so that a greater number will not suffer later. But it is not mere sentimentalism that produces a response of outrage to what is going on in China. A totalitarian state is using its immense resources to intervene crudely, often violently, in the most delicate personal choices of millions of human beings. In the name of modernization, the state is seeing to the death of live human beings. It is the kind of policy that puts a deep moral divide between the United States and the People's Republic, notwithstanding the cooperation they seek on more routine affairs.