Anyone who thought China was softening its one-child policy will have to think again after news that one local government in southern China is forcing thousands of couples to undergo sterilisation — and, in many cases, holding their parents hostage to ensure they comply.

Nanfang Rural News — a paper that reputedly sails close to the wind of official censorship — reported that the government in the city of Puning has drawn up a list of nearly 10,000 people suspected of intending to have a second or third child. Around half that group has agreed to sterilisation.

But hundreds of senior citizens are being held captive to encourage the others:

The 1,377 detained people include some of those who have so far refused, but mostly consist of their parents. Witnesses said that they were being held in cramped, damp conditions, including one group of 200 which had been herded into a hundred-square-metre room. “The room was too small for all the people to lie down and sleep,” the Nanfang Rural News said. “The young ones had to stand or squat.” The detainees are being lectured on family planning rules.

Huang Rufeng, a father of three, said that he and his wife had refused to be sterilised. “Several days ago, a village official called me and asked me or my wife to return for the surgery,” he told the newspaper. “Otherwise they would take away my father.” He says that his 64-year-old father has since been removed.

The 20-day sterilisation campaign seems to be a reaction to laxity on the part of family planning officials, 63 of whom have been punished. “It’s not uncommon for family planning authorities to adopt some tough tactics,” an employee at the Puning Population and Family Planning Bureau told one newspaper.

Further “extraordinary measures” to be taken against families with more than one child – or two if the first is a girl – include subsequent children’s exclusion from school and health insurance.

In response to the media reports, provincial officials say that authorities in Puning will be investigated to establish whether their actions have gone too far.

But it won’t stop other crack-downs — and not just in provincial cities. Earlier this month Chinese Human Rights Defender reported that Yang Zhizhu, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at Beijing’s China Youth University for Political Sciences, was fired because last December he became a father for a second time.

On that same date, China Youth University officials issued a set of guidelines stipulating punishments for school employees who violated Beijing municipal family planning regulations. The penalties include a three-year ban on promotions for violators as well as a one-year suspension as a disciplinary action.

Forced sterilisation is a shocking violation of human rights, but it is unlikely to draw any protests from western governments desperate to benefit from China’s economic might. But at least The Independent newspaper called the one-child policy “draconian” — an improvement on the ritual bows to the number of births it has prevented which are more common in the western media.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet