Collision Course

In the late 1970s, China inaugurated a series of economic and social policies to modernize the economy, increase production and income, and raise the standard of living. For the most part, these initiatives loosened the control of state planning and allowed more free-market activities in both urban enterprises and rural agriculture. Agriculture was transformed into the "family-responsibility system" in which male heads of families contract with former state collectives for specific plots of land on which their families farm and try to turn a profit.

At the same time, the government launched a draconian population-control campaign known as the One-Child Family Plan. Announced in 1979, the 1CFP introduced a host of rewards and punishments to secure compliance, as well as quotas and targets for reducing population. It was a bold, unprecedented mass mobilization, using state authority to compel people to drastically alter behavior.

From the point of view of rural peasants, it was obvious that the 1CFP collided with decollectivization. Just when rural families could augment their income with private farming and "sideline" activities - selling surplus honey, hogs, and eggs, as well as household handicrafts - they lost their traditional means of getting more labor: having many children. Sinologist Elisabeth Croll quotes one peasant's response: "We cultivate pour own land, eat our grain, and bring up all our children on our own. We have taken responsibility for the land, and there is no need for you [the government] to bother about our childbirth."

The reliance on children is especially true for peasants' sons, who rural Chinese value more than daughters. Sons and their wives and children provide labor for a family and ensure old-age security for grandparents. In addition, only males continue the patrillineage, the central component of traditional Chinese religion. Rural daughters-in-law, uprooted at marriage from their natal villages, feel great urgency to produce sons, anthropologist Margery Wolf explains, to create a new family to depend on in old age. "A man will no more support his mother-in-law than a pot will make it own bean curd," is one of many traditional Chinese saying embodying this preference for sons. "Why weed another man's garden?" rural peasants say, referring to the futility of investing in daughters.

The modernization policies have been in effect for over a decade in rural China, where about 75 percent of Chinese live, and it is evident that they have carried a price for Chinese women. Although income is substantially higher due to the family-responsibility system, the reforms have also shifted labor. Skilled male farmers find jobs in town in transportation, construction, and commerce, while some rural women have been labeled "surplus labor." When the collectives were dismantled, rural women's work contributions became more hidden within household income, decreasing both their public recognition as workers and their bargaining power in the family.

The damage wrought by family-planning policies is even more serious, because the taerrain of struggle of the 1CFP is women's bodies. Its effects are reflected in the rising incidence of coercive reproduction practices, the "missing girls" phenomenon of the 1980s, and deteriorating subsidies for rural social services.


Like many development plans around the world, the agricultural policy and 1CFP appear "gender-neutral." Yet few policies are truly sex-blind, and these have had deleterious effects on Chinese women, particularly at the point where the two programs collide.

In cities, many Chinese accept the 1CFP. The state offers some rewards to one-child families - including day care and preference in housing - that are more available in cities. Also, urban women workers often earn a pension, making them more valuable to families worried about old-age security. In city work-places and neighborhoods, women are under official surveillance. Family-planning cadres in cities keep close tabs on women's menstrual cycles, while co-workers exhort women to wait their turn for planned births for the good of the work unit.

In the countryside, the 1CFP has fared less well. Official surveillance is weaker, and private economic arrangements, have emboldened peasants to try to control their reproductive activities as well as their productive ones. Moreover, it isn't surprising that rural Chinese resist the 1CFP given the value the society places on sons. Thus, by the mid-1980s, many local authorities had bowed to the inevitable: the one-child policy unofficially became a two-child policy in some rural areas, especially if the first child was a girl.

Some Western analysts believe that most birth-control measure sin China are involuntary and coercive. John Aird, retired senior researcher of the China Branch of the U.S. Census Bureau's Center for International Research, has identified a host of euphemisms that essentially tell family-planning officials to use any means to achieve the birth quotas. "Taking remedial measures" means mandatory abortions: "technical services" means surgical procedures like abortion, compulsory sterilization, and inserting an IUD. Even innocuous phrases like "Study classes" and "heart-to-heard talks" with pregnant women amount to threats that women - and the members of their families - will lose jobs, be fined, have farm profits impounded, have consumer goods confiscated, and even have their electricity and water cut off. Aird notes that none of the provincial family-planning laws penalizes the use of coercion.

