The heartbreak behind China's one-child policy

Rui'an, China: Yu Rongfen was seven months pregnant when city officials came knocking at her door. It was her second pregnancy, and she was hiding the fact from authorities.

Fearing the worst, she hid in an upstairs room. But she was helpless as dozens of men overwhelmed her family and took her to the city’s family planning bureau. There, it became apparent that staff at the bureau had orders to forcibly perform a late-term abortion, despite desperate pleas from Yu and her family.

“I was screaming, I wouldn’t let them do it,” she says. “But it was no use, there were so many of them holding me down.”

Yu was taken into an operating room where four women held her down, she says. A doctor administered an injection to kill the foetus and induce labour, while her distraught husband, brother and parents-in-law were restrained by guards outside.

Lying there in shock, she says she could feel her baby dying inside her; gradually the kicking inside her became weaker, eventually stopping altogether. It was nearly a day of traumatic pain later before the stillborn child, a boy, emerged.

“I was in so much agony, it felt worse than death,” she says. “If I didn’t already have another child to look after, I really would have gone and died.”

Rui’an is not a small village - it is a modern and wealthy prefecture-level city just a short train ride from Wenzhou, where property speculation has resulted in house prices growing to rival those of Beijing and Shanghai. And this occurred just two years ago, not in the 1980s, when arbitrary and overzealous enforcement of the one-child policy was much more commonplace.

But horror stories remain. While many go unreported in the local media, shocking cases of late-term abortions emerge regularly.  Last year a mother in Shaanxi province, Feng Jianmei, who was seven months pregnant, was forced to abort her baby. Only when photos which purported to show the blood-covered foetus lying in a bed next to the distraught mother went viral on social media did authorities apologise.

Even after Feng’s case sparked global outrage, there have been cases in Anhui, Shandong, and also in Fujian – where an woman who was eight months pregnant was reportedly aborted.

Like almost all cases of late-term abortions exposed in China, government officials in Rui’an say the Yu family agreed to the abortion.

Reading from the official report of the case, a family planning bureau official told Fairfax Media that government employees went to Yu’s house to “mobilise her to terminate the unplanned pregnancy”.

“Accompanied by them, she was taken to the Rui’an family planning station to carry out the abortion. Yu took pre-operation examinations voluntarily. At the time, [her husband] Xu Liangkai and other family members were calm and sitting quietly in the corridor.”

But Yu’s brother, Yu Rongrong, rejects the government’s version of events.

“If we were willing to abort, why would we wait until seven months?” he said.

Of all the Chinese government policies designed to control its people, there probably hasn’t been one with a more profound social and economic impact than the one that literally controls the population. And the one-child policy's deeply unpopular nature has made the government’s decision to relax it all the more symbolic.

Among a raft of social and economic reforms announced by the government in November, couples will now be allowed to have a second child if one of the parents is an only child.

Demographers estimate the change will be relatively modest – affecting between 10 million to 15 million couples, about half of which will actually decide to have a second child.

But rights activists are optimistic that this loosening of the one-child policy signals intent for further changes.

China first introduced measures to rein in population growth in 1971, with the one-child rule implemented towards the end of the decade. According to official health ministry data released in March, Chinese doctors have performed more than 330 million abortions in the past 40 years, and inserted more than 400 million intrauterine contraceptive devices.

But the one-child policy has long been a misnomer. There are numerous intricacies and exceptions to the rule: ethnic minorities and some rural households can often legally have more than one child.

More contentiously, those who can afford it are able to a pay a fine when they have more than one child, calculated based on the city they live in and their annual income, meaning the rich are effectively exempt from the rule. The Yus would have been required to pay about 100,000 yuan ($18,000).

Demographers had previously estimated that between 200 million and 400 million births were “averted” as a direct result of the one-child policy. If born, they may have joined the 200 million or so Chinese still living below the poverty line today.

But the policy’s negative social consequences are well documented. While attitudes are changing, a traditional preference for boys means hospitals in China are not allowed to divulge the sex of unborn babies to their parents. Female infanticide and the under-reporting of female births are on the decline, but China’s imbalanced sex ratio means by 2030 there will be 30 million men who will be unable to find a wife.

Decades of the one-child policy has seen China’s fertility rate plunge, and its population age rapidly.  China’s workforce declined for the first time last year, and the economy is fast being confronted with a dreaded situation of having too few young people to support the elderly.  And a “4-2-1” socio-demographic phenomenon is emerging where the only child will end up having to support not just their parents, but all four grandparents.

With calls for further relaxation to the one-child rule gathering momentum, demographers now say a two-child policy could be the next step.

For the Yu family, the focus is now on gaining justice: an apology, even an acknowledgement.  But more than two years of petitioning and complaints have reaped little result.

In March, the family planning bureaucracy was merged with the health ministry in a move seen to curtail the 500,000-strong administration’s powers, another sign the one-child policy is in its twilight.

But for Yu and countless other families, the legacy of the one-child policy is likely to remain a permanently painful one.

“To kill a kid, a healthy, living baby … it is murder,” Yu says. “He grew up in my tummy slowly, he was my very own child. I think about it very often. All the time.”

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop