China Rights Forum Spring 1999

The Population Policy and Discrimination Against Women and Girls

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Despite the concern expressed by the CEDAW Committee during its review of China’s previous report about aspects of the PRC’s population policies and their effects, as well as the focus on this issue in the review of China’s first report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Chinese government devotes hardly any space in the present report to this subject.

            Abuses related to China’s population policy relate to a variety of articles of the Convention, including its broad anti-discrimination principles and the concerns the Committee has expressed in recent years about violence against women and the protection of girls. A number of aspects are particularly relevant. According to Article 12 of CEDAW, states should eliminate discrimination against women in access to health care. Article 16 requires that discrimination against women in the family be eliminated, and that governments ensure “on a basis of equality of men and women,” the rights “to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.”

            Of course the Chinese government’s population policy has provided many women with access to the family planning services which are their right, and in this respect, should be affirmed. But too often the pursuit of demographic goals has overridden the needs and interests of women and girls, and has led to the use of physical violence and other coercive measures. The state’s insistence on meeting demographic targets has combined with traditional attitudes and practices to threaten the survival, health, well-being and status of many women and girls. Increasingly, the burden of such misguided policies is falling disproportionately on the poor and politically powerless.

             The population policy remains a “priority national policy” and the structural causes of the violations which its implementation can cause have not been changed. The problems and rights abuses associated with it cannot be discussed publicly in the Chinese media, but in some academic meetings and other private fora, advocates of women’s rights in China have criticized some of the effects the policy has had on women and girls.

            The authorities generally attribute those effects to “feudal thinking,” implying that they have no responsibility for them. However, some researchers have found that most Chinese families actually want girl children as well as boys, but the population policy may make it impossible for them to have both. Furthermore, since there are virtually no pension schemes for rural dwellers and women almost always marry away from their natal families while sons stay at home, people in the countryside need to have a son to provide for them in their old age.

            The lack of reporting on abuses relating to the policy inside the country combined with the fact that the most serious rights violations occur in the countryside means that evidence is necessarily anecdotal. However, over the years independent accounts from reliable sources across the country point to a consistent pattern of official actions which constitute gross violations of human rights. The government has not only failed to take action to halt such abuses, but has also ignored the serious discriminatory effects of the policy, such as the imbalances in sex ratios at birth.

            There are some positive developments worthy of mention. We are pleased to note that after a two-year interruption of assistance to China, in 1997 the Chinese government gave the go-ahead for a long-discussed United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) pilot program to be carried out in a number of rural counties, which aims to show the effects of a purely voluntary family planning program concentrating on providing quality services without using coercive methods or demographic targets. We hope that this pilot program, which is scheduled to run until 2000, will be properly monitored to ensure that it is truly voluntary and that its methods will be widely adopted. Another development is the 1998 change in the Adoption Law, which, if interpreted in a flexible manner as it should be, will mean that the many abandoned children and infants in welfare institutions can quickly find good homes and that the status of those in informal adoptions can be regularized so they are eligible for benefits available to other children.


Abuses associated with policy

In 1979, the Chinese government launched the “One Child Per Couple Policy.” The major elements of the population policy as currently practiced are as follows: couples have to apply for birth permits before starting a pregnancy; in some rural and all minority populations, couples can have two children, especially if the first-born is a girl, but a third is forbidden; after having the permitted number of children, women are required to wear an IUD or be sterilized, or use other contraceptive measures; unauthorized pregnancies have to be terminated; after having an out-of-plan child, one spouse must be sterilized.

In 1991, the government significantly tightened enforcement of the population control policy, which brought about major changes still in force today. Most crucially, this change tied the evaluation of the performance of population planning personnel and other local cadres strictly to the achievement of centrally-allocated birth quotas in their area. In order to avoid punishments and the resulting damage to their political careers, population officials may resort to drastic measures, which include acts of violence against women and girl children, as well as detention of pregnant women or members of their families.

            Punishments for individuals and families who do not abide by population planning rules include heavy fines, loss of job, confiscation of property and demolition of homes. In order to meet rigid quotas, women have sometimes been subjected to forced abortions, sterilizations, or forced IUD insertion. Surgeries, including very late-term abortions, can be rushed, performed in unsanitary conditions and may result in medical complications. Sterilization, one of the principal forms of birth control, may also be performed when parents suffer from alleged “genetic disorders,” a practice justified by the eugenic objective of “improving the quality of the population.” In many places, there is a lack of proper family planning counseling and over-reliance on the use of sterilization and IUDs for contraception, which has serious effects on women’s health. In addition, the policy puts unfair burdens on women by not ensuring male participation in birth control practices.

