Three heroes in the fight to end China’s draconian birth policy

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by William Huang

A month and half ago, this writer predicted that China would end its two-child policy at the October meeting of Communist bigshots in Beijing. It was there that they hammered out their economic and social policies for the next five years, formally known as the “14th Five-Year Plan”.

I was hoping for a repudiation of a policy which had probably murdered more unborn babies than any other time in history and a formal announcement of the end of birth restrictions. I was correct — but in an underwhelming way.

The meeting did indeed announce further relaxations of the policy. But it did it ever so discreetly, buried deep in the pages of the CCP’s resolutions. The hated phrase “计划生育”, or family planning (an euphemism for the one-child policy in China), was finally dropped from the Five-Year Plan.

According to the English version of the semi-official Global Times, the plan also mentioned a much more “inclusive” policy, signaling that the era of child limits is coming to an end. Even Zhai Zhenwu, a population expert formerly employed by the National Family Planning Commission, a man who misled both the Chinese public and the tyrants in Beijing on China’s population prospects with both Malthusian theories and fudged statistics, admitted that: “Birth restrictions will definitely be phased out. We are moving in the right direction.”

Whilst this writer believes that we will only be on the right direction if and when people like Zhai and the officials who carried out mass sterilisations, forced abortions and cold-blooded murders of both pregnant women and babies are arrested, prosecuted and jailed for crimes against humanity, this is still a small victory.

But today I don’t want to talk about villains. I want to talk about the heroes. These are people who worked in a country with asphyxiatingly low levels of free speech and collective myopia on population policy, challenges the official population policy and changed hearts and minds. They helped to push China slowly towards demographic sanity.

Let’s celebrate the good guys for a change.

Big Country with an Empty Nest

The first is Yi Fuxian. He was trained at one of China’s top medical schools, Xiangya in his native southern Hunan Province (which as I profiled in one of my previous articles, was founded by missionaries from Yale University). By 1999 he was working in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He was one of the most skilled researchers and physicians in his field.

Yi had an unconventional hobby — researching China’s demographics. When he started in the early 2000s, the rhetoric and the research was monopolized by the advocates of the one-child policy. They were making absurd claims that China’s population would reach 4 billion people in 2050 without a one-child policy. Western critics criticized its human rights abuses. But everyone missed the elephant in the room: the policy was useless; it was all based on lies; and the guys in charge were demographic illiterates.

Yi exposed this. Spurned by the officials in Beijing, he posted his research on the Chinese internet, which was considerably freer back in the early 2000s. He went viral on popular forums such as Tianya, and gained millions of followers. He was the first to point out that China would never have 4 billion people and that all of Beijing’s population projections since the 1970s had been wrong. The National Family Planning Commission had deliberately amended statistics in consecutive censuses to artificially increase the birth rate and continue the population panic. There might even be 100 million fewer Chinese people than  appeared in the official figures. Yes, fewer, not more. The draconian policy was unnecessary.

Yi has been vindicated repeatedly, humiliating the apparatchiks in Beijing. Even more worrying for the officials, he democratized opposition to the birth policy. Before Yi Fuxian, opposition to the one-child policy was taboo. But after his trailblazing research, it became much easier to oppose the policy and voices for reform grew ever louder.

Yi became subject to intense censorship. For years, he was not allowed to step foot in China. His influential book, Big Country with An Empty Nest, had to be published in Hong Kong in 2007 when the former British colony was still a haven for free speech in the Chinese world, because no publisher on the Mainland would touch it. For a decade he was not allowed to return to China, but his fanbase only grew bigger and bigger online.

When China loosened its one-child policy, first allowing couples to apply for a second-child quota if one of them were an only child, and then abolishing the one-child policy altogether. Yi was invited back to China, gave seminars in many universities and academic forums, and was even allowed to speak at the prestigious Bo’Ao Asia Forum (the Chinese version of Davos).