Moreover, Western feminists have expressed concern about female infanticide and the neglect of female children. China has a history of both practices, involving families of all classes and regions. Throughout the 1980s, Chinese authorities blamed scattered reports of female infanticide on "feudal ignorance," rather than on state policies.

Demographers are engaged in an intense controversy about "missing" Chinese girls, with many suggesting that they are missing because of female infanticide and neglect. In the New York Review of Books, Amartya Sen has raised the issue of 100 million missing women in the world - those who didn't survive because they lacked food, health care, and social services comparable to men. Sen cites China as a special case, noting that a trend towards living longer, which began with the 1949 revolution, has reversed for women since 1979. Besides female infanticide, he speculates that other causes may be the crisis in health services and the impact of the agricultural-responsibility system on women's access to paid work and old-age security. "Rapid economic development may go hand in hand with worsening relative mortality of women," Sen writes.

Others have added to the list of possible explanations for China's millions of "missing girls," including sex-selective abortions, the adoption of girl babies and concealed or unregistered female births. Most sources agree that sex-selective abortions can't be a major factor because the technology isn't widely available in rural areas, but both official and informal adoptions became significant in the 1980s. Swedish demographers Sten Johnsson and Ola Nygren, who have analyzed China's 1988 Fertility Survey, suggest that half a million children were adopted in 1987. Of these, girls accounted for 73 percent.

According to the New York Times, foreign couples adopted 13,600 Chinese babies in the 1980s, and the government is considering easing the procedures for this. Most adoptable babies re girls "abandoned by parents who wanted boys," the Times says.

Some scholars suggest that families may conceal a girl's birth to try for a son, although unregistered children don't qualify for food allotments or state social services. And if adoption or registration-avoidance were the main explanations for the missing girls, Chinese officials would probably produce evidence of that, if only to protect themselves from international criticism. According to the Times, preliminary results of the 1990 Census suggest at least several million missing girls, supporting the conclusions of Australian National University demographer Terence Hull:

If children are being hidden from surveys and registration systems, it is likely that they are also being deprived of the various benefits of child care, schooling, and protection from exploitation to which they are entitled. If they are being illegally aborted, put to death, or mistreated so as to cause premature death because of their gender, they represent a class of innocent victims whom the state is committed to protect. In both cases the behavior indicates a community failure to live up to the ideals of sexual equality officially professed by the state. To the extend that this antisocial behavior is a reaction to official family planning policy, it is important for the government to develop responses adequate to the challenge.


State planners could have anticipated and alleviated these consequences of the collision between the family-responsibility system and the 1CFP. When we visited China in 1981, officials of the All-China Women's Federation expressed their worries about such outcomes. Yet, at the same time, these women were confident that the 1CFP would bring better maternal and obstetrical care and benefit children in nutrition, education, and health. Although the 1CFP required "hardships and sacrifices," mothers and children would ultimately be better off.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence, especially for rural families, that social services have improved over the decade. In fact, the dismantling of rural agricultural collectives is linked to deteriorating subsidies for health care, old-age pensions, and schools. "Barefoot doctors" have disappeared from many rural locales, while fee-for service clinics are more common. Rural families no longer contribute to old-age and disability funds that some agricultural collectives had formerly maintained. Population Council demographer Susan Greenhalgh reports that even though the government offers minimal welfare support to destitute elders, "the meager level of collective support [has] brought home the fact that any rural resident wishing a decent level of living in old age [has] no choice but to have a son."

