BEIJING — China is graying rapidly: By 2050, one-third of the country will be aged 60 years or older, and, before then, each Chinese worker will have to support two parents and four grandparents — one result of the official policy that, since 1979, has forbidden most Chinese couples from having more than one child and had seen hundreds of millions of women forcibly aborted and sterilized.

Another negative result is gender imbalance: There are at least 37 million more males in China than females, and, by 2020, the government expects to have at least 40 million men of marriageable age with no women to marry.

These dire demographics, according to analysts, are the most likely reason behind proposed revisions of the one-child policy that came out of the Chinese Communist Party leaders’ recent conclave on Nov. 15. The extensive reform package includes a small measure to extend the right to have a second child to couples who are both only children themselves.

While mainstream media, including The Wall Street Journal, hailed the policy change as “the most significant adjustment in a policy that has defined Chinese family life for more than three decades,” human-rights activists and demographic experts are calling it “too little, too late” for a country whose human-rights abuses have led it on the path of steep demographic decline.

Yi Fuxian, a Chinese doctor-turned-dissident, has been critical of the policy for more than a decade. “In 2010, China’s fertility rate was only 1.18 births per woman, “he told Xinhuanet online news agency last week.

The low birth rate has resulted in an expanding senior citizenry and a dearth of workers. The working-aged population of those 15-54 peaked last year, and, already, the country has begun importing cheap labor from Africa and Vietnam to stave off the economic effects.

“It is high time for the country to scrap its one-child policy,” said Fuxian.


Policy Still in Place

Yet the sweeping 22,000-page Communist Party report that proposes a raft of changes to the application of the death penalty and prison-labor camps provides few details and no timetable for implementing change.

Reggie Littlejohn, a human-rights lawyer with the American group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, criticized the proposals as “completely overstated” and a “mere tweak” that does “too little, too late” to address the underlying human and reproductive-rights abuses.

What’s worse, she added, is that the reporting on the matter has created the impression that the abusive one-child policy has actually been eradicated. “It’s created great confusion,” she told the Register from Hong Kong last week, where she says she was greeted by a human-rights activist who said, “Isn’t it great that China is abolishing its one-child policy?”

“All the reasons for this adjustment are economic or demographic,” said Littlejohn.  ”Completely absent from the discussion is the issue of human-rights violations.”

The practice of “gendercide” that sees as many as 160 firstborn baby boys for every girl, and as many as 190 second-born baby boys per girl in some areas, as a result of sex-selective abortion, will be unaffected, said Littlejohn. The resulting skew in the gender ratio, and China’s missing tens of millions of girls and women, is the “driving force behind trafficking in women and sexual slavery, not only in China, but in neighboring nations as well,” she added.

China already allows one-child exemptions for some couples, particularly for rural couples and especially for those who had a firstborn girl, because of the country’s deeply rooted cultural and economic preference for sons. And couples who are both only children are permitted to have a second child.


Too Few Babies

Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, estimates that the new policy will add only about 2 million births a year to China’s current 15 million births. 

“This will not be enough to stave off the aging, and eventual dying, of the Chinese population,” he told the Register. “Nor will this policy change, if and when it is implemented, end the arrest and forced abortion of women who are pregnant with illegal children.”

“Chinese Catholics, in particular, have suffered heavily under the one-child policy, which violates their God-given right to decide for themselves the number and spacing of their children,” said Mosher. “The policy violates their freedom of conscience and prevents them from being open to life in the way that their Catholic faith encourages.”

Forced abortion is technically illegal in China, but, in March this year, the government boasted that it has performed 336 million abortions under the one-child policy. Eighteen of the country’s 31 provincial-level districts currently endorse forced abortion and other unnamed “remedial measures” to deal with illegal pregnancies.

Last July, graphic images of Feng Jianmei lying on a hospital bed next to her bloody7-month-old aborted baby went viral on the Internet and put China’s one-child policy under the international spotlight. Jianmei’s family accepted an $11,000 payment for her forced abortion from the government as a result, but the practice remains rampant.

Just last month, international media carried a video interview with 33-year-old Liu Xinuen, who was six-months pregnant when Chinese birth-control officials barged into her house in the middle of the night and dragged her to hospital, where they forcibly injected her with an abortifacient drug that killed her baby boy.

The interview showed the devastated mother crying in a bed next to an orange bucket containing her aborted baby on the floor beside her. Her devastated husband, Zhou Guoqiang, wept. The couple was not allowed a second child because they had a 10-year-old son.

All Girls Allowed, an evangelical Protestant group working to abolish the one-child policy, reported on another forced abortion of Li Fengfei, a peasant girl from the Hmong minority group, in July of this year. She was brutally beaten by family-planning officials, who knocked her tooth out before injecting her with an abortifacient and billing her for the cost of the procedure.

In court last month, after she took to the Internet to complain about her abuse by Chinese authorities, Fengfei was reportedly distressed when she yelled at the judges repeatedly that she didn’t want to live since losing her baby.

If Fengfei is an indication, the one-child policy may also be the reason suicide is the leading cause of death for rural Chinese women. Throughout the country, 500 women commit suicide daily.


Doomed by Demographics?

While the current proposals hardly spell the end of China’s brutal reproductive policy, some experts say the end is indeed inevitable, dictated by the unintended consequences of population control.

“Large-scale demographic changes are now in play,” Jackie Sheehan, professor of contemporary Chinese culture and business at University College in Cork, Ireland, told the Register.

The gender imbalance cannot be corrected. Add to that the plummeting urban Chinese birth rate, which some reports put as low as 0.7 babies per woman, and the fact that many urbanized Chinese couples no longer even want a second child, and China’s long-term prospects start to look very grim indeed.

The current changes are a very thin edge of a wedge that has been delayed, despite demographic forecasts, by official inertia in dismantling a huge family-planning industrial complex, analysts say, along with a reluctance to let go of $2 billion in annual revenue from reproductive fines on parents of illegal children.

“I expect in the next five years, almost certainly within the decade, we will see a change to a two-child policy,” said Sheehan. “And that will really spell the end of it.”

Register correspondent Celeste McGovern writes from Scotland.