Wei Wei is a PhD candidate in biomedical law and ethics at Keele University. You can contact her at: email@example.com.
The idea of ‘family planning’ was officially introduced into the Chinese political and the legal systems at the start of the post-Maoist era. The introduction of and explanation of this idea were significantly affected by Malthusian demographic theory in China. (Lee and Wang 1999) To justify implementing a strict birth control plan, the first post-Maoist government advocated a Malthusian argument: economic production cannot keep pace with population growth without family planning. Thus, reducing the national birth rate was treated as essential to the development of the state’s economy. Deng, the first president in the post-Maoist era, claimed that the state must fulfil the birth control task, which was of major importance for the national economy. In order to achieve this population goal, the government stated that all married citizens must take up family planning and downsize their families.
Women’s Citizen Duties in the Chinese Family Planning Context
In the Chinese family planning context, post-Maoist governments impose the duty to take up family planning mainly on wives, and most of the compulsory birth control methods are also targeted at them. Because successive governments’ implementation of the population policy is heavily reliant on being targeted at controlling married women’s fertility, oppression of and inequalities for women are increased. According to a survey conducted by the National Population and Family Planning Commission in 1995, in more than 80 per cent of the families studied only wives undertook contraceptive responsibility. In addition, the contraceptive means which were mostly used among the families which already had one or two children were female sterilisation and intra-uterine device (IUD). These two female contraceptive methods were adopted by about 79 per cent of married women between 1985 and 1994. In the meantime, in the ten years from 1985 to 1994, when the birth control policy was particularly strict, there was even a steady decline in the use of male contraception, such as male sterilisation and the condom. (Peng, 1997)
Moreover, in the Chinese family planning context, normally wives rather than husbands are kept under surveillance conducted by the National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC), which is the national administrative organ in charge of keeping birth control programmes running smoothly. In order to enable women to effectively undertake birth control duties, the NPFPC formed a vertical structure in 1981: downwards from the NPFP to province, city, district (urban) or county (rural), street/township, neighbourhood Family Planning and village family planning centres. At the beginning of the 1990s, there were an estimated 300,000 family planning officials and hundreds of thousands of part-time family planning workers in villages who were called cadres. (Hemminki, Wu and Wiisainen, 2005) Generally, a high-level family planning centre, such as a typical city-based one, sets a target of reducing the birth rate to a certain point for those centres at lower levels, such as district family planning centres. The target is usually set according to the number of married women of reproductive age in an area. If the family planning centres at the lower levels meet the target, the cadres in that centre can receive financial rewards. Family planning centres at grass roots level directly guide and supervise individual women’s practice of controlling their birth rate. To meet the target and to avoid ‘out of quota’ births, the cadres in a local family planning centre can check and record detailed information about local married women of reproductive age, give birth permission to pregnant women if their pregnancy is authorised in accordance with the central government’s population policy and persuade or even force married women to use an IUD after giving birth to one or two children. By establishing family planning centres at different levels, post-Maoist governments are able to monitor whether and how married women fulfil the duty to avoid ‘out-of-quota’ births. An ‘out-of-quota’ birth, namely an unauthorised birth, means that the birth of a child is against the state’s population policy and is not approved by the local family planning centre. To have their births authorised, pregnant women have to obtain permission from the local family planning centre before giving birth. Children who are born ‘out of quota’, namely without birth permission, can be treated differently from those who have been authorised. For example, they might not be able to be registered in the local household system or gain an ID card until their parents pay the ‘out-of-quota’ fines.
Discrimination against Unmarried Women
The state’s national population control programmes, including government family planning funding, are mainly targeted at reducing fertility among married couples. For example, generally, only married women are eligible to apply for birth permission mentioned above. Unmarried women’s births are classified as unauthorised, so putative mothers have to pay the ‘out-of-quota’ fines in order to make their births ‘authorised’. This means that in the Chinese family planning context, unmarried people are not eligible for free contraceptive and abortion services. Successive governments in the post-Maoist era turn a blind eye to the facts discussed below, which are that unmarried women are in desperate need of affordable and safe contraceptive and abortion services. A study on unplanned abortions among women aged between 18 and 45 in Sichuan province conducted in 1995 indicates that the rate of unmarried young women who were not using contraception when accidental pregnancies occurred was much higher than that of married women. (Li and Wu 1995) The rates of contraceptive failures and repeated abortions among unmarried young women are also higher than those of married women. Based on these two observations, I think that apart from the problematic family planning funding scheme, there are two other causes for the high rate of accidental pregnancies and repeat abortions among unmarried young women. First, because premarital sex and particularly premarital fertility are still considered as social taboos in China, (Li and Wu, 1995) adolescents and unmarried young women who have unprotected sex or unplanned pregnancies may be ashamed to seek help from their parents, relatives or local family planning cadres. Second, due to a rise in the average age for first-time marriage, more people start their sex life before marriage. This means that, unavoidably, the number of unmarried abortion seekers, including repeat abortion seekers, will increase. According to a survey of the reproductive health of unmarried young women aged between 15 and 25 conducted by Wei in 2008 at the Langfang hospital, 53% of the 115 respondents had premarital sex, 33.35% had sex before 18, 49% had at least one abortion and 10% had at least two abortions. (Wei 2008) Given the difficulties that unmarried women have in obtaining contraception and abortion in practice, the current government funding scheme should not exclude them.
