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The Elephant in the room, part 1 » Family Planning

The Elephant in the room, part 1

November 6th, 2008 by mjromano Leave a reply »

Now that we have published over 8,000 words in this blog on the topic of human rights and population policy, I think it’s ample time to mention the elephant in the room: China. The absence of China from my previous postings reflects a surprising general dearth of international outrage about reproductive human rights abuses in China. Many people are aware of China’s “one-child policy” and many Americans have a strong opinion on it, but somehow feminist critics and international human rights advocates have failed to create a unified voice in opposition to coercive birth control. What I want to do in the next two blog entries is to introduce some history of population policy in China, and then describe two distinct human rights questions that it raises. Firstly, should reproduction be collectivized in a Marxist state? Secondly, is that collectivization inherently gender-biased? I argue that critiques of gender-bias within the one-child policy are different than critiques of collectivization of reproduction itself.

But before we can talk about the human rights abuses in question, I need to give a little Chinese history to balance my extremely ethnocentric “little history of population theory”. Traditional Chinese society and Western society differ greatly in their conceptions of public and private spheres. The Confucian order of imperial China made no clear distinction between the spheres of family and state, which is to say that an individual’s familial obligations are fundamentally similar to her or his societal obligations. The Mandarin Chinese expression for the word “nation” is “guojia,” which is actually a compound word consisting of “guo,” meaning “state,” and “jia,” meaning “family” or “patriline.” This overlapping of state and family identity contrasts sharply with Western liberalism that persists from 18th century European urbanization and emphasizes the privacy of the family as a female sanctuary (or prison, according to liberal feminists) contrasted with the public polis as a venue for male citizenship. I emphasize this overlapping of society and family so strongly because Western critiques of the Chinese population policy often assume a liberal feminist ideal of the public as an arena for exercising individual rights, which ignores the spatial and temporal provenance of liberalism.

With the foundation of a People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Marxist ideals about collectivization of production and reproduction collided with those traditional Confucian values. Chinese communism includes a strong aversion to arcane “feudal” practices, including gender bias and the exclusion of women from the workforce. The collectivization of women’s reproduction accompanied the collectivization of women’s labor. Introducing Chinese women into the workforce subverted traditional gender hierarchies in many ways, but that came at a cost. A central guiding goal of the Chinese Communist Party is “Lianzhong shengchan yiqi zhua,” that is, “grabbing production and reproduction together.” This goal stems from Frederick Engel’s emphasis on the interdependence of material production and human reproduction, and the idea that the communist state should regulated both production and reproduction. State planning of reproduction has been a central tenet of Communist rule in China since the 1950s. By the 1970s, the national campaign for “later, longer, and fewer” pregnancies reflected a new government priority of limiting population growth.

In 1978, the PRC incorporated state birth planning policy into its new Constitution, laying the groundwork for the one child policy. The first “one child policies” first appeared in Sichuