China forces births down Brow-beating, coerced sterility take their toll

April 25, 1993|By Nicholas D. Kristof | Nicholas D. Kristof,New York Times News Service

BEIJING -- She should be taking her 2-month-old baby out around the village now, proudly nursing him and teaching him about life. Instead, her baby is buried under a mound of dirt, and Li Qiuliang spends her time lying in bed, emotionally crushed and physically crippled.

The baby died because under China's complex quota system for births, local family planning officials wanted Ms. Li to give birth in 1992 rather than 1993. So on Dec. 30, when she was seven months pregnant, they took her to an unsanitary first-aid station and ordered the doctor to induce early labor.

Ms. Li's family pleaded. The doctor protested. But the family planning workers insisted. The result: The baby died after nine hours, and Ms. Li, 23, is incapacitated.

That episode in Hunan Province, described in a classified government report and confirmed by the local authorities, is one outgrowth of a major nationwide crackdown by the Chinese family planning authorities. While the crackdown has been under way for two years, information about it is only now emerging as the authorities release population statistics showing a stunning decline in the birth rate.

The latest data suggest that through compulsory sterilization and other measures, China has lowered fertility to by far its lowest level ever here. The statistics for 1992 -- showing many fewer babies even than during the harsh crackdowns of the early 1980s -- amazed population experts, for the family planners achieved targets that they had not expected to reach until the year 2010.

Ms. Li's persecutors had a reason for going to such extremes to enforce population quotas: they were protecting themselves under a new "responsibility system" that the government has introduced as the mechanism for the crackdown. Under this system, central leaders hold local officials personally responsible for reducing births in their jurisdictions, and punish them for failing to do so.

The evidence of a far-reaching crackdown presents a direct challenge to the Clinton administration. President Reagan had cut off U.S. financing of the U.N. Population Fund because of concerns that its work was intertwined with a coercive family planning program in China, but President Clinton announced last month that he would end the boycott.

Now the new evidence of a crackdown is likely to embarrass Mr. Clinton as he tries to restore funds to the U.N. program. Moreover, criticisms in the United States about forced sterilization in China are likely in turn to inflame Chinese sensitivities and could create new tensions in Chinese-American relations.

To be sure, some Chinese -- particularly city-dwellers -- support a tough family-planning policy. They note that one reason why China's long-term development prospects may be better than Bangladesh's or Kenya's is that Beijing appears to have defused its population bomb.

Birth rate drops

Peng Peiyun, 64, the minister of the State Family Planning Commission, acknowledged in a rare news conference Wednesday that it was mainly government efforts that had brought down the birth rate.

"Why did fertility drop so drastically?" asked Ms. Peng, who two years ago persuaded the Politburo to order the crackdown. "Above all because party and government officials at all levels paid greater attention to family planning and adopted more effective measures."

The indications of a drop in fertility come in a raft of statistics announced by Ms. Peng, printed in the official Population News or disclosed by Chinese officials. Among the figures are these:

* The birth rate dropped to 18.24 per 1,000 population in 1992, down from 21.06 in 1990 and 23.33 in 1987.

* Based on last year's birth data, each Chinese woman can expect tohave an average of 1.8 or 1.9 children in her lifetime -- about the same as in the United States or Britain. China's total fertility rate, as this statistic is known, was 2.25 in 1990 and had never before dipped below 2. In contrast, the average Indian woman has four children.

* Only 9.6 percent of all births in 1992 were third, fourth or subsequent children. In 1987, the figure was 17.3 percent.

* The proportion of couples of child-bearing age who are sterilized or use contraception rose to 83.4 percent in 1992, up from 71.1 percent in 1988.

China has 1.17 billion inhabitants, 22 percent of the world's population on 7 percent of its arable land.

Some experts believe China's population will peak at almost 1.9 billion in the first half of the next century before stabilizing and then gradually declining again.

Coercive measures

To Chinese peasants almost nothing is so important as bearing children, particularly sons. Many peasant couples feel that they have failed in life's mission, that they have dishonored their ancestors, if they do not extend the male line.

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