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Human Rights

China’s One-Child Policy Faces New Challenges

BEIJING, Jun 26 2012 (IPS) - Graphic online photographs of seven month-pregnant Feng Jianmei lying prostrate on a hospital bed next to a bloody foetus have created outrage in China over the brutal enforcement of the controversial one-child-policy. The husband of the woman whose forced late-term abortion caused uproar worldwide has gone missing, according to his family.

Feng’s husband Deng Jicai’s whereabouts are unknown, but his disappearance follows continued harassment by thugs and officials. Banners erected in the couple’s hometown in northern Zengjia county, Shaanxi, call them “traitors” and declare that they must be driven out for publicising the forced abortion online and accepting interviews from foreign media.

“The authorities concerned even threatened to send our relative who works in the government to talk to me and tell me not to make a big public scene (over the forced abortion),” Deng said, talking to IPS last week before he disappeared. “I am speechless.”

Earlier this month Feng was given a stark choice by local officials: pay a 40,000RMB (6,200 dollars) fine or have an abortion on her second pregnancy, then in its seventh term.

When unable to meet the fine, officials dragged Feng to a hospital while her husband was away. There they beat her, blindfolded her, and forced her to sign a “consent” form before administrating a lethal injection into her stomach. On Jun. 4 Feng gave birth to a still-born baby girl.

Feng and Deng originally believed their second child was legal since couples whose first child is a girl in rural areas are routinely allowed to have a second one. But Feng’s hukou (household registration document) was registered in Inner Mongolia, not Shaanxi, rendering the privilege void.

“The family planning department gave us three days to go back to Inner Mongolia to transfer my wife’s hukou,” Deng, 29, told IPS. “As soon as her hukou gets transferred to Zengjia county, we will qualify to have a second child and my baby would have been legal. But everyone knows by train it takes more than a week to go to Inner Mongolia and get back. It was an impossible mission.”

Three family planning officials in Shaanxi have since been suspended.

The couple’s case has caused furore online – and Deng’s disappearance has only fanned the flames. “Shaanxi stop embarrassing yourself!” wrote one user calling named rzsc5151 on the micro-blog site Sina Weibo. “(The) seven month pregnant woman forced abortion incident is escalating. Deng Jiyuan ran away. The local government is looking for him like crazy… Now each member of the family is under watch, is being followed, and cannot return home. In such a small place, such behaviour will drive the family mad.”

Since implementing the one-child policy in the late 1970s, China claims to have prevented over 400 million births. Abortions have become a commonplace way to prevent couples from having more children. In 1983, 14.37 million women had abortions according to the Ministry of Health. In 2008, there were 9.17 million. With over-zealous officials keen to meet government birth quotas, many are involuntary.

Li Pin, project manager of the Beijing-based NGO Gender Watch Women’s Voice, believes Feng’s case has opened unprecedented debate in a country where forced abortions are rarely discussed.

“In the past, forced abortion victims could not find ways to channel (complaints) and come to the public’s attention,” Li tells IPS. “The Internet and discussion on forums provides an opportunity for sensitive issues to be made public. This case is not the only one, it is just one of the many.”

“Deng’s case is not the first one, but it’s the first one that has been discussed openly online,” agrees lawyer Zhang Kai, who offered Deng assistance (which he refused) to sue the county government. “Maybe it’s because the brutal pictures caught people’s eyes.”

Crucially, the incident has raised questions in China over the legitimacy of the one-child policy as a whole. Loopholes and variations within the system are myriad. Ethnic minorities can have more than one child, while the wealthy have an option to pay large fines for the privilege of having a second or third child. “Does China’s new social situation call for a loosened population policy?” the nationalistic newspaper Global Times asked in an editorial.

However, activists who speak out against forced family planning risk severe persecution. The blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng was detained in 2005 after exposing thousands of forced abortions and sterilisations. While Chen now studies in New York University after dramatically fleeing to the U.S. embassy, he and his family suffered years of abuse and stifling house arrest at the hands of local authorities.

For now, Feng remains in hospital as her husband’s whereabouts are unknown. The pain continues. “My five-and-a-half year old daughter asked her mother: ‘Where did the baby in your tummy go?’” Deng said last week. “My wife said: ‘God took it away’.”

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