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The Thirty Years War

China's one-child policy was supposed to be ending about now, but the nation shows no signs of easing its vicious campaign against women, its children, and ultimately itself

The Thirty Years War

(Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON-On a grassy bank near the Wanquan River in the Haidian District of China, a passerby made a startling discovery on a Sunday morning in January: an hours-old, abandoned baby boy. A hospital tag still tied to the infant's foot bore his mother's name, according to The Global Times. A doctor said the baby was born with deformities that morning, and a witness told police a man dumped the still-breathing child outside hours later. Authorities arrested the suspect. The baby boy died.

In a country where government officials allow most couples to bear only one child, the scenario is painfully common. Many Chinese couples prefer a healthy son. With one opportunity to achieve that result, babies who don't fit the bill sometimes face abortion or abandonment. Most are girls, but even disabled boys like the infant in Haidian don't always escape death or discarding.

Neither do second or third children: China's infamous one-child policy stipulates many women must abort a second child or pay an exorbitant fine that can reach 10 times a family's annual income. In rural areas, some women are allowed to have more than one child under certain conditions, but coerced abortions and forced sterilizations remain common.

It wasn't always supposed to be this way. Chinese officials introduced the one-child policy in 1979, saying they wanted to control a booming population and encourage economic growth by having fewer people to consume resources. When officials implemented the policy nationwide in 1980, they envisioned a 30-year shelf life. In an open letter to members of the Communist Party in September of 1980, the party's central committee pronounced: "In thirty years, when the current acutely pressing population problem becomes less severe, a different population policy can be adopted."

Thirty years later, a new population policy isn't in sight, despite a new crisis produced by the one-child standards: a disproportionate number of men. A study by the British Medical Journal last year estimated that in 2005, China had 32 million more males than females under the age of 20. That's a crisis that will only worsen for men searching for wives among a dwindling female population in China. Meanwhile, the aging population grows, threatening what Fuxian Yi-a Wisconsin-based physician educated in China-calls "a demographic winter."

If the policy presents a crisis for men, it brings a catastrophe for Chinese women and their baby girls cut down or abandoned. Chinese women have undergone millions of abortions since 1980, many forced or coerced in deplorable conditions. Many abortions have targeted girls: The prevalence of ultrasound technology that costs as little as $12 to determine the sex of a baby in China has led to what some call "gendercide," the widespread extermination of a generation of girls.

Chinese officials boast that the one-child policy has "prevented" at least 300 million births in the last 30 years, whether by birth control, sterilization, or abortion. But despite a demographic calamity and a humanitarian outrage, Chinese officials seem resolved to maintain the status quo, even while making subtle concessions in some areas. Meanwhile, a growing coalition-inside and outside of China-is calling for a reversal: Some call for an end to forced abortions. Others call for an end to the one-child policy. Failure to relent could worsen what Yi-a vociferous opponent of the one-child policy-calls "perhaps the most disastrous mistake in modern China," and what U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., calls "the worst human-rights abuse in the world today."

Ling Chai didn't expect to find herself in a coalition to fight forced abortions in China. For years, the Chinese native was better known as a student leader in the Tiananmen Square movement that ended in a government-induced massacre of demonstrating college students in June of 1989. Chai fled China after the massacre and spent the last two decades getting graduate degrees from Princeton and Harvard, and running a business with her American husband.

From a suite of high-rise offices in downtown Boston, employees at Chai's company, Jenzabar, produce software programs for colleges and universities. But in a nearby conference room, Chai sits perched on the edge of a leather couch talking about the abuse of women and girls in her home country: "God must be so appalled at what is happening in China."

For Chai, the road from Tiananmen Square to God ran straight through grappling with the atrocity of forced abortions in China. After supporting pro-democracy efforts in China, Chai and her husband started the Jenzabar Foundation to direct a portion of their company's profits toward philanthropic efforts in the United States and China.

