Chen Guangcheng is author of “The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China.”
Recent news reports suggest that the Chinese Communist Party is considering abandoning one of its longest-running and most abusive practices: its reproduction planning policy, commonly known as the one-child policy. The decision comes as the nation faces a number of domestic crises resulting from the policy, from a rapidly aging labor force to severe gender imbalances. Returning reproductive rights to the people, however, does not exempt the Communist Party from responsibility for decades of trauma and murder committed under the euphemistic rubric of population planning.
According to the Chinese authorities, at least 360 million fetuses and infants have been killed since 1979, when the regime instituted the one-child policy in order to control the expanding population. Structurally, this has been a complex, nationwide affair, organized at the top echelons of power and implemented at the local levels, with perks and promotions in store for officials who meet quotas. Controlling fertility is highly bureaucratized: Couples are required to apply for a permit to conceive, while women up to age 50 must report to a clinic every three months for a pregnancy test. Yet, as in any authoritarian system that seeks to police individual freedoms, bribes, theft, extortion and abuse of power are commonplace.
In 2005, on a tip-off, some colleagues and I began an investigation into a population planning campaign then going on in Linyi, Shandong province, where I am from. Witnesses described groups of thugs descending by the vanload into villages to round up pregnant women or couples who had “over-birthed.” The authorities were forcing women out of hiding by holding family, friends and neighbors in prison-like conditions for days or weeks, extorting them for cash or beating them until the fugitives revealed themselves.
Once in the hands of the authorities, the unallowed mothers-to-be (even if pregnant with a first child) were being dragged to a hospital or population planning facility, where they would be forced to sign a document agreeing to have their babies aborted. Pregnancies are terminated at any stage, meaning even a full-term, viable newborn can be killed. Witnesses have described nurses or doctors twisting the necks of crying babies, sealing newborns in plastic bags to suffocate, or putting them facedown in a pan of alcohol to choke them to death. Women described how hospital staff injected drugs into the heads of their babies while still in utero and then induced the stillborn children from their bodies.
The Communist Party has long mandated a complete media blackout on the subject of population planning and hence did not take kindly to our work. In 2006, I was sentenced to more than four years in prison for the investigation, which revealed that in my area of Shandong province alone, in just six months’ time, more than 130,000 people underwent forced abortions or sterilizations (including men), and more than 600,000 people suffered detention, extortion or torture in relation to an “over-birthing” friend or relative.
It’s hard to describe the devastation I witnessed. The voices and stories of those suffering will remain with me always. Women were physically and mentally traumatized, families torn apart. Generations of desperately wanted children were literally left to die on the hospital floor. How do people recover from this?
Two years ago, the Communist Party appeared to backpedal, allowing couples to have two children. The widening cracks in society are impossible to ignore, however, and will be difficult to undo: A deeply entrenched preference for boys, in concert with restrictions on births, has led to a ratio of 108 boys born for every 100 girls, translating into a host of social ills, including an increase in human trafficking; the labor force is aging to a critical point, while the singletons of the younger generation struggle to care for parents and grandparents; the birthrate hovers around an anemic 1.3 births per woman; and those positive traditional Chinese values that have upheld human life as something to protect, nurture and celebrate have been destroyed.
In the United States, China’s one-child policy has remained out of bounds for bipartisan action because it seems to touch on one of the hot-button issues of America’s left-right divide: abortion. Yet I would ask Americans on all sides to put aside their own debates and look at the realities of China. This is about mass-scale abduction, imprisonment, physical violation, torture, forced medical procedures, extortion and the murder of healthy infants born full-term, none of which are relevant to the American debate about reproductive rights.
The Chinese regime continues to keep a tight lid on news and information and the countless abuses of power since it took power in 1949 and before, including this nearly 40-year episode of violent population control. Chinese people inside China are still not able to talk in public forums about their experiences, and the media cannot report on it. Therefore, I urge the American government to use the tools at its disposal — such as the Global Magnitsky Act — to hold Communist Party leaders accountable and to take a stand for human rights for all.