China’s Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the People’s Republic, 1949–2005
by Tyrene White (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2006), 297 pp.
Reviewed by Steven W. Mosher
Chen Guangcheng will never read this book about the history of China’s one-child policy. He doesn’t need to. For the human rights activist and self-taught lawyer himself has carried out an in-depth study of the effect of the policy on the people of Linyi, a district in China’s Shandong province. And, like many who over the years have criticized Beijing’s plan to limit births, he has paid a heavy price.
Chen’s “crime,” in the eyes of the government, was to report that in recent years tens of thousands of Linyi women have been forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations in order to meet low quotas for child- bearing handed down by higher authority. In the spring of 2005, he wrote, following the complaints of provincial officials about slack local enforcement, more than 7,000 women were rounded up and aborted and sterilized.
When the 35-year-old Chen not only reported these abuses, but offered free legal help to anyone who wished to sue the officials responsible, he became a local hero. To local, provincial and national officials, however, the blind truth-teller had become a deadly threat. Last August, he was placed under house arrest and then, when he went to the police to report the beating of a family member, he simply disappeared. Three months later, he reappeared in police custody so that he could be formally arrested on bogus charges of destroying public property and “inciting people to disrupt traffic.” His lawyers were arrested before his trial, and now Chen has been sentenced to four years in prison.
Why this harsh reaction to Chen’s report when nearly everyone in China, including national family planning officials, acknowledge that many of his disclosures were accurate? Angry and embarrassed Chinese Communist Party officials are prone to strike back, but, even so, the mistreatment of Chen has been surprising.
A new book about China’s one-child policy provides some clues. The author, a China watcher by the name of Tyrene White, takes us back to the first decade of the People’s Republic of China. At the time, there was a heated debate among the Communist leadership over whether the state should step in and regulate births, or leave this matter in the hands of families.
Chairman Mao, who was busy subjecting one sector of the economy after another to state planning and management, ultimately came to the conclusion that child-bearing should likewise be planned and managed. Babies, he decreed, were to be produced under a state plan in the same way that grain and steel already were. This is the origin of today’s jihua shengyu, or “planned births” program. (Jihua shengyu is often mistakenly translated as “family planning,” but in China the family doesn’t plan births, the state does.)
It is this “collectivization of childbearing,” as White calls it, that paved the way for the imposition of birth limits in the early ‘70s. And this led in turn, in a burst of anti-natalist frenzy, to the launching of the one-child policy by Deng Xiaoping in 1979.
Enforcing the Policy
But it is one thing to launch a one-child policy, and another thing to enforce it. Governments have fallen over contentious questions of family planning, as Indira Ghandi’s did two years into her infamous sterilization campaign of 1973–75.
But Communist China is not relatively democratic India. The Chinese Communist Party, unlike Ghandi’s Congress Parry, was a political war machine that had the power to mobilize the entire country and force the mass participation of the Chinese people in its projects. And this is exactly what it did in the case of the one-child policy: It went into campaign mode.
This is why the title of White’s book — China’s Longest Campaign — is so apt. Because unlike the Great Leap Forward, which lasted three years, or the Cultural Revolution, which went on, in desultory fashion, for a decade at most, the one-child policy has lasted for more than a quarter-century. It has been endorsed by every major leader from Chairman Mao down to Hu Jintao. And, despite the enormous human suffering it has caused, it is one campaign that shows no signs of flagging.
This brings us back to Chen Guangcheng’s dilemma, which in a sense is the dilemma of the Chinese people as a whole. The one-child policy represents China’s one-party dictatorship at its tyrannical worst. While the reforms of the past two decades have loosened controls in some areas, Mao’s decision of the late ’50s to regulate the most private of all decisions — whether or not to have a child- still stands. And the campaign tactics used to enforce the child-bearing limits, from “shock attacks” to round up sterilization candidates to intense “persuasion” meetings at which pregnant women are pressured to abort, come right out of the Great Leap Forward/Cultural Revolution playbook. It is almost as if Beijing uses the one-child policy to maintain the muscular rigor of the police state that it controls.
In exposing abuses in China’s program of “planned births,” Chen and like-minded critics are thus — from Beijing’s point of view — triply in the wrong. They are not only questioning the Chinese Communist Party’s right to control reproduction under a state plan, but also the means — the mobilization campaign — that the Party uses to enforce it. Moreover, by calling attention to its manifold abuses, they appear to be calling for an end to the campaign itself.
None of these things is negotiable. The government has repeatedly denied that the one-child policy will end any time soon. The State Family Planning Council has even published a white paper pledging to carry on the policy until 2050. 2050!
Different things may be in store for Chinese women than the one-child policy, however. For what if the day comes that the state decides that there are too few babies being born in China?
In that eventuality, writes White, “(L)et us hope that the state will not be foolish enough to try and rectify it by further demographic engineering. That approach, born under Mao, perfected under Deng, and implemented at great human and social, cost over the past 30 years, would be best left behind as a relic of the 20th Century.”
I find it difficult to share this hope. For we are already well into the first decade of the 21th Century, and the Chinese state appears as addicted as ever to a by-the-numbers approach to producing human beings. China’s longest and costliest political campaign to date, so well described by Tyrene White, appears set to continue.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Washington Times.