From the beginning of the one-child policy, the Chinese Party-state has tried to blame the myriad cruelties of this barbaric policy on “out-of-control local officials.” This is nonsense, of course, since local officials are only following orders on pain of punishment. So it was that when Chinese academic Yan Li tried out this excuse in an article The Lancet, the world’s leading medical journal, I had to respond.
In 1979, I was given the honour of being the first Western social scientist allowed to do extensive field research in China since the Communist revolution. From my vantage point, I was able to observe first-hand how the newly introduced one-child policy was being implemented.
The draconian campaign that I witnessed began by ordering young mothers to have abortions, arresting them when they refused, and incarcerating them under conditions of extreme psychological pressure. Those who still refused were physically dragged into the local medical clinic, where they were held down on the operating table while they were aborted and sterilised. Many of these women were in the third trimester of pregnancy. Indeed, some were already in labour.1
The forced abortions so poignantly described by Yan Li (Sept 1, p 804)2 are not just an aberration “of recent years”, in other words, but have rather been an integral part of the enforcement mechanism of the policy since its inception. It is difficult to say how many women have been aborted under duress but, given that the Chinese Government claims that 400 million births have been averted by its policy,3 it is safe to say that the number is not trivial.
Li bravely calls on the party-state to better supervise “district-level family planning officers” and end these abuses. At the same time, it is incumbent on those of us who have no fear of reprisal from the Chinese party-state that we recognise what has been obvious to me for more than three decades—namely, that it is the Chinese party-state itself that insists on continuing the one-child policy, and which punishes local officials only for violating this policy and not for violating women.