China’s one-child policy takes a more sinister turn as men, women and children are being held hostage to force female relatives to be sterilised. Abigail Haworth reports
One lunchtime last April, Wei Laojin, 35, was cooking spicy pork for her two sons at home in southern China when she got a frantic call from her husband. His brother had been arrested. A dozen Chinese officials had beaten down the man’s door and dragged him away. ‘What has he done wrong?’ Wei asked her husband in alarm. ‘Nothing,’ he replied. ‘He has been jailed because he is related to us.’
Wei, a bird-thin woman with bobbed hair, let lunch burn on the stove as she asked for more details. ‘My husband said we had broken the law by having two children. The authorities were imprisoning his brother until we were punished,’ she says. ‘As soon as I learned it was about birth control, I began to cry and shake.’
It transpired that family-planning officials in the southern county of Puning, in Guangdong province, were going to shocking new extremes to catch violators of China’s infamous one-child policy. Seizing family members of women who had given birth illegally, they were now holding them hostage to coerce the women into submitting to sterilisation.
‘The officials said there was only one way to get my brother-in-law released: I had to undergo forced sterilisation,’ says Wei. As she sat panicking in her kitchen, the same scene was playing out in households all over Puning, a region of 2.2 million people, six hours’ drive from the provincial capital of Guangzhou. In early April, the local Family Planning Bureau, which oversees population control, launched what it termed an ‘Iron Fist Campaign’, targeting 10,000 women who had more than one child. According to state-owned local media, a task force of more than 600 officials was deployed to storm homes and seize grandparents, siblings, teenagers, even infants. The relatives were to be jailed indefinitely until the targeted women showed up at government clinics to undergo ‘remedial surgery’ – or sterilisation.
As the world’s most populous country, with 1.4 billion people, the state believes that limiting the birth rate is vital to economic growth. But this campaign was unprecedented in recent Chinese history. According to He Yafu, one of China’s leading birth policy experts, there had been occasional reports of relatives being detained in the past. Forced sterilisation has been an abuse associated with the one-child policy since it was introduced in 1978. But this was a crackdown on an unusually large and draconian scale.
China’s one-child policy: the facts
– China’s one-child policy was introduced by leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978 as a temporary means of coping with unemployment and food shortages.
– Enforcement levels vary from area to area, with heavy fines and punishments levied on those who don’t comply.
– Over the past 30 years, the policy has led to widespread forced abortions, sterilisations and female infanticide.
– Encouraged by the family planning policy, a woman in China undergoes a voluntary abortion every 2.5 seconds, giving the country one of the highest abortion rates in the world.
– A longstanding preference for boys has created a surplus of 24 million men, as girls are more likely to be aborted.
– Concerned about China’s shrinking population growth, the government is now making provisions to introduce pilot schemes, where couples are allowed to have a second child.