            Girl children, as well as some children with disabilities, face threats to their survival including sex-selective abortion, infanticide, neglect, non-registration and abandonment. These practices are officially banned, but in reality they continue as the objective of meeting quotas appears to override concerns about children’s health and survival. Sex-selective abortion, while illegal, is widely practiced and the large number of ultrasound machines in use makes eliminating it very difficult while the current demographic targets remain in place. The practices of infanticide and abandonment have returned with a vengeance since the early 1980s following the launch of the policy. Children whose births are unreported or who are born “out-of-plan” may not have an official legal identity: until registered, they are not eligible for such services as are available in their areas of residence, including immunization, public education and medical care.

            Overall, official policy has contributed to a resurgence of harmful practices reflecting the traditional devaluing of girls and women, perpetuating social biases against them. A major consequence has been serious imbalances in sex ratios at birth.


Laws and regulations

No national law has been enacted specifically to regulate family planning. Relevant stipulations are included in various laws, including the 1981 Marriage Law, the 1992 PRC Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests and the 1994 PRC Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care.

            In September 1980, the CCP Central Committee issued an Open Letter calling for radical curtailing of population growth by limiting each couple to one child. The 1982 PRC Constitution and the 1980 Marriage Law called this Party policy a “basic national policy,” in other words a national priority.

            Most provinces and municipalities have enacted laws providing for enforcement of the policy, all of which state that their intent is to implement the national policy. Governments below provincial level have also passed local regulations. Many of the provincial population control regulations explicitly provide for coercive measures, for example, stating that in case of an unauthorized pregnancy, known as an “out-of-plan” pregnancy, “remedial measures” —a euphemism for abortion-must be taken to end it. But none of these regulations, nor any national law or public policy statement, has prohibited any specific enforcement measures as cruel and illegitimate.

            Thus local authorities are implicitly given the green light to use whatever means necessary to meet the central government’s targets for the number of births per year that are allocated from the top down to cities, townships and work units or villages. In particular, the majority of provincial laws and regulations do not place any limit on gestational age for abortions, and no national law or regulation containing such limits has been enacted.

            Official actions associated with the population policy are specifically cited as being among the permitted subjects of administrative law suits under the Administrative Litigation Law, which allows citizens to sue government departments for violating laws and regulations in pursuit of their duty. However, informants from different areas have reported that courts have sometimes been ordered to refuse all suits relating to enforcement of the population policy, and we have not been able to document a single case in which an official has been prosecuted for malfeasance in relation to implementation of the policy. In our view, the lack of action against those who implement the policy through violent means, combined with the pressure on local officials to meet strict targets for birth rates, constitutes a tacit acceptance of such violations.


Current trends

Official statements continue to insist that the population policy is a successful endeavor which should be pursued at all costs. A 1998 editorial published in People’s Daily spelled out the government’s priorities: “[T]he Socialist system cannot sustain too many children. Natural resources are limited, and the environment is polluted. The only solution is to strengthen the One Child Policy and make sure this dike will not burst.”

            The population control policy has proved easier to implement in urban areas, where approximately 25 percent of the population live. The higher number of maternal and child -care clinics in cities and the tighter watch on women’s reproductive functions allowed by the work unit system means that the policy is more successfully implemented. The effects of fertility transition seen in other countries are also apparent.

            The strongest resistance to the policy has been in rural areas. Thus the main emphasis of enforcement is also placed there: “Put the stress on the rural areas, strengthen work at the grassroots levels” is how the national population plan for 1995-2000 put it. “The promotion of family planning will be integrated with developing the rural economy to help the farmers become better off,” the Minister then in charge of the State Family Planning Commission, Peng Peiyun, declared in 1997.


State-sanctioned violence

Over the years, there have been many accounts of how local officials have used force in carrying out the policy, including many testimonies by serving and former officials. In a recent example, a 22-year-old female population control officer described her daily work in an industrializing city suburb in Zhejiang Province in a spring 1998 interview:

“Some of the people we are trying to control want to escape from us. Then we hold someone else in the family in a cell—the mother, the father...—for several weeks, several months, sometimes until the person in question shows up

Occasionally the whole family disappears, they go off to another region. Then we burn their house....

The first time I went to a village, I was very shocked by the violent behavior of my colleagues: they shout and threaten people with truncheons. But now I’m used to it. It is necessary for the enforcement of the rules. There are too many people in China.”

Accounts of raids, destruction of houses, beatings and detentions are very familiar from other testimonies of officials.

            According to former population control official Gao Xiaoduan, who testified before the U.S. Congress in 1998, population personnel can detain suspected violators of the policy without the involvement of the Public Security Bureau. Such detentions are illegal according to current Chinese law. In the facility Gao described, detainees include women who are pregnant out-of-plan, and others who are about to be sterilized or who have to pay fines.