But when Chai attended a congressional hearing on China's forced abortions last fall, her view of China-and herself-changed: "When I got there, I thought I knew China. I didn't realize how little I knew."

The revelations came from Wujian, a young Chinese woman testifying in a trembling voice behind a screen to protect her identity. Wujian (an alias the woman used for protection) told the congressional committee about enduring a forced abortion in a small village in northern China in 2004-an experience she described as "a journey in hell."

After learning she was pregnant without the required birth permit from local officials, Wujian said she hid from authorities in a dilapidated house with no electricity in a remote area. Despite her efforts to hide to protect her baby, authorities discovered Wujian's pregnancy and location, and forced her into a grisly hospital with other women facing a similar fate.

Wujian described the excruciating ordeal: begging for her child's life as doctors pulled the baby apart with scissors, and catching a glimpse of the bloody foot of her nearly full-term child. "Through my tears, the picture of the bloody foot was engraved into my eyes and into my heart, and so clearly I could see the five small bloody toes," she said. "Immediately the baby was thrown into the trash can."

Through tears, the young woman tried to explain the trauma: "Physically I recovered after about one month, but psychologically and spiritually-never." Wujian said only God's forgiveness and her newfound Christian faith sustains her: "If God allows, I will ask forgiveness from my baby when I see him in heaven."

Chai was cut to the heart. "I was crying behind her," Chai remembers. "I was never in my entire life-except for Tiananmen-struck with such deep emotion and grief." Looking back, Chai says the emotions of Tiananmen Square came back with Wujian's story as she considered the slaughter of helpless innocents. She realized that forced abortions in China meant "another Tiananmen Square every day."

As Chai considered this evil, she realized that China's problems ran deeper than politics. Over the course of the following weeks-and through the encouragement of Christian friends-Chai converted to Christianity in December. A minister baptized her at Park Street Church in Boston on Easter Sunday.

With Chai's new faith comes a new focus: helping end forced abortions. To that end, she's launching a project called All Girls Allowed. The aim is to partner with other groups-like the Texas-based ChinaAid, an organization serving house churches and persecuted Christians in China-to help grassroots organizations in China educate mothers and fathers on the value of all children, offer legal aid to families desiring to keep their children, and provide post-abortion counseling to women who need it.

That's a huge task. The one-child policy comes down from China's massive central government. Local officials in provinces, counties, and townships enforce the policy through local "family planning committees." The officials limit most women in urban areas to one child. They allow about half of the women in rural areas to bear a second child if their first child is a female.

The government requires married couples to obtain a birth permit before bearing a child and often requires couples to otherwise use birth control. If a woman bears an unauthorized child, officials sometimes impose huge fines called "social compensation fees." A 2009 report from the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) said that one local government imposed additional penalties for couples who couldn't pay: They added their names to a credit blacklist in China's banking system.

Some women don't make it that far. In some cases, local officials intervene before mothers bear unauthorized children. CECC members who examined official reports from Chinese authorities said at least 18 of China's 31 provincial-level jurisdictions permit officials to ensure that citizens don't exceed birth quotas. That could include forcing abortions and sterilizations. In at least eight provinces, local regulations explicitly require "termination of pregnancy" if the pregnancy doesn't meet local standards.

Local officials have an incentive to meet quotas, including promotion and political advancement. A January 2009 family planning manual in Wuyishan county outlined a point system, according to CECC: Authorities awarded local officials 15 points for meeting all tubal ligation goals for the year. They earned another five points for each mid- to late-term abortion they oversaw.

Though officials usually don't admit forcing abortions, plenty of reports of the practice regularly surface from watchdog groups and local sources. In 2007, NPR reported dozens of forced abortions in one week in Guangxi Province, including among unmarried women pregnant with their first child. (Single women cannot obtain birth permits.)

One case was a pastor's wife pregnant with the couple's second child. When pastor Liang Yage refused to sign a consent form for the abortion, authorities signed it for him. When his wife delivered the stillborn child, the pastor said: "I felt desolate, so I didn't look up to see the baby."

