Horrors of one-child policy leave deep scars in Chinese society

6 min read

is wife was seven months pregnant with their second child when the group of people barged into his home and took her away. He followed them to the local hospital, where – against medical advice and despite his pleadings – they jammed a needle into her belly.

“They grabbed my wife’s body like they were grabbing a pig, four or five people holding her hands and legs and head, and injected a shot into her belly,” the man said, asking not to be named for fear of retribution. “Neither my wife nor I signed any consent form.”

Ten hours later, she gave birth to a boy, wriggling and faintly crying. But the doctors in southern Hunan province would not even let her hold the dying infant, the husband said. They put the baby in a plastic bag and instructed him to pay a cleaner a small sum to bury it on a nearby hill.

The incident happened not during the horrors of some Mao Zedong-inspired mania in the 1950s or 1960s but in 2011, in the Internet age and when China was walking proudly on the global stage as a major power.

On Thursday, China’s Communist Party announced it was abandoning its unpopular one-child policy after 35 years. But the scars still run deep.

In 2012, 6.7 million women in China were forced to have abortions under the one-child policy, according to official statistics. Rates in previous decades often topped 10 million a year. As a result, experts say, suicide rates among women in China are significantly higher than among men, in contrast to global norms.

Unimaginable numbers of girls are secretly aborted or killed in infancy every year by parents seeking boys, skewing the sex ratio dramatically.

In the past four decades, hundreds of millions of men and women have been forcibly sterilized or had intrauterine devices inserted, per Chinese family-planning policies.

The vast majority of people are still scared to speak out, but many, including some of the cadres involved in enforcing the policy, say they feel bitter to this day.

A 56-year-old man from a small town in southern China said he had worked in the mid-1990s as a member of a family-planning team.

In every county, he recalled, blackboards would record how many children each family had. Parents were allowed a second child only if their first was a girl, and then only after five years. Intrauterine devices, tubal ligations and vasectomies were commonplace.

But it was when people tried to skirt the rules that things got ugly.

“Many women who were seven or eight months pregnant were forced to have abortions,” the man said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Hospitals never refused, despite the risks. Because it was a government order, no one dared say no.”

One woman with two daughters fled her home to avoid ligation, because she wanted a son. When the family-planning team arrived at her house, they found only the woman’s 80-year-old mother.

They tore down the dwelling, destroyed the furniture and ruined the food, “making the house vanish in just 20 minutes,” the man said.

“I told the official in charge, ‘This is too ruthless.’ He replied: ‘It’s policy,’ ” the former team member said. “I can never forget the scene: an 80-year-old woman crying in front of her ruined house, sitting on a stone in tears. It’s like it just happened yesterday. I couldn’t bear it anymore and resigned from the family-planning team.”

Chinese demographers have been pleading with the Communist Party for at least a decade to abandon the one-child policy, which has left the country facing a potential economic crisis caused by looming labor shortages and a dramatic rise in the number of elderly people.

But the party dragged its feet, unwilling to turn its back on a policy that empowered and often enriched officials across the nation, many of whom took large bribes to overlook the rules.

The latest move still limits the number children a couple can have to two, presumably leaving that vast enforcement apparatus still in place.

“Whether they are having one or two children, they will have to have a birth permit for each child, and they will face coercion, unless they are rich enough to bypass the limits,” said Reggie Littlejohn, founder of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, a San Jose-based group that campaigns against forced and sex-selective abortion in China. “Poor people have to obey the law, and rich people have to buy their way out of it.”

In 2005, a lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, filed a class-action lawsuit against the authorities over enforcement of the policy, but as a result he spent years in jail and under house arrest. In 2012, the blind “barefoot lawyer” fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and is now a visiting fellow at the Catholic University of America.

He says a powerful, violent system grew up around the one-child policy, creating a climate of fear and destroying the traditional value that was placed on human life. Official promotions were tied to family-planning success, and slogans on how it would be better to have “bloody rivers than extra births” summed up the brutality by which the policy was enforced.

“The policy created a deformed society and cast a shadow in people’s minds: that you can do nothing in the face of state power,” Chen said. “Think about it: People do not even have control over their own body. They cannot even protect their own child.”

In 2012, public opinion was galvanized when a chilling photograph circulated widely on social media showing a mother lying on a hospital bed with the corpse of her son after officials had forced her to have an abortion.

Feng Jianmei, who had been seven months pregnant, said at the time she had been forced to end the pregnancy because she could not pay a fine of $6,300 for failing to get an official permit for a second child.

Feng’s husband, Deng Jiyuan, said his wife was depressed and ill for a long time after the incident. Their young daughter, he said, asked where her brother was.

“We had nothing to say except he was in heaven,” he said, his voice breaking. “She asked what heaven looked like. We said we don’t know.”

The attention made their lives a double nightmare, Deng said. Local villagers called them troublemakers for speaking out; even as Feng recovered, they held banners outside the hospital calling the couple “traitors.”

The pain has not gone away, he said, but in February the couple was finally able to have a second child. On Thursday evening, they were together at home when they heard the news that the one-child policy was being abandoned.

“Jianmei sighed and said it should have come a long time ago,” Feng said. “Then both of us retreated into silence.”

In Hunan, the man whose second child was aborted in 2011 said his wife has had a mental breakdown because of the trauma. About the new policy, he had only one thing to say: “It has come too late.”

Xu Yangjingjing, Xu Jing and Emily Rauhala contributed to this report.

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