A scene I saw 30 years ago is forever seared on my memory. A man returning to our rural village pulled a two-wheeled cart that bumped along the unpaved road. Lying in it was the man’s wife who was recovering from sterilization surgery. A thick floral-patterned quilt covered the woman from head to toe. She was motionless, like a corpse.
Ever since seeing that unconscious woman I have feared that I could wind up like her one day: a victim of a sickening physical violation perpetrated by a Chinese government intent on enforcing its draconian one-child policy. I vowed to myself that I would never have children so that sterilization surgery would never be inflicted upon me.
The Chinese Communist Party leadership announced on Oct. 29 the end of the one-child policy, to be replaced with a law that allows married couples to have two children. But dropping the one-child policy will not end the government’s control of women’s bodies. We still will not have the final say when it comes to our reproductive rights.
This flagrant disregard for women’s rights is built into the system, which I got to see close up. In 1997, I found a job “promoting health awareness” in the propaganda office of a hospital family-planning center.
Things I saw in the hospital shocked me. One day four burly men dressed in army camouflage dragged a young woman into the operating theater, one man per limb, as she desperately writhed. A faint sense of outrage flickered inside me, but I didn’t give it much thought because I was too busy worrying about my job and my own survival.
In order to become a formal employee of the hospital, I did something that would make me feel ashamed for the rest of my life: I wrote an uplifting fictional story about the birth-control center describing how the doctors cared for patients as if they were part of their own families. The story was published and won an award from the Family Planning Commission.
I also wrote the hospital’s annual performance report, including statistics of sterilization surgeries and abortions. I still remember a staggering number I came across: The director of the hospital achieved a record by performing 88 sterilizations in one day.
At the time, I did not realize that forced sterilizations and abortions were being carried out nationwide. People who were deemed to have violated the family planning regulations were detained, their houses knocked down, their livestock confiscated. The authorities in cities and villages had to meet targets for collecting fines and performing abortions. There were cases of pregnant women being abducted and taken to hospitals to forcibly perform birth control procedures on them.
The web is now awash with promotional materials encouraging couples to have a second child, which in light of the recent exhortations to have only one child seems like a cruel joke.
Most women will not likely want to have more than two children: With newfound wealth and education most people appear to prefer keeping the family small. And the expenses of raising children will be a deterrent to having more. But a two-child policy means the state can and will still interfere in the decisions women make about their bodies and their families.
What happens to the family that wants a third child? What about women who get accidentally pregnant a third time and want to keep the baby?
Liang Zhongtang, a demographer who has advised officials on population policy, told the Beijing News recently that family planning was still part of the state’s mission. “To maintain the integrity of the state policy, there must be compulsory punitive measures for family planning policy violators,” he said.
These “punitive measures” will not only continue to affect women but also an untold number of second- and third-born children — some estimates say the number is in the millions — who remain undocumented because their parents could not afford the fines for violating the one-child policy. Children whose parents do not pay the fines may never be issued official state identity documents. Without them, the children are denied schooling and health care and other social benefits. There’s no reason to believe that these children will be officially recognized in light of the new policy, nor is there reason to think the practice of fining violators of the two-child policy won’t continue.
The birth control regime reaches beyond family life. The government forbids single women from using “assisted reproductive technology,” which includes the freezing of eggs and in vitro fertilization. This year the prominent Chinese actress Xu Jinglei said that she had gone to the United States to freeze her eggs. The particular discrimination faced by single women will not change under the two-child policy.
The vast entrenched family planning bureaucracy may have been a factor in the government’s calculations. The National Health and Family Planning Commission reportedly employs more than 500,000 people — and the fines charged to violators of the one-child policy have been a major source of government revenue. Bureaucrats will fight to keep their jobs under the two-child regime.
The policy shift is merely a nod to China’s troubling gender imbalance and the rapidly aging population. The nature of the system will remain the same: It still tramples people’s dignity and still places the interests of the state ahead of ordinary citizens. The two-child policy is too little, too late.
Sheng Keyi is a Chinese novelist based in Beijing whose books include Northern Girls and Death Fugue. This article was translated by The New York Times from the Chinese.