Several policies could forestall the dangers for women who feel compelled to produce sons. Thus, the government could award bonuses to parents of only daughters double or triple those offered to one-child families. The awards would go into savings accounts to earn interest and support the parents in illnesses and their retirement. Officials in Wenzhou City attempted to organize such a fund but, says Hull, it failed due to "resistance among parents and to the unwillingness of village governments to contribute to a trust account." People complained that the costs of the fund were high, and they were uncertain about its future value in the face of inflation. They also felt the fund was irrelevant "to meeting the emotional needs that can be satisfied only through having sons," Hull notes.

The emotional needs of Chinese peasant families for sons can't be overestimated. Patriarchal values in place for centuries can't be overturned in a decade. One peasant woman in the mountains of Sichuan Province testified that before "Heaven" sent her a son - after six daughters - her neighbor taunted her, calling her a "barren old hag." In a passage quoted in Chinese Lives: An Oral History of Contemporary China, edited by W.J.F. Jenner and Delia Davins, she concludes, "Having sons is what women come into the world for. What's the point of it all if you don't have a son? It's what we live for."


Given their precarious situation, how have Chinese rural women responded? We have found no evidence of mothers' complicity in female infanticide, but it has probably occurred. The pressures on mothers to build their own uterine families are considerable. Combined with the exhortations of husbands, in-laws, and state policy, it is possible that women have sometimes agreed, for example, to the drowning of a girl baby after home delivery. Alternately, a mother might concur, however reluctantly, with a familial decision to forego medical care for a sick daughter or to put a girl child up for adoption.

Yet there are also scattered reports of women's resistance to official and familial sanctions. Young Chinese students in the United States report that underground networks in the countryside help pregnant women flee from coercive officialdom. Other women have joined a growing "floating population" cadres. They flee rural villages to live on the fringes of cities without official registration papers or ration coupons for food and other essentials. Aird says the Chinese press characterizes this floating population as an "excess-birth guerrilla corps." It may number as many as 50 million people.

Some women stay home and fight. The Sichuan peasant woman quoted above recalls that when "they sent people here to work on me...a whole crowd of them, cadres...I never said a thing; I just listened... In the end I went into my mother's." Her sister-in-law, who also had six daughters and was trying for a son, acted even more boldly: "When the family planning people came to question her she didn't go into hiding: she drank pesticide! And she did it twice! That gave them such a fright that they never came back again."

Another strategy is working harder at a household sideline to save money for the fine for an unauthorized birth. "This boy of mine [cost] 1,300 [yuan]," says the Sichuan peasant. "I paid cash on the nail. If I hadn't they'd have taken the furniture - and if that wasn't enough to cover the fine, the tiles on the roof, too."

Some local family-planning officials, themselves part-time peasants, levy such a fine as a substitute for more coercive sanctions, both because they have fewer effective means to control the reproductive behavior of peasants since decollectivization and because they sympathize with the cultural and economic imperatives of fellow villagers.

When women can't defend themselves against coercion, they maneuver to maximize their options, showing their understanding of the connections among production, reproduction, and family security. For example, in one case, a woman agreed to abort an unauthorized pregnancy only when officials guaranteed her a paid job. Another woman threatened to sue for a divorce and called on the principle of gender equity to compel her husband and in-laws to reconcile themselves to her first-born daughter. "We are in the new society: men and women re equal," she said, paraphrasing the Chinese constitution.

Still, the alternatives for rural Chinese women are few, caught as they are in a web of colliding state policies and familial needs. The new policies place women at risk - at birth, in childhood, during their childbearing years, and in old age. Rather than offering creative ideas to enhance the liberation of women or, at the very least, protect them from predictable abuses, the new state policies all too often reinforce traditional patriarchal values and practices.

These abuses of women will likely continue unless and until China adopts sweeping affirmative-action policies - in employment, education, and Party leadership - to raise the value of women to families and society. Ultimately, no single economic or demographic change will improve the status of women, in Chin a or anywhere else. Only the political commitment to make policy as if women mattered will succeed.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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