PRI Review

John Aird, China Demographer and Critic, R.I.P.

As the head of the China branch of the U.S. Census Bureau, John Aird watched in honor as the one-child policy unfolded in the early ’80s. He concluded that the Chinese family planning program was being carried out “against the popular will by means of a variety of coercive measures. Despite official denials and intermittent efforts to discourage some of the more extreme manifestations, since the early 1970s if not before, coercion has been an integral part of the program .… Mandatory IUD insertions, sterilizations, and abortion continue.”1

Most demographers, especially those in the China field like Mr. Aird. either remained silent about abuses in China’s one-child policy, or they actively applauded it. Mr. Aird, on the other hand, risked his professional reputation by becoming China’s most cogent critic. “‘The Chinese program remains highly coercive.” he wrote, “not because of local deviations from central policies but as a direct, inevitable, and intentional consequence of those policies.”2 Based on literally thousands of documents reviewed during a decades-long professional career, Mr. Aird’s opinions were indisputable.

Supporters of Coercion

Mr. Aird was at least as horrified by the active participation of family planning organizations in China’s program as he was by the program itself. He concluded that organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), by praising and funding China’s program, were not only turning their backs on universal principles of human rights, but also betraying their own charters. Such organizations spoke loftily of “voluntarism” and the “rights of parents to decide for themselves the number and spacing of their children” and then turned right around and supported coercion.

As he wrote, “In 1979, as the Chinese government was initiating its highly coercive one-child policy, the UNFPA was negotiating the first of three five-year programmes of assistance to that governments ‘population activities,’ including family planning, and committing $50 million for the purpose. In 1983, the peak year for coercion in the Chinese programme, a United Nations committee on which Rafael Salas, then head of the UNFPA, served as adviser, gave the first two UN population awards to Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, whose government had approved compulsory sterilization in the 1970s, and Qian Xinzhong, Minister-in-Charge of the State Family Planning Commission, who directed the 1983 surgery drive. In the same year, the government’s family planning effort was welcomed to full membership in the IPPF. In subsequent years the IPPF has provided more than $8 million to the Chinese family planning programme.”3

An Indictment of Beijing

With the publication of Slaughter of the Innocents in 1990, he publicly broke ranks with the family-planning establishment, and documented in excruciating detail what they had heretofore largely ignored. This several-hundred-page indictment of the Beijing regime and its foreign sycophants remains required reading today for anyone who would understand China’s population control policy. It is the authoritative treatment of the one-child policy and the means by which it is being implemented in China today,

UNFPA Involvement

“Mr. Aird frequently testified before the U.S. Congress, and was often consulted by the State Department, providing both with expert advice on the current state of the population control program in China. For example, when the Bush administration decided to send a State Department delegation to China in 2002 to examine the UNFPA’s involvement in China’s one-child policy, it called upon John Aird to brief the assembled delegates. His information was critical to the Bush Administrations decision to withhold U.S. funding from the UNFPA, a decision that has been reaffirmed each year since.

Mr. Aird also testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on China’s New Family Planning Law (September 23, 2002), debunking the notion that this was an effort to liberalize or relax the policy. “Misleading claims about the law are being put forward by Chinese family planning officials and by apologists for the Chinese program,” Mr. Aird stated, “but its true purpose has been made clear in Chinese domestic sources from the start. It is intended to increase the government’s control over child-bearing in order to reduce the numbers of births and hold down the rate of population growth. This is quite clear from the explanations given in Chinese sources during earlier attempts to draft a national law.”

Mr. Aird’s exhaustive review of the Chinese family planning literature — of which he had a better grasp then any other in the West — told him that throughout the 23 years of its gestation, the essential rationale for the national family planning law had remained unchanged. The Chinese government was determined to strengthen enforcement of the existing family planning policies and reinforce government control over child-bearing in order to overcome stubborn popular resistance. The government saw the law as an additional means of compulsion. He testified that the only reason that Beijing, beginning in 2002, began to misrepresent it as an effort to curb coercion, was to limit and disarm foreign criticism.

Aird and PRI Agree

As he testified, the Population Research Institute’s “investigative team…had found coercive measures still in force in one of the UNFPA’s project counties, where such measures were supposed to have been abolished. This report embarrassed both the Chinese government and the UNFPA, and the UNFPA hastily put together an ‘independent’ team with close UN connections to go to the same county, obviously with the intent of finding no coercion, which, hosted and escorted by both the government and the UNFPA, it naturally did not find. After the report of the U.S. State Department investigative team’s visit to China in May 2002, released in July, confirmed the persistence of coercive measures in China, it was obvious that China’s new law needed to be given a softer image. Hence the subsequent official statements from Chinese sources disavowing the only reasonable raison d’etre for such a law!”

Mr. Aird went on to compare the press releases intended for a foreign audience with those directed at the Chinese themselves, which were much harsher in tone. A September 1, 2002, XINHUA-English dispatch stated that “public satisfaction [was] the top priority.” (XINIHUA-English, Beijing, August 31, 2002) But the XINHUA domestic dispatch on the same day said that the new law was intended to “stabiliz[e] the child-bearing policy currently in force, gain a better understanding of citizens’ obligations to practice family planning, understand the legal provisions concerned, and enhance their consciousness in practicing family planning.” (XINHUA, Domestic Service, Beijing, August 31, 2002) Mr. Aird was well-versed in Chinese family planning doublespeak, writing tongue-in-cheek that “From these strange contradictions, one might have supposed the references were to two different laws!”

Mr. Aird scoffed at the notion that the new law would curb coercion in family planning, pointing out that it did not demand an end to the coercive tactics that have characterized the program from the beginning. As he wrote, “It does not prohibit forced IUD insertions, forced subcutaneous implants, forced abortions, or forced sterilizations. It does not prohibit the widespread practice of detaining pregnant women, their husbands, or their other relatives to force them to submit to abortion, sterilization, or other unwanted procedures. It does not prohibit the killing of unauthorized infants by medical personnel at the time of delivery or within the next few days, a practice that has been reported in the international media several times in the past three years. It does not prohibit the use of torture to extract confessions or information from family planning violators, which has sometimes resulted in their death while in detention, as has also been documented in foreign press reports. Neither does it impose penalties on those who continue to use them. It does not prescribe penalties for cadres or officials who authorize, condone, or carry out such measures.” It was, in short, just another instrument to be used by the Chinese government in its relentless war on women and their children.

Aird Actively Helped

John Aird did more than merely criticize the one-child policy and its foreign supporters, however. He actively helped many hundreds — perhaps thousands — of victims of the policy to escape its clutches. Chinese women fleeing forced abortion or sterilization who applied for asylum in the U.S. could count on Mr. Aird’s support. He testified at, or submitted affidavits to, literally hundreds of asylum hearings as an expert witness on the enforcement of the one-child policy. His testimony before skeptical asylum judges often meant the difference between deportation hack to China, and permission to remain in the United States.

Even in the final weeks of his life, he continued to track the one-child policy, and to aid its victims and potential victims. Only days before his death, John remarked to me that, based on new evidence he had gathered from Beijing, the one-child policy was “as vigorously enforced now as it has ever been.”

John Aird stands remembered as one of the most selfless people I know, having given so much time free of charge to help hundreds of victims gain asylum and help us in our fight against coercion on China. May God have mercy on his soul.


1 John Aird, Slaughter of the Innocents (AEI Press, 1990), pp. 88–89.

2 Ibid.

3 J.S. Aird, “Family planning, human rights and the population establishment,” Population Research Institute 3 (5), 1993, pp. 4–5.

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