            According to a testimony from a former detainee, local governments in Zhunyang County, Henan Province, maintain detention centers where they routinely hold hundreds of people. In most of these centers—the very existence of which violates national law—conditions are very poor, beatings are frequent and men and women are held in the same room. Elderly people and children have been detained in such centers as hostages to get family members to comply with the population policy. As his account describes:

“In August 1995 the Dalian Township government had set up three detention centers: one in the government compound, one in the rabbit farm and one in the Dongge School. Anywhere from 200 to 400 people, including 40 to 50 women, might be locked up at one time. Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 people were held in these detention centers between early July to August 18.

            In Sunzhuang Village of Dalian Township, people say whenever they hear the sound of a motor vehicle, it doesn’t matter if it’s day or night, they think it’s the Township government’s Birth Planning Special Action Team come to grab someone. Everybody scatters and hides. Terrified children watch parents and grandparents get carted off. The adults live every day in fear...

            The township government here detains pregnant women arbitrarily and as a matter of course.... Everybody knows the danger to a pregnant woman if caught by the township government’s Special Action Team. She will be detained, and pressured to have an abortion. If she refuses, her family must pay a fine and only when the money is delivered will she be released.”


Those whose pregnancies are unauthorized can sometimes face forcible terminations. More commonly, individuals are put under such pressure that they “consent” to abortions.

            In order to ensure that out-of-plan children are not born, abortions may be performed very late in pregnancy, including in the final trimester. The available evidence indicates that any termination prior to birth is considered an abortion. There have been repeated accounts of babies born alive being killed at birth by population personnel, in an officially sanctioned form of infanticide.

            According to one gynecologist, who worked in hospitals in Beijing and in a provincial city between 1983 and 1993, doctors and nurses are told that when a woman is sent in for an abortion, even if her child is born alive, it must not be permitted to live. Those medical personnel who ignore such instructions and allow babies born alive in such operations to survive will face administrative discipline, the doctor said.


Economic sanctions

In order to make penalties more effective in rural areas where wage employment is not the norm, provincial regulations now tend to specify the amounts of the fines, formerly a percentage of planned birth violators’ wages. Such fines are a significant source of local government revenue.

            In its newly revised Family Planning Ordinance, Guangdong Province has increased penalties for those who violate birth regulations: fines have been increased from 1,000-3,000 yuan to 5,000-10,000 yuan. In some provinces like Guangxi and Hebei, new regulations specify that even when a second baby is allowed, parents have to pay “birth fees,” which include the costs of giving birth and hospitalization. In some places, people have to pay to get a birth permit allowing them to begin even a first a pregnancy.

            Such fees and penalties have a particular impact on the poor, and the concentration on fining violators of the quotas also mean that the policy is more likely to be enforced on poor families who are unable to pay.


Access to family planning services

Routine monitoring of women’s menstrual periods, use of contraception, births, IUD insertions and abortions is carried out as part of the population policy. Work units, neighborhood committees and individual officials are involved in maintaining such records. The objective is evidently to control women’s reproductive behavior rather than giving them access to quality reproductive health care.

            Despite recent reports on an easier access to condoms and other forms of contraception, as in so many countries, the responsibility for birth control overwhelmingly falls on women. According to a recent survey on 186,000 individuals by the State Family Planning Commission, 83 percent of married women use contraceptives. In 1992, the China Population Information and Research Center reported that 93.6 percent of all contraception-users were using either sterilization or the IUD. According to more recent information from the State Family Planning Commission, methods of contraception being used in 1995 were as follows: IUD, 40 percent; tubal ligation, 40.3 percent, vasectomy, 11.4 percent; oral pill or injectable 3.6 percent; condoms, 3.6 percent; spermicide, 0.6 percent; and others 0.5 percent.

            Sterilization is a major implementing tool of the population control policy. Figures show that the vast majority of sterilizations are performed on women: an official report said that in 1992, 95 percent of all sterilizations were performed on women.

            The relative lack of male participation is particularly worrying in the light of the effects on women’s health of sterilization operations and IUD use, especially in circumstances when women may have little access to health professionals who can assist in case of problems. Furthermore, there have been instances reported of enforced IUD insertion, and doctors may be penalized if they remove IUDs without permission, even for medical reasons.

            Greater choice and availability of contraceptives and information about them, whatever the age and marital status of women, could help reduce the number of abortions and sterilizations. So far, government initiatives in this area have taken the form of pilot projects on a limited scale. Their common characteristics are a focus on education, counseling and informed choice.

            While such a shift of emphasis is welcome, there is no indication that the demographic targets are being lifted in places where they are being carried out, which may mean that coercive practices could continue despite the new programs.

