Today there is a basic convergence of U.S. and Chinese strategic interests in Asia, but our current good relations cannot be taken for granted. The American debate over China's population policy touches on a very sensitive issue of national sovereignty and could undermine relations beween our two nations.
In China, home of one-quarter of the world's people, population stresses are everywhere evident, especially in terms of overcrowding and pollution. China's per-capita cropland is one-third the world's average, its fresh water one-fourth, its grassland one-half and its forested land one-eighth. If China were to maintain a fertility rate as low as 2.3 children per family, its population would stabilize in the year 2080 at 2.13 billion -- double its current size. Even if the country had an average of only two children per family, its population would not stabilize until the year 2050, and then at over 1.5 billion. These alarming projections explain the great urgency of China's efforts to slow its population growth, and why the government in 1979 announced the goal of a one-child family.
Dr. Liang Jimin of the State Family Planning Commission explained it to me this way: "If we publicly advocated a two-child family (or total fertility rate of 2), we would end up with norms closer to three; and thus, when we advocate a one-child norm, we hope at best to end up with a total fertility rate of 1.7. However, we do not talk about a 1.7 total fertility rate goal for this would likewise be self-defeating." Even with the achievement of a 1.7 fertility rate by the year 2000, China's population would peak at 1.34 billion by 2025, according to demographers in China's State Statistics Bureau.
Economic incentives have been part of the government's efforts. Couples who pledat they will have no more than one child receive a series of benefits including a small monthly financial grant from the government. Upon the birth of a second child these privileges are withdrawn, and for each succeeding birth escalating penalty taxes must be paid.
Officials at all levels affirm that the government resolutely condemns infanticide and mistreatment of women, including coercive abortion and sterilization: these are termed "intolerable crimes." On the other hand, officials freely admit that government laws and policies on these matters are sometimes violated, as indeed, they point out, laws are sometimes violated in all countries. Violations are intentionally publicized by the government, according to Chinese sources, in order to stress their illegality. In fact, reports by Western critics have relied heavily on incidents widely reported by the government-controlled press.
As to reports that there is frequent physical pressure on women to undergo abortion or sterilization, my latest trip to China uncovered nothing that would substantiate these charges. On the other hand, I am in no position to deny their veracity. But I met no one, American or Chinese, who believed that there were more than isolated cases of physical force applied to women to undergo abortion or sterilization.
It was my general impression, based on many conversations, that there are certainly psychological pressures on women with children to be sterilized, but the same pressures apparently are not applied regarding abortions. Evidence in support of this distinction is the fact that the Chinese abortion rate of 25 per 100 live births is 40 percent lower than the U.S. rate of 42 abortions per 100 live births.
It must be re-emphasized that the coercive actions and incidents of infanticide opposed by the United States are also opposed by China. China is seeking to deal with the problems of excessive preference for sons not only through law but by instituting various long-term social and economic measures that will raise the status of women in their families and communities.
In developing countries, one of the strongest motivations for having many children is to ensure support for elderly parents in the absence of any other form of old-age security. The Chinese government has initiated care for its older citizens, and now has a network of old people's homes at the village level.
Public education efforts in support of both smaller families and equality of sexes are substantial; the model family depicted on posters and in the media is increasingly father, mother and daughter. China is also stressing better education and literacy for all. That, together with rising standards of living and higher income potential of women, will probably, in the long run, be the most effective step in coping with the mistreatment of women, girls and female infants so widely prevalent in traditionl societies throughout the world.
It is unfortunate that the American press has provided little coverage of these broader social and economic measures, for they are important elements of China's total effort to stabilize population growth. It is doubly unfortunate because press reports of China's population program have been seized upon by certain U.S. congressional and other groups opposed to family planning as an excuse to begin dismantling U.S. population assistance programs, including U.S. support for the United Nations Fund for Population Activities.
It was made clear to me by officials in Peking that these U.S. moves are regarded by China as a national affront. This turn of events should be of concern to anyone interested in U.S.-China relations as well as in the effects of rampant population growth in the developing world. China, far more than any other developing country, is earnestly seeking to solve a population problem that threatens the stability of China and the interests of generations to come.