The CECC report outlined a handful of brutal cases of forced abortions last year, including an account of a 35-year-old mother in Shandong province: Officials forced the woman to undergo an abortion in her ninth month of pregnancy. The abortive injection reportedly caused massive hemorrhaging, killing the mother.

In other cases, authorities force citizens to undergo sterilization to prevent unauthorized births. The Times of London reported in April that officials in Puning County had launched a 20-day campaign to sterilize 10,000 men and women. Doctors were working from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 a.m. the following day. When thousands refused to submit, authorities detained their relatives in cramped quarters in towns across the county until they relented.

Beyond deplorable humanitarian conditions, the policy is also wreaking demographic havoc in China, according to some experts. The United Nations reports a hugely disproportionate sex ratio in China: From 2000 to 2005, some 121 boys were born per every 100 girls in China. The global average is between 103 and 106.

Other Asian countries bear disproportionate sex ratios as well: The UN reports that Armenia and Azerbaijan had 117 boy births for every 100 girls in the same time period. South Korea had 110. India had 108, though some population experts say those figures are much higher in some regions of the country.

Though the countries don't have official population control policies like China, some experts say that a similar dynamic drives the high rate of male births: a preference for sons that leads some parents to selectively abort or abandon girls.

The numbers have obvious consequences. In January, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences projected that by 2020 China would have 30 million to 40 million more men than women under the age of 20. That means one in five young men may not be able to find a native-born wife within 10 years.

A dearth of women in China has already led to human trafficking from surrounding countries. The U.S. State Department reports that women and children are trafficked to China from such countries as "Mongolia, Burma, North Korea, Russia, Vietnam, Romania, and Ghana for purposes of forced labor, marriage, and sexual slavery."

Nicholas Eberstadt-a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research-underscores another problem: declining fertility rates that lead to a shrinking working-age population. Those declines could lead to a shrinking labor force within another decade, and a disproportionately elderly population. "These problems will compromise economic development, strain social harmony and place the traditional Chinese family structure under severe pressure," he said in the Far Eastern Economic Review. "In fact, they could shake Chinese civilization to its very foundations." Yi-the Chinese physician in Wisconsin-is even more pessimistic: "China is committing suicide."

The Chinese government has taken small steps to address the problems, promoting a "Care for Girls" campaign aimed at encouraging female births and gender equality. But lasting change will take far more radical steps. Some Chinese experts advocate adjusting the one-child policy to allow additional births. Others-like Eberstadt and Yi-say the country should abandon it completely.

For now, activists like Reggie Littlejohn are worried about women and children in China. Littlejohn, founder of Women's Rights Without Frontiers, a group devoted to fighting forced abortion and sexual slavery in China, says the one-child policy is "devastating" the female population of China.

Littlejohn says U.S. officials should press Chinese authorities about issues like forced abortion. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the practice during congressional hearings last April, but Littlejohn thinks the Obama administration should address the issue directly with Chinese leaders.

Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state, held human-rights talks with Chinese officials in May, but he didn't report discussions of the country's population policies. (Posner did say he told Chinese officials that Arizona's new immigration law is a "troubling trend" in American society.)

In the meantime, women and children suffering in China have little recourse for finding help, says Littlejohn. Back in Boston, Chai hopes that her new group can equip grassroots organizations and NGOs in China to help families. For now, that work often falls to house churches-congregations not officially recognized by the state.

A Chinese house-church pastor-who requested anonymity to protect his work-said churches are afraid to speak publicly against the one-child policy for fear of reprisal. But he says Christians are quietly taking care of the needy: The pastor said he has helped hide pregnant women until they deliver a second child. He says his church privately cares for nearly a dozen children who are abandoned or orphaned. Several have significant disabilities. And the pastor is personally raising two abandoned children: one he discovered left in a hospital and one he found along the road.

"According to the promise of God, children are the possession of their parents and the possession of God," he said. "How could we ignore them?"

Email Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.