China’s one-child policy revisions change little

Recent news that China is looking to ease its controversial one-child policy and abolish the “reeducation through labor” camps are considered small positive steps, but experts do not believe that the Chinese Communist Party is suddenly embracing human rights.

The real motivations behind those reforms might have more to do with economic and demographic concerns, as well as an understanding that positive headlines heralding a relaxation of the one-child policy make for good public relations in the West, they said.

“I simply cannot summon any enthusiasm when I hear news like this,” said Nathan Faries, an English professor at the University of Dubuque and author of “The ‘Inscrutably Chinese’ Church: How Narratives and Nationalism Continue to Divide Christianity.”

Faries told Our Sunday Visitor that China still considers its “wrongheaded” one-child policy to be correct and successful, and that the Communist Party regularly tweaks the policy to great fanfare in the press.

“The best I could say is that all these relaxations of policy finally could, in a very optimistic view, end in an accumulation of small freedoms that might make China in 50 years look somewhat different in its human rights landscape than it does today,” Faries said.

Continued atrocities

Meanwhile, Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, a coalition of human rights activists and organizations that lobby against forced abortions, gendercide and sexual slavery in China, told OSV that Chinese women will still continue to be sterilized and forced to have abortions under the adjusted policy, which will likely remain in place for several more decades.

“We can’t abandon the women or children in China because of a minor adjustment to the one-child policy. The atrocity is not over,” said Littlejohn, who met with human rights activists recently in Hong Kong. 

On Nov. 15, the Xinhua News Agency, the official press agency of the Chinese Communist Party, reported that China was planning to allow some couples — those in which one spouse is an only child — to have two children. The one-child policy, which was instituted in 1979, currently prohibits couples in China, with very few exceptions, from having two or more children.

Xinhua also reported that the Chinese state was looking to abolish the labor camps that Mao Zedong based on the Soviet gulags when he created the labor camp system in the 1950s. Political prisoners have often been detained without trial and sent to the “reeducation” camps, where millions are believed to have died through harsh conditions, overwork and suicide. The labor camps have been a regular source of human rights complaints in the West.

“The Chinese government has not been able to hide the existence of these camps. Saying that they’re now going to abolish them is quite heartening, but we still have to see what this means. Are people being released? Are they just being reclassified differently? I’m not sure,” said Jesuit Father Paul Mariani, a history professor at Santa Clara University and author of “Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai.”

Father Mariani told OSV that the announced reforms might show some good will on the part of the Chinese government, though it is still a measured step. He said the government may have loosened up a little bit, but there are still many red lines that Chinese people cannot cross.

Faries said he remains pessimistic about the Chinese government’s intentions.

“These small reforms are so miniscule to be nearly meaningless, and they do probably more to consolidate CCP power and entrench the one-child policy than they do to subvert that power or that policy in the long term,” Faries said.

Government backtracking

Experts noted that Xinhua ran a second report announcing that the “birth policy changes are no big deal. The report also quoted Wang Pei’an, deputy director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, who said that “the number of couples covered by the new policy is not very large across the country.” Pei’an also said the government had no timetable to implement the revised policy.

The apparent backtrack did not surprise Steven Mosher, founder and president of the Population Research Institute, a nonprofit that argues against the global overpopulation theory. Mosher, who as a young Stanford University academic in 1979 was the first American social scientist to visit Communist China, told OSV that Chinese authorities are wary of major reforms because they do not want to see their system collapse like the Soviet Union.

“This is a baby step. I welcome a relaxation of the policy, but the fact is that the state still controls reproduction in China,” said Mosher, who said he witnessed firsthand women being arrested and forced to have late-term abortions.

“I saw women arrested for the crime of being pregnant,” Mosher said. “The basic problem is that the Chinese state still controls reproduction in the same way it controls the distribution of goods and services. This is an economic question for them. They treat people like cattle. They don’t want to have too few, or too many.”

Policy repercussions

The Chinese Communist Party instituted the one-child policy with the idea of preventing overpopulation, combating poverty and improving the nation’s quality of life. The government believed the policy to have been successful as the national economy boomed over the last two decades and as millions of young adults migrated to the cities to work in the factories.

However, demographics are catching up to the Chinese regime. According to United Nations estimates, China’s working-age population will begin declining rapidly after it peaks in 2015, and it will continue to fall for the next 15 years. The one-child policy has dragged China’s fertility rate to an incredibly low 1.55 per woman, which is less than replacement, according to the United Nations.

The policy is also blamed for creating serious social problems, especially the gender gap between the number of young men and women in China. Forced to have only one child, millions of Chinese couples have been known to abort or abandon baby girls. The result is various academic studies that indicate there are 37 million Chinese young men who will not have any spouses their age to marry.

A 2009 British Medical Journal article reported that in nine Chinese provinces, the census data showed there were 160 boys born for every 100 girls. The article reported that “sex selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males.”

Dr. Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president for research and director of the International Organizations Research Group for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, told OSV that she was happy for women who will not have to pay a fine — about a year’s salary — for having a second child.

Yoshihara, who visited China last year and is the author of “Population Decline and the Remaking of Power Politics,” said the one-child policy has been a “failure,” and added that she was disappointed to read the Chinese regime’s soft-pedaling the reform, which she added will still not eliminate gender-selective abortion or reverse China’s population decline.

“They really just need to scrap policy altogether,” Yoshihara said. “This is really too little too late.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.