The Guardian recently published a fascinating article by Ma Jian, the author of A Dark Road, about CHina’s one-child policy. In this article, Ma describes his travels to Guangxi Province in 2008, where he had decided that his novel would begin. His interest in the province had been sparked in 2007:

“In 2007, I read of riots breaking out in Bobai County in China’s south-western Guangxi province. Under pressure from higher authorities to meet birth targets, local officials had launched a vicious crackdown on family-planning violators. Squads had rounded up 17,000 women and subjected them to sterilisations and abortions and had extracted 7.8m yuan (£800,000) in fines for “illegal births”, ransacking the homes of families who refused to pay. Tens of thousands of peasants occupied Bobai County town and set fire to government buildings to protest against the crackdown. This was the largest outbreak of popular unrest since the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square.”

The whole article is worth a read (while not so bad as reading about details of the Gosnell trial, it is still pretty horrific) but here are some of the highlights (or lowlights):

“He drove me through dark green hills, past brick shacks painted with half-defaced slogans, one of which read: “After the first child: insert an IUD; after the second: sterilise; after the third: kill, kill kill!”

When I asked her about the forced abortion she suffered, she flinched. “It crippled me,” she said. “I couldn’t stand up straight for weeks afterwards. I had to spend hundreds of yuan on painkillers.”… “When the squad turned up, I was cradling my youngest. The officers tore her from my arms, kicked me in the belly and forced me into the minibus. In the clinic, they gave me a shot in the arm. When I woke up two days later, the baby in my belly was gone. I didn’t realise until a month afterwards that they’d sterilised me as well. Every woman in this county has been sterilised – apart from the ones who managed to escape. Now look what I’ve become: a useless, withered wreck.”” 

Here is another woman’s story that will stick with me:

“When I told her I had a three-year-old daughter, she smiled briefly. Then she stroked her large belly and, tears filling her eyes, told me that before she left Bobai she was given a forced abortion. The eight-month-old foetus was a boy. “He was still alive after the nurse pulled him out from me. He was a tough little creature. He clutched the nurse’s sleeve and wouldn’t let go. She had to peel his fingers off her one by one before she could drop him into the bin.”

The callousness seems to have permeated throughout Chinese society:

“A few days later, while walking along the banks of the Pearl river, I saw a dead baby lying in an opened black plastic bag. I had seen discarded foetuses in China many times before: purple lumps of flesh lying on rubbish heaps or inside communal dustbins. But this was a pale, fully grown, newborn baby, with the umbilical cord still attached. A passerby had spotted it, and was prodding it with a wooden stick.”

But beyond forced abortions, the local authorities have to have an interest in everyone’s rubbish – to make sure that they aren’t lying about their menstrual cycles. Seriously, Orwell or Huxley couldn’t have dreamed it up:

“In a small village in remote Guangdong, a contact took me to her local family planning centre, and told the director that I was a state reporter from Beijing. He took me to his office and we talked for hours. Backlit by a dusty window, he leaned over his desk and showed me the record book that meticulously charted the menstrual cycles and pelvic examination results of every woman of childbearing age in the village. He said 98% of the 280 women were fitted with IUDs. Every three months, he broadcasts an announcement through the village summoning every woman for a mandatory ultrasound to check that her IUD is still in place.

“How do you know when a woman is menstruating?” I asked him.

“She has to report her cycles to the family planning monitor assigned to her street,” he said, his silhouette now black against the bright window.

“And how do they know she isn’t lying?”

“If the monitors suspect anything, they’ll rummage through the woman’s bins to check for soiled sanitary towels.”

“And what if you discover she’s fallen pregnant without permission?”

“We set to work on her.”

“What do you mean?”

“We persuade her to have an abortion. If she refuses, she must pay a fine – three times her annual salary. A few years ago, the county authorities insisted we meet our targets, so we couldn’t let anyone off. We had to round up every woman who was pregnant without permission and bring her here for a termination.”

“What if they refused to come?”

“There were four of us – they didn’t stand a chance!” He grinned and sucked on his cigarette; then his face dropped, and he fell silent. “My cousin was six months pregnant at the time. I had to drag her here myself and oversee the termination. She won’t speak to me, even to this day …””

As Ma notes, this barbaric policy in China will have lasting consequences:

“China’s totalitarian government may have relaxed its control of the means of production, but it has maintained firm control of the means of reproduction, and continues to intrude into the most intimate aspects of an individual’s life, stunting relationships, destroying traditional family life and spreading fear. Two generations of children have grown up without siblings, uncles, aunts or cousins. Women have lost sovereignty of their bodies. The state owns their ovaries, fallopian tubes and wombs, and has become the silent, malevolent third participant in every act of love.”

After all of that, is it any surprise that he concludes with the following observation?

“The elimination of life and assault on human dignity dictated by the one-child policy belong with the worst tragedies of the past 100 years.”

There is no doubt that this is the case. But because it stopped China’s population ballooning it was justified right? Of course not. Utilitarianism is a philosophy that can lead to disgusting results – the ends do not justify the means. And in this case it is wrong anyway:

“…demographers such as Wang Feng, Yong Cai and Boachang Gu claim it is not only evil, but unnecessary: the birth rate was already in decline before the policy was introduced, and would have continued to decline naturally due to urbanisation and rising incomes. China’s problem today is not overpopulation, but a shrinking labour force that now threatens the country’s future growth. It is this, rather than any concern for human rights violations, that is prompting sections of the party to consider phasing out the policy.”

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...