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November 15, 2010

Breaking China's One-Child Law

newscast still of a man being arrested in china

A TV newscast shows a woman's relative going to jail.

Photo Credit: Tim Pelling

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She's right. Although Puning's "Iron Fist Campaign" was reported on local news, it made no major headlines in the rest of China or anywhere else. In the two-month period from mid-April to mid-June, officials claimed they had successfully sterilized more than 9,000 women of their targeted 10,000, and planned to continue until their goal was reached. He Yafu, the family-planning expert, believes the central government has hushed up the matter because the Puning Family Planning Bureau's actions were illegal under Chinese law: A 1995 regulation states that relatives of birth-policy offenders must not be penalized, detained, or used to pressure couples. However, he adds, "The central government uses such rules to pretend it condemns extreme measures to enforce the one-child policy, but it does nothing to punish local authorities that break them. It just turns a blind eye."

Puning officials claimed they took the extreme measures to reduce births in line with national quotas. According to the Nanfang Countryside Daily, a local newspaper, regional Communist Party Chief Chen Hong-Ping had recently come under fire for falling behind with one-child-policy enforcement, and he risked losing a promotion. Chen ordered the campaign to rapidly improve his numbers. "Our mission is to substantially change the family-planning situation to meet targets," the newspaper quotes Chen as saying. Chen declined to be interviewed by Marie Claire, but the man who carried out his orders, the head of Puning's Family Planning Bureau, Liang Hong-Yu, is happy to boast about the crackdown's success. "We have made great strides re-educating the public about the negative effect of large families and overpopulation," he says. "We are very happy with the campaign's achievements."

For Huang Ruifeng, 39, a Puning native who runs his own agricultural-supply business, the family-planning crackdown has had tragic consequences. Huang is reluctant to be seen with a Western journalist in daylight. He agrees to meet late at night in a gaudy sports bar, where the ruckus of fans watching Chinese soccer on giant screens drowns out conversations. Wearing a crisp peach shirt, he is freshly shaven, but his eyes are red with grief.

Huang and his wife, Zheng, had three daughters, and Zheng was eight months pregnant with their fourth child—a much-wanted boy—when officials smashed the roof of his family home. They arrested Huang's elderly father and jailed him, to force Zheng to turn herself in. "We begged them to let her give birth to our son first, and promised she would undergo sterilization after, but they refused," says Huang.

Terrified that officials would force her into a late-term abortion if she complied, Zheng went into hiding. While Huang minded his three daughters at home, his younger brother took on the task of ferrying food and clothing to their father in jail. "Our father quickly grew weak and exhausted," he says. "My brother worried himself sick."

Huang's father had been kept in detention for over a month by the time Zheng safely gave birth to their son, and presented herself for sterilization. "Officials finally released my father. But the day after he came home, my brother, who'd been caring for him nonstop, suffered heart failure and died," says Huang, contorting his face in anguish. Huang believes his 37-year-old brother was killed by the anxiety caused by the ordeal. He is angry at what he calls the "futility" of the hostage campaign. But sadly, he also blames himself: "I had to choose between letting my father suffer and protecting my wife and unborn son. In the end, it was my brother who was the biggest victim of my decision."

Huang's brother was not the only fatality. The pressure on low-ranking family-planning officials to round up relatives was so intense, one official reportedly died of a heart attack after working 20-hour days for two months.

Chen Xianye, 28, a young mother with a smiling, moon-shaped face who runs a stationery store in a busy market area, says the campaign terrorized the entire community. "I saw everything from my shop," says Chen, who has one daughter. "Family-planning officials camped out on every street corner and grabbed anyone who had children with them as they passed by."

However, at least one woman escaped sterilization, thanks to her mother's determination. Says Zhang Xiaoxue, 32, a clothing-store owner with two children, "Officials arrested my 64-year-old mother and said they would keep her in jail until I underwent sterilization. But my mother told me she would rather die than let the government butcher me like an animal." Zhang says she was tormented by her mother's imprisonment, but followed her wishes. "She stayed in prison for three weeks while I hid. She got so thin, they feared she might die, so they eventually released her. They could tell she wasn't going to give in."

Now her mother is bedridden due to rheumatism that flared up in jail. Zhang says she is eternally grateful to her for standing up to the "government kidnappers." She adds, "The irony is, I don't want to have more children. But her sacrifice showed me that I should be allowed to make that choice on my own."

Abigail Haworth is Marie Claire's senior international editor.

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