Last week, the Chinese government unveiled a plan to loosen the country’s one-child policy, announcing that couples in which one member is an only child will soon be able to apply for permission to have a second. The news is the most publicized reform to result from the Third Party Plenum, the Communist Party leadership meeting that concluded on November 12.
In a press conference held on November 11, a spokesperson from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, the entity in charge of implementing the one-child policy, claimed that the Commission had prevented more than 400 million births over the past 40 years, a figure that is widely challenged by independent scholars and research organizations. The one-child policy was officially implemented in 1979, but other less stringent family planning initiatives were introduced as early as 1971.
“China is already facing numerous development problems with its current population of 1.3 billion people,” said Mao Yuqun, the spokesperson from the government commission. “If family planning had not been implemented when it was, perhaps China would now have 1.7 or 1.8 billion people, further exacerbating these problems.”
Under the new guidelines, couples will still be required to apply for permission from their provincial governments before they can conceive a second child, and priority will be given to applications made by “older couples,” the report stated. The report also failed to provide an implementation timeline, raising the possibility that certain provinces will lag behind others in applying the guidelines.
There have long been inconsistencies in the enforcement of the policy, with affluent Chinese sometimes circumventing the law by paying steep fines, bribing officials, or not reporting the births of their subsequent children. Many wealthy Chinese also give birth to second children abroad or in Hong Kong and then send them to live with relatives, an option so popular that the Hong Kong government recently reduced the quota of births set for non-local women in public hospitals.
“My parents decided that they wanted to have a boy, but my mother could not openly give birth to another child after I was born,” Li Fang, a 27-year-old female software engineer whose father is a Communist Party official in Henan province, told me. “To avoid attention, my mother went into hiding before she had my brother. He was then raised by relatives before being sent abroad to an American boarding school.”
Last May, the celebrated film director Zhang Yimou triggered a national uproar when it was revealed that he had fathered seven children with four different women. But the phenomenon is hardly limited to Zhang: A 2007 article published by Xinhua News Agency stated that between 2000 and 2005, as many as 1,968 government officials in Hunan province were in violation of the policy.
The most uneven implementation of the one-child policy is between China’s countryside and its cities. Rising incomes and urbanization have historically led to falling birthrates, and many contemporary couples in China’s prosperous eastern cities would prefer to have only one child.
But in the countryside, the policy has often been administered with brutal force, leaving behind a painful legacy of illegal abortions and sterilizations. The fines are far too expensive for most in rural China to pay, and a lingering preference for male offspring has led to a spike in sex-selective abortions and even infanticide.
For visitors to urban China, evidence of the one-child policy is barely noticeable, but in the countryside, the policy constitutes a central—and highly visible—aspect of local life. Every village has a “family planning service center” where abortions are conducted and local officials keep close tallies of population figures. Unlike Chinese cities, where commercial advertisements abound, small villages often feature government-sponsored family planning murals, the most common of which assert the policy’s importance to economic development or attempt to debunk the gender stereotypes that give rise to sex-selective abortions. The following photographs, taken during a recent cross-country road trip I took through several provinces, provide a glimpse into how Beijing approaches the subject of family planning in rural China.
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