China's population

Riots show failings of one-child policy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 4:13pm

Last week's riots in Guangxi have again put the mainland's controversial birth-control policy under the spotlight, with many asking whether it is time to revise the much-criticised guidelines.

Riots broke out in 28 towns in Bobai county last weekend, when thousands of people stormed a local government office, smashing furniture and destroying vehicles. Some tried to set the building alight.

The authorities arrested 28 people for 'networking, persuading and being involved in damaging properties'. But residents said they had been pushed to the limit by brutal enforcement of the one-child policy, with some suggesting more riots could break out.

Many families had been hit with arbitrary fines for violating the policy. Those who could not pay had their homes ransacked by officers. The residents also accused the authorities of forcing women to have abortions or agree to birth-control surgery.

Quoting a local official, a Xinhua report acknowledged authorities may have 'stirred discontent' with 'problematic ways of implementing the policy', but denied abortions had been coerced.

However, the incident in Bobai was not an isolated case. On the way from Nanning to Shabi, one of the riot towns about 400km from the provincial capital, similar stories could be heard.

The immediate cause for the riots was a recent crackdown by Bobai authorities after they were issued a 'yellow card' warning for failing to meet birth-control targets.

While the one-child policy has been in place for more than three decades, it does not apply uniformly and enforcement has been very lax in many rural areas.

Ye Tingfang - a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate who has been advocating a revision of the policy - said only about 35 per cent of the population had observed the policy, according to official data.

Bobai residents said the authorities had for years been lax in enforcing the unpopular rule. Many families had more than one child; some even had four or five.

But this changed suddenly after the Guangxi government introduced an accountability reform this year tying cadres' political careers with a set of policy objectives. Bobai officials were warned they would face demotion unless they could catch up with birth-control targets.

The panic-stricken bureaucrats then launched an all-out campaign to save their careers. But their brutal enforcement resulted in widespread rancour and resentment.

'This is a probably one of the most difficult jobs. Everyone hates you, no matter what you do, somebody will be p***** off,' said an official in charge of birth-control affairs in nearby Yunnan province . 'On the one hand, we have a hard target to meet and we have to report to the higher authorities. On the other hand, people who want to have a second baby always have their reasons and they always find ways to do it.

'The Chinese have a saying that the biggest crime in life is to exterminate one's family line. We are facing a lot of pressure.'

He said the difficulties had increased in recent years due to greater mobility of the population.

Professor Ye said the government should instead use incentives to promote birth-control.

'In the early '70s, when the central government first raised the idea [of the one-child policy], it was a voluntary scheme. The principle was to encourage and educate the public, not to impose a strict order on them.'

He also believed it was time to rethink the policy, introduced amid fears of runaway population growth.

The policy is increasingly questioned by academics as its many social and economic side effects, including the ageing population and gender imbalance, come to light.

'In the beginning, it was believed that our big population would be a hindrance to our economic development. But over the past decades, experience has told us otherwise,' said Professor Ye. 'Japan, for instance, has little in the way of resources and boasts one of the highest population densities in the world, but it is a thriving economy and one of the richest nations. Labour is the most important source of wealth.'