China's Population Question

June 24, 1993

In many areas of foreign policy, China presents unique problems. For instance, critics have argued that the regime should be denied most-favored-nation trade status as punishment for its human rights abuses. But President Clinton, who agreed with those critics in last year's campaign, ended up renewing China's trade relationship. That turnaround came as no surprise to many long-time observers. After all, a country with 1.17 billion people -- 22 percent of the world's population and this country's fastest-growing market -- carries clout in trade issues simply by weight of numbers.

On another issue, one directly related to China's immense population, Congress and previous administrations have been less willing to give the regime the benefit of the doubt. Since 1986, anti-abortion groups and their allies in Congress have been successful in denying U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as long as the fund sponsors any activities in China, regardless of their nature.

The move, which hurt all countries that look to the UNFPA for family planning aid, was prompted by reports of coercive tactics in China's efforts to curtail its population. The punitive U.S. policy was based more on domestic political considerations than on common sense -- or even on the facts. In March 1985, U.S. officials had determined that the UNFPA "neither funds abortions nor supports coercive family planning practices through its programs" -- in China or anywhere else. Moreover, the programs sponsored by the UNFPA in China -- supporting contraceptive production, training family planning workers, and the like -- are precisely the kinds of activities that reduce tendencies toward coercion.

One of President Clinton's first acts in office was to announce his intention to restore funding to the UNFPA, a wise and welcome move. Recently, the House completed debate on a bill that authorizes a $50 million contribution to the UNFPA for fiscal years 1994 and 1995. The bill, however, requires that the UNFPA withdraw from China, and contains provisions for withholding some of the appropriation unless this condition is met.

No American would disagree with a policy that would truly lessen coercion and abuse in family planning programs. But blanket demands that the UNFPA withdraw from China are a cheap substitute for actions that could have a moderating influence on abusive tendencies in that country's frantic attempts at population control.

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