The central Government will not tolerate cadres abusing women in order to achieve birth control targets, the family planning minister said yesterday. Zhang Weiqing, head of the State Family Planning Commission, said in Hong Kong the mainland Government did not condone officials coercing women into having abortions, or punishing them for having more than one child, in order to meet the targets. 'We have a strict policy. We deal with every violation [by officials] seriously,' Mr Zhang said after a symposium in Hong Kong. Mr Zhang was responding to media reports that in Nanhai, Guangdong, family planning cadres held pregnant women in detention centres for violating the one-child policy. The policy generally applies to urban couples in most cities, but in villages and areas populated by ethnic minorities, couples can have two or sometimes even three children. Mr Zhang stressed it was imperative for the mainland to keep the population size under control. He said the task would remain arduous for the 'coming decades'. Annual net population increase would remain at above 10 million for 'a considerably long time' due to a large population base, he said. 'By the middle of the 21st century, the population will approach a peak of 1,600 million [1.6 billion] before a gradual slowdown.' Mr Zhang said yesterday the mainland's population policy had been successful, with the birth rate falling from 33.43 per cent in the early 1970s to 15.23 per cent last year. Mr Zhang said officials were 'required to serve the child-bearing masses wholeheartedly and to protect their lawful rights and interests. Any form of coercion is opposed'. Since its implementation in the early 1970s, the one-child policy has been dogged by allegations that family planning cadres force those who break the rules into having abortions. According to a report recently released by the Family Planning Commission, China's population stood at 1.26 billion as at September last year and will hopefully stay under 1.3 billion by next year. But the actual figure is likely to be much higher as an unknown number of children have been born outside the one-child policy. Parents failed to register them for fear of persecution. Scores of illegal immigrants to foreign countries such as the United States had sought asylum on grounds of evading abuse under the policy. The trend had died down in recent years.