Comment Comment and Features

China’s one-child catastrophe

Chen Guangcheng (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

During Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Britain, I spoke in Parliament about the 280 human rights lawyers who have disappeared or been detained in China since July. Many of them were arrested after contesting the illegal destruction of churches or the persecution of Christians.

I also asked – as I have done since 1980 – about China’s coercive one-child policy.

In my remarks I referred to Chen Guangcheng, the barefoot, blind human rights lawyer. In 2006 Chen was imprisoned for four years after violating and leading protests against the one-child policy. It’s a law which has marked China as the world’s only country where it has been illegal to have a brother or a sister.

In 2013, Chen came to Westminster as my guest and received a human rights award. Last month, while President Xi was in London, Chen was here, too, taking part in peaceful demonstrations. This extraordinary and deeply patriotic man, who has no sight, has seen so clearly what his country’s leaders have been blind to: not only that their policy was an outrageous violation of human rights but that it has had a disastrous demographic effect. The cruel enforcement of the policy has had one other consequence: in opening the eyes of millions to the nature of the system, it will prove to be the system’s undoing.

The disaster began to unravel from behind the closed doors of government when, in 2013, an internal Communist Party document exposed the scale of this pernicious policy. Over 40 years some 330 million abortions, 196 million sterilisations and 403 million intrauterine devices inserted into women, often without their consent, have led to a massive imbalance between young men and women. This relentless targeting of girls babies became known as gendercide – indirectly funded by British taxpayers under successive British governments.

I recall one memorable meeting in the 1990s with a minister in charge of international development. The air was blue with expletives as I was accused of undermining development policies which, I was told, aided population control. At that meeting I had raised the case of Gao Xiao Duan, a former Chinese family planning official, who in 1998 described to a US congressional committee the horror of forced abortions of women, how babies had been murdered during delivery and newborns drowned in paddy fields by officials.

After this ministerial harangue, I visited Beijing and met Communist Party officials. The contrast between them and our own government officials could not have been greater. The difference was that many of the Chinese officials had suffered too. Hardly anyone in China has been unaffected by the one-child policy.

In private some of those officials quietly encouraged me to go on opposing the policy. I told them that one day Chen would be seen as a national hero. His brave stand had opened minds and given courage to those whom Chesterton, in another context, once described as “the secret people”.

Chinese bloggers took up Chen’s case and publicly questioned the policy. They were joined by brave lawyers, increasingly asking why a totalitarian political system should be allowed to crush the spirit of a truly great people. The one-child policy was seen as being the perfect image of a one-party system.

In the absence of a free press, the bloggers – one of whom told me he had five million followers – have opened minds. They shined a light on horrifying stories, like that of a women whose seven-month-old unborn baby was coercively aborted then left by her side on her bed as a warning not to become pregnant again. With these stories the bloggers fundamentally questioned the nature of a one-party Communist state.

Now, belatedly, the Communist Party has recognised that a policy that was justified on economic grounds – and aided and abetted by the West – has turned out to be an economic disaster.

In a child-poor country there simply won’t be enough children to support those who have retired.

The policy has also distorted the population balance. There are now 40 million more Chinese men than women, while, globally, the sex-selective abortion of little girls has led to between 100 million and 200 million females missing in the world, with catastrophic social consequences.

After his return to Beijing from London, President Xi’s government said it would relax the one-child policy. On the face of it this may seem welcome, but note that the word is “relax” not “end”. China will now impose a two-child policy.

Chinese women will still need to obtain a birth permit for the first and second child, and only within marriage. Those violating these strictures may still be dragged from their homes, strapped to tables, and have their babies forcibly aborted.

A two-child policy will not end the human rights abuses caused by the original policy: forced abortion, involuntary sterilisation and the sex-selective abortion of baby girls. Let’s be clear: state-coercion and state-control remain at the heart of the policy. The policy doesn’t need to be relaxed or modified; it needs to be done away with.

In future, the key question for China is not the number of children that a family may have but the principle of state interference in the intimate life of a family and the coercion which the state uses to enforce its limits.

In London President Xi talked of “the Chinese dream”, but as long as
the Communist Party exercises ruthless control over its citizens, imprisons lawyers, crushes free speech, closes or demolishes churches, arrests bishops and performs forced abortions, the dream will continue to be the stuff of nightmares.

Lord Alton of Liverpool is a crossbench peer

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (11/06/15)

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