Chinese women sneer at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for playing population politics with their bodies. When the communists did not want too much population, they forced abortions on the women. And now, when the population growth has slowed down, they say no to abortions.
There is consternation and anger in China ever since the government came up with its new directive in September-end. The South China Morning Post had reported: “The State Council said it will ‘reduce the rate of abortions needed for non-medical reasons’, as part of its efforts to improve women’s health, according to a series of new guidelines addressing issues related to women and children in the country. The policy did not elaborate on how this would be achieved.”
China’s population policy has always been abusive and coercive. It began as a one-child policy in 1979 to control population growth rate which the government thought was too fast. Families violating the rule were punished, including economic sanctions imposed on them. However, the worst punishment was reserved for the pregnant women who were forced to abort. There are cases of thousands of women either dying or contracting severe medical conditions. It is estimated that the Chinese government “prevented” over 400 million births were “prevented”.
Rich Chinese fled the country to avoid the harmful effects of the policy. They left in their thousands and that in turn impacted on productivity because the country was losing the services of skilled professionals. The disastrous policy was discontinued in 2015.
The following year, a two-child policy was brought in. However, it failed to have an impact on the population growth that remained sluggish. For, by this time, China had become an economic power house but most of its citizens found it expensive to run families on meagre salaries. It was quite expensive to raise a child in China and more children meant lesser savings. So, the people preferred to have a single child.
Five years later, this May, the Chinese government introduced the three-child policy. It was a decision of the polit buro presided over by President Xi Jinping. The government allowed the people to produce up to three children because it wanted faster population growth.
Much of the government’s concern emanated from the results of the 2020 national census. It revealed that around 12 million fewer babies were born in 2020, a drastic fall from the 2016 figure of 18 million. No year since the 1960s had recorded less than 12 million births.
The second concern was that the country’s working age population – between 16 and 59 – was also declining. Compared to the 2010 census, it had reduced by 40 million people. Such drops would force a cap on the country’s potential for economic growth, the government felt.
Thirdly, the census figures showed that the ageing population of China was rising. There were nearly 264 million people in the age group of 60 and above, equivalent to 18.7 per cent of the population. This was an increase of 5 per cent from 2010. It was forecast that the population in this age group would rise to 300 million by 2025 and over 400 million by 2033.
Caught in the population melee, the Chinese government had no option but to liberalise its children’s policy. Announcing it last May, the government said it will come with “supportive measures, which will be conducive to improving our country’s population structure, fulfilling the country’s strategy of actively coping with an ageing population and maintaining the advantage, endowment of human resources”.
The case of abortions in China is curiouser. For many decades, it was the Chinese government literally deciding how many women should have abortions. Now it is going to decide how many women should not have abortions. But all this while, Chinese families preferred abortions for their own reasons. One, preference for the male child. The gender ratio is badly skewed against the girls in China. Reuters said that an average of 9.7 million terminations were performed per year between 2014 and 2018, citing data from China’s National Health Commission. Two, and this is a new trend, the inability of Chinese couples to raise more than one child. Raising a child is quite expensive because of high school fees and higher fees of private tuitions and foreign studies.
However, it is when the State steps in and dictates terms about abortions that the women begin to protest, thinking the government wants to control their bodies.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International said the policy, “like its predecessors, was still a violation” of sexual and reproductive rights. Its China team head, Joshua Rozenweig, told the international media after the September directive:
“Governments have no business regulating how many children people have. Rather than ‘optimising’ its birth policy, China should instead respect people’s life choices and end any invasive and punitive controls over people’s family planning decisions.”
Chinese women took to the social media with their angry or sarcastic comments. A top comment on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform said: “The female body has become a tool. When (the state) wants you to bear a child, you must do it at all cost. When (the state) doesn’t want it, you’re not allowed to give birth even at the risk of death.”
Facing such protests, the government was expected to come out with a clarification which has not been forthcoming so far. Academics point out the government’s policy is moving in the opposition direction of women’s human rights.