            The only case in which coercion has theoretically been ruled out is the UNFPA-run project mentioned above. This stands out because it is intended to replace coercive implementation methods with counseling and education, and to exclude economic incentives and quotas. Instead, the project will rely on voluntary family planning, based on the fundamental principle that individuals have the right to decide on the size of their family and the spacing of their children. For example, couples will be presented with a choice of five different kinds of contraceptives. There has not been any indication whether this approach, if found to be successful, could be systematically extended to the rest of the country.


Discrimination against girls

The traditional preference for boys combined with the requirements of the single child policy have exacerbated the discrimination against girls, reinforcing the secondary status of daughters and exacerbating pressures on mothers to give birth to sons. This discrimination may entail violent practices which the government has failed to prevent.

            Altogether, the sex ratio at birth was estimated at 113 boys per 100 girls in 1987, 118 or 119 male births for 100 female ones in 1994, and again 118 boys per 100 girls in 1997. Most recently the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that the national sex ratio was at 120:100.

            The government has not produced a satisfactory accounting of what is happening to the “missing” girls, but sex-selective abortion, infanticide, neglect, abandonment and non-registration are responsible in unknown proportions.

            Although the death of both male and female infants appears to be under-reported in China, demographers have noted an abnormally high mortality rate among girls after one month. In addition to killing at birth, neglect could be a primary cause for this phenomenon, for example less medical attention and treatment being provided for girls. This is supported by the results of a six-year survey of three Shaanxi villages which found that under-reporting of births accounted for only 10 percent of the missing girls. This suggests that 90 percent of them were killed, abandoned or died of neglect.

            For obvious reasons, there are few accounts of infanticide. A rare story in a Chinese magazine described a man in north-east China who had suffocated his two daughters in order to start a new family with a son. “I was unable to continue the family line for my ancestors. What a sin!” Infanticide is a crime under both the Women’s Law and the Criminal Code, but this practice continues in reality, and reports of prosecutions for infanticide or abandonment are extremely unusual. The Chinese government has consistently refused to take any responsibility for the reported surge in the number of infanticides, blaming “feudal attitudes.” Media reports about the issue of infanticide have been discouraged by propaganda authorities.

            Abandonment, primarily of girls and children with disabilities, is a major problem across China, both in urban and rural areas. The evidence shows that the problem increased since the introduction of the One Child Policy. Abandoned children may die of exposure, end up in welfare institutions where many also die due to poor conditions and poor health, or be adopted. Observers have stated that 90 percent of “orphans” are girls, an indication that parents choose to abandon their daughter if it means getting another chance of having a son. For example, 92 percent of the 16,000 children abandoned in Hunan between 1986 and 1990 were girls.

            A 1991 report by the Hunan Civil Affairs Bureau found that while the number of foundlings had been on the rise since the late 1980s, there was not a single case of successful prosecution and sentencing of people who abandoned children, and it criticized the authorities for failing to enforce the law. The ACWF has reportedly found it difficult to take up the cause of abandoned girls, because drawing attention to this issue is seen as an implicit criticism of the population control policy.

            The available evidence indicates that many of the abandoned infants and girls have actually been informally adopted within China. Previously, the Adoption Law meant that childless couples under 35 and those who already had children were not permitted to adopt children or infants without disabilities. Sometimes those who have adopted foundlings have faced population control policy sanctions, including fines and other penalties. The 1998 revisions to the law, which come into force next April, allow anyone over the age of 30 to adopt, and lift the one-child limit, both welcome changes which should make it easier for abandoned infants to be moved quickly out of welfare institutions into families.

             Children born out-of-plan who have not been registered have no legal identity. If their parents want to register them, they incur punishment. According to an unwritten rule, in most places out-of-plan births for which a fine has not been levied cannot be entered into the residence register. 



- A law should be enacted, or other laws should be amended to specifically prohibit the use of physical force or other excessive methods in the implementation of the population control policy.

- A high-level commission of independent experts from inside and outside China should be given wide powers to investigate what has happened to the “missing” girls and formulate appropriate strategies, both in law and policy, to prevent infanticide, sex-selective abortion, abandonment, neglect of female children and non-registration.

- The practice of linking demographic targets to the assessment of officials should be eliminated, and family planning programs should shift their emphasis from achieving fixed birth quotas to providing quality care. Male participation should become a central focus of family planning programs.

- Free and extensive reporting about violations of human rights and other problems associated with the population control policies should be permitted to allow full public discussion of the whole range of issues involved. Such reporting should make clear that the use of illegal force against women and children is a crime, whoever commits it.

- The government should take concrete steps to enhance the status of women in rural areas and start to establish a comprehensive pension system in rural areas.


For more detail on this complex issue, please also see the relevant section in our 1995 report, Caught Between Tradition and the State: Violations of the Human Rights of Chinese Women.


CEDAW Shadow Report, Section Summaries:  (full text of report is also available on-line)


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