Recent Trends in the Policy-making on Population Figures and Their Influence on Women’s Reproductive Choice
Law and policy relating to family planning in China do not remain certain and stable and that the uncertain and unstable law- and policy-making on population leave space for the state to exert its discretion over the provision of abortion services. As a result, women are put in a disadvantaged position from which they can be powerless to control both their reproductive bodies and their daily lives. At the beginning of the 1980s, a series of social changes and economic reforms ‘relaxed the control of national and local authorities over individuals and also reduced their ability to implement family-planning policies’. (Winckler, 2002) Therefore, compared to the methods of implementing the birth control policy in the first two decade of the post-Maoist era, the existing ones are less restrictive. The current government adopts more incentive-based strategies to encourage women to have a smaller family. For example, it gives single-child families some economic rewards, such as a monthly stipend, free obstetric care, increased maternity leave, priorities in education, health care for the child, housing welfare and retirement pensions. However, the government has not abandoned its attempts to use punishment to stop citizens from breaching the birth control policy. For instance, as mentioned above, couples have to pay fines for their ‘out-of-quota’ births. The more violent means used in the 1980s and the 1990s, such as coercive contraception and abortion, are to some degree replaced by incentives and comparatively softer punishments, such as fines. (Duan, 2005) Nevertheless, this does not mean that coerced abortions do not exist any more. Strategies used by family planning centres to reduce the local birth rate may vary from area to area. In some areas, the local family planning authorities can still force pregnant women who are not eligible for birth permission to abort in order to achieve their birth control targets.
However, the relaxation of the national birth control policy is not motivated by the existing government’s desire to enhance women’s reproductive autonomy, so they are still not empowered to exert control over their reproductive decision-making. As the analysis of the state-centred regulatory model offered in the next subsection will suggest, the party state does not change its strategy to regulate the population by placing control over women’s access to family planning services. Similar to the reason for the Maoist government’s removal of the ban on abortion in limited circumstances, the main reason for this slight relaxation of the strict birth control policy is that at around the start of the 2000s, the state’s population gaol made significant achievements. According to the data on the growth of the national population collected by the National Bureau of Statistics, the natural population growth rate has dropped gradually since the middle of the 1980s (from 14.55 per 1,000 in 1981 to 5.08 per 1,000 in 2006).
The state’s birth control policy does not only vary over time, but also according to place. For example, in Shanghai, the biggest city in China, the natural population growth rate has remained negative for the past sixteen years.(Yuan, 2009) Since the start of the twenty-first century, the ‘One Child’ policy has been relaxed in urban areas. This relaxation allows couples who are both from single-child families to have two children. Recently, some Western media reported that in Shanghai a ‘Two Children’ policy is advocated and the local government encourages couples to have a second child in order to redress its ageing population. It is true that because of a steady decrease in the birth rate in big cities, the ‘One Child’ policy has become less restrictive. Nonetheless, the media has misunderstood the so-called ‘Two Children’ policy in the Chinese family planning context. First, the Shanghai family planning committee never ‘encourage’ couples to have two children, so it does not offer any benefits or allowance for couples who have two children. Furthermore, couples have to meet relevant requirements and apply for birth permission if they plan to have a second child. This means that not all couples in Shanghai are eligible to have a second child, so the couples who have a second child without birth permission still have to pay fines. The ‘Two Children’ policy is neither a new policy nor is it only applicable in Shanghai. Since 2000, family planning authorities in many cities have gradually adopted this method in order to deal with the ageing population. Again, this change does not increase citizens’ control of their procreative decisions. All in all, the above analysis suggests that the protection of women’s reproductive autonomy is still a work in progress in the Chinese family planning context.