Six months pregnant, 38-year-old Ma Jihong was healthy and fit, her body toned from working in the cotton fields. So when ten people from the local family planning office showed up one morning in October, she slipped through a gap in the concrete wall around the house and bolted like a sprinter towards the main road. Five-year-old Yanyan, the younger of Ma's two daughters, was alone in the house with her mother at the time. Her father came rushing in from the yard when he heard the screaming.
“My father tried to delay them. He used his arms to try to block them,” the little girl recalled last month in the family’s courtyard, cluttered with rusting farm equipment. Wearing a pink polka-dot tutu and matching sandals, Yanyan waved her arms to imitate what her father did. “But there were too many people. He couldn’t stop them.”
Ma was caught and taken in for an abortion. Her family did not see her until later in the day. By then, she was lying in a bed in the Lijin County Hospital with a roll of toilet paper supporting her head. Her complexion was sallow and a dried stream of blood was under her nostrils, her mother-in-law, Gao Hongying, said. “They took my daughter-in-law at 9am. By 5pm, she was dead,” Gao said. Forced abortions and sterilisations are the bane of villagers in this gentle farmland along the easternmost stretch of the Yellow River, about 322 kilometres southeast of Beijing.
Across the country, overzealous enforcement of family planning rules, along with land confiscations, is one of the biggest sources of anger towards the Chinese Communist Party. Graphic photos from another location, in Shaanxi province west of Beijing, of a grieving mother and her almost full-term aborted fetus went viral on the internet in China this month. After more than 1 million microbloggers expressed their outrage — “Auschwitz in the womb” was one typical comment — three local officials were suspended on June 15. Even the Global Times, a newspaper linked to the Communist Party, weighed in, declaring in an editorial that “forced termination of late-term pregnancies must be condemned and banned.” But the case was unusual only in the publicity that the photographs generated.
Walk into the village’s one general store and a group of men lets loose a stream of expletives about the coercive methods used by family planning officials. It is not that the men are morally opposed to abortion, they say, or even to limits on family size, but to the violence that often accompanies enforcement. “I support the family planning policy, but not their methods,” said Ji Shuqiang, 42, working behind the cash register at the village store. “If they find a woman who’s pregnant, no matter how far along, they’ll make you have an abortion.” An older man, who despite the urging of the others was afraid to give his name, said his wife had been sterilised 34 years ago after the birth of their only child, a daughter. He was still furious. “We hate family planning more than anything else. We don’t agree with the government’s policy on this.”
Enforcement of China’s one-child policy has become less violent since the 1980s and 1990s, when accusations of beatings, kidnappings and killings committed by family planning officials were common. But progress is uneven. Shandong province, where Lijin is located, is also the home of Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who recently ended up in the United States. Chen served four years in prison and nearly two under house arrest for challenging abuses in family planning. A self-trained lawyer, Chen became a target of the Communist Party when he filed a class-action lawsuit in 2005, claiming that forced abortions and sterilisations in Linyi, his hometown about 241 kilometres from Lijin, violated Chinese law.
The law is vague, stating merely that family planning officials should “not violate the personal rights of civilians.” But it does allow for what are euphemistically called “remedial measures” to end unauthorised pregnancies. “Forced abortion isn’t really legal, but the law isn’t clear and different jurisdictions interpret it in different ways,” said He Yafu, a demographer and family planning expert. To complicate matters, abortions and sterilisations are often performed at family planning clinics, where, by the admission of Chinese officials, medical training and equipment can be inadequate.
In 2009, a woman in Liaocheng, also in Shandong province, died after being forced to get an abortion a week before her due date. Family planning officials said that Feng Junhua bled to death during a staff shift change at the clinic. “It wasn’t even a proper hospital. The facilities were no good,” said a man familiar with the case who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. He said that Feng had left her village to give birth, but went back briefly to take care of things at home and was grabbed by family planning employees. “They took her when she was alone. They had no permission. Nobody agreed. It wasn’t right.” Feng Junhua already had one child, a 10-year-old boy, but badly wanted another and felt at age 38 that she was running out of time. “People in the countryside want two children, so that they can help each other,” said the man, who knew the family.
Nowadays, it’s not so much a matter of having a large family to work in the fields. Chinese villagers want one child to go away to work and earn money, another to maintain the family home in the village. As the Chinese countryside goes, Shandong is relatively prosperous with its easy access to Beijing, Tianjin, Qingdao and the oil fields along the coast. Many families are willing to pay the fines, which run up to five times the annual income, for an extra baby.
The one-child policy is now more than three decades old and is credited by Communist authorities with preventing 400 million births. But in this era of urbanisation,China’s neighbours, Taiwan and South Korea, have lower birthrates without coercive measures, as people marry later and move into smaller homes. Chinese policymakers in recent years have seriously discussed relaxing the rules because of an aging population and a gender imbalance in favour of boys. But the seemingly glacial pace of change only makes it more frustrating for those who want more children and don’t have time to wait.
Meanwhile, Communist Party cadres can be denied bonuses and blocked from promotions if there are excess births in their jurisdictions. Every village has a family planning committee and in some, women of childbearing age are required to have pregnancy tests every three months. Periodic campaigns with banners, quotas and slogans can lead to abuses such as in 2010, when authorities in the southern city of Puning, in Guangdong province, vowed to sterilise 9,559 people despite strenuous objections from human rights advocates.
The sense of unfairness is heightened by inconsistency in how the rules are applied. In some rural jurisdictions, people can have a second child if the first is a girl, but only after a waiting period. In other places, a second child is permitted if both parents are single children. Paperwork to obtain permission is cumbersome. The rules are bewildering. The Beijing News carried a story recently about a young couple who had to collect 50 pages of documents and receive permission from ten of their nearest neighbours before they could get approval to have a second child.
In the recent Shaanxi province case, the parents thought they were entitled to a second child because they lived in the countryside and their first was a girl. But they were informed late in the pregnancy that the wife’s application would not be accepted because she was registered to live in an urban area. Family planning officials requested $6,500 (Dh23,855 )to approve the pregnancy. “They decided to make an example of us,” the husband, Deng Jiyuan, said.
In Lijin, Ma Jihong and her husband, Gao Xuetao, had two daughters already, but still wanted a son. Gao was his family’s only son and Chinese believe their ancestral line is traced only through the males. Many other families in the village had managed to have more children by paying the fines. What went wrong, the family still doesn’t know. Lijin County officials said in a statement that she had been sent for a “labour-inducing operation,” but that her “breath and heartbeat suddenly stopped before she was injected with labour-inducing medicine.” Only then was she transferred to the county hospital. The family never found out whether they would have had another girl or the boy they had long sought. To little Yanyan, it didn’t matter. “I didn’t want a little brother or a little sister,” the 5-year-old said, looking down at her feet with embarrassment over her confession. The obvious went unspoken: What she wanted was her mother.
Nicole Liu of The Times’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.