His book was published by a publisher with links to the government, and his Weibo account had hundreds of thousands of followers. Yi became a popular figure among both the Maoist hard-left and the pro-reform right. His book was endorsed by figures as diverse as Mao Yushi, a pro-democracy economist who won the Milton Friedman Liberty Prize, and Kong Qingdong, a Maoist Peking University professor who claims to be a descendant of Confucius. Hatred for the population policy may be the only thing left and right can agree on in China.

But then the Family Planning Commission decided to strike back even as it was on its way out. When Yi called for a full abolishment of all birth restrictions and declared that China’s population might have been exaggerated by the Chinese government in the tens of millions, making India more populated than China, his Weibo account was deleted and his articles and research were erased from the Chinese internet.

Yi retreated to Twitter and continues to post about his research online. He also maintains WeChat groups for thousands of his fans. Many of them were inspired to have more children by his writings and research. He provides advice for them on having children as well as how to evade punishment for violating birth restrictions.

Beijing pregnancies

Whilst Dr Yi converted people out of China’s family planning cult with hard-hitting facts, Ms Wang Ling, a senior journalist at the business news website Yicai and a visiting scholar at Purdue University, and Zhao Meng from the news website thepaper.cn took a completely different approach. They chronicled the pain and suffering of the cruel policy. Wang wrote a novel about it – A Beijing Pregnancy (“北京孕事”).

Wang, a devout Christian, interviewed mothers who had abortions or were pressured to have them, to speak about their experiences. She regularly updated on her personal WeChat media account with the contents of her book and regularly wrote articles in Yicai critical of the one-child policy, focusing on the harsh fines handed down by officials to impoverished parents for having an “illegal” child.

As a journalist, she embarrassed Family Planning Commission officials at news conferences. At its peak before the end of the one-child policy in 2015, tens of thousands of anxious Chinese parents were following her, as she told them that the reform of the birth policy was near and that they did not need to give up on a second or third child.

Ms Wang and mother-activists against the one-child policy spoke at seminars organized by the pro-natalist Chinese website cnpop.org. She was also vocal about how her Christian faith influenced her beliefs against the birth policy. She has since receded from her spotlight and no longer writes for Yicai, since her articles and writings are probably too provocative under Xi Jinping.

But she saved many babies and started a grassroots movement against the one-child policy, contributions which should never be forgotten.

Too many people in China?

James Liang Jianzhang is not your average crusader. He is very much part of China’s elite, one of the many who benefited from China’s economic boom. He is the founder of ctrip.com, one of China’s largest travel websites.

When Liang did a PhD at Stanford University, he noticed the differences in attitude towards child rearing and fertility between China and the United States. He began his own research on population control and came up with a radical slogan — people are wealth, and not a burden.

He used his position as Chairman of Ctrip to implement pro-natalist policies within his own company. He backed start-ups which help relieve the immense pressure on child rearing in China. He opened company-funded childcare facilities in the company headquarters of Shanghai, allowing Ctrip employees with children to have a peace of mind.

Nowadays he uses his position of influence to promote his “people are a wealth not a burden” theme. He has even created comedy sketches which debunk Malthusianism. He has appeared on one of China’s most popular variety shows on iQiyi ( China’s Netflix) called U can U Bibi (奇葩说 ), to debate population reform.

Liang went viral when he declared that the Chinese people will go extinct in the next few hundred years as a result of the current population policy if things are not turned around quickly. Liang’s partner in demographic research, demographer Huang Wenzheng, is also very active.

His provocatively titled book, Are there too many people in China?, was followed by another book, the Demographics of Innovation. Liang is permitted far more space for his opinions than Yi Fuxia because he is not nearly as anti-establishment. It also helps that he is a wealthy businessman and chairman of one of China’s best-known companies.

Future Nobel laureates?

Change would not have been possible had these people and many others who woke up from population brainwashing not spoken out for reform. China continues to be reluctant to acknowledge human rights abuses and the huge mistake it made through its inhumane population policy. But at least it is becoming more pro-natalist in its thinking, a step in the right direction.

Someday the world will recognize that China’s one-child policy should be as infamous as Apartheid. When that happens I will nominate these three heroes for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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