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Book Review: “A Mother’s Ordeal” by Stephen W. Mosher

Cruel Reality of China’s Population Policy

In the course of completing his doctoral research at Stanford
University, Steven W. Mosher discovered, and was the first to report
on, the coercive nature of population control in the People’s Republic
of China. Currently serving as Director of the Asian Studies Center at
the Claremont Institute in Montclair, California, he is also the
author of
Broken Earth, Journey to the Forbidden
China and China Misperceived.

The overwhelming impression left by Stephen W. Mosher’s fascinating account of Chi An, a Chinese communist revolutionary, mother, abortiortist and exile is of a land with a pervasive and distinctive culture of cruelty. “A Mother’s Ordeal” (Harcourt Brace, 331 pages, $21.95) is filled with drownings, sterilizations, beatings and humiliations.

Almost matter-of-factly, Chi An tells of performing her first state-sponsored abortion: “I looked into the pan to find…the remains of what had been, a few minutes before, a 13-week fetus. I could make out the remains of arms and legs and trunk and skull .… Then my eyes locked on a perfect little hand, less than half a centimeter long, I stared at four tiny fingers and a tiny opposed thumb, complete with translucent fingernails. And I knew what I had done.”

Written effectively if unconventionally by Mr. Mosher in the first person, “A Mother’s Ordeal” bears witness to the terror that can accompany daily life in today’s China. While more information about China’s brutally restrictive policies is steadily coming to light, it is unusual to have as an informant a nurse who was both victim and victimizer.

Nearly every birth in China today is scrutinized within the quantitative confines of the world’s most strenuous population- control policy. The reason? The nation’s huge population (now 1.117 billion inhabitants) has been considered a drag on China’s economic development since 1955, when Mao Tse-tung initiated a compulsory family-planning program. Go to most any family-planning office in China’s hinterland today and a party cadre will obligingly display a handful of binders showing the fertility and contraceptive status of every woman in town.

The relationship between population and economic development is complex and the effect of one on the other cannot be determined with enough certainty to justify violating human rights to reduce birth rates. Inconclusive evidence notwithstanding, China’s leadership uses every means of coercion to accomplish its goal of zero population growth. Chi An relates them all in dreadful detail: from the fines to the peer pressure, from the IUD insertion to the forced abortions.

And she does so as both coercer and coerced. In 1978, 10 years after she first began performing abortions for the state, Chi An herself was forced to abort after accidentally becoming pregnant soon after the birth of her first child, a son. In 1987, she formally requested to have a second child while living with her student-husband in the Southwest U.S.

In one of the most astounding parts of the book, Chi An shares a series of letters she received while in the U.S. — where she still lives — from the population control office at the Shenyang truck factory in which she had worked. Warning the couple in late 1987 that giving birth to another child in America was unauthorized, and that everyone from the factory director to the cadres on the workshop floor would be punished if they went ahead and had a baby, one of the letters intoned: “You should seriously reflect on these consequences and come to a speedy decision to fix your problem.” They did. Chi An gave birth to a girl a couple of months later.

Coercion by international post is just a touch of the horror “A Mothers’ Ordeal” brings home. Mr. Mosher has disguised most of the individuals in the book by giving them fictitious identities, largely because the real Chi An and her family still fear for their safety — even after receiving asylum in the U.S. in August 1988 on grounds that they were being persecuted by the Chinese government for refusing to have another abortion.

Yet while the violence in this book never relents, it is also never gratuitous. Indeed it’s purposeful. This story works because it is told so unapologetically; Chi An’s only objective, it seems, is to give a full accounting of what happened. “Who is the xiongshou, the villain?” Chi An asks as she reflects on the course of her life after her 1978 abortion. “Is the doctor responsible for my child’s death? Is the population control officer the villain? Is the policy itself to blame? Am I the villain?” The reader can almost see her pleadingly searching for the answers. Unlike so many other life-in-communist-China tales, this book offers none of the personal renewal that catharsis invariably brings. Chi An’s postdictatorship accounting is only just beginning.

That freshness is important. It helps bring home the terror of state intrusiveness in the People’s Republic and refutes the notion that repression in China is the downside of an effort to turn the country constructively toward the 21st century. As Mr. Mosher has so forcefully argued in his past works, the reign of terror in China — from the party denunciations to the forced abortions at full term to the omnipresent fears of exiles — is not modernists but characteristically communist. Chi An’s homeland is full of victims of communist China’s national policies. She and Mr. Mosher have not only told the story of one mother’s ordeal; they’ve recounted a nation’s ordeal too.

This review is printed with permission of the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Andrew Brick is deputy editorial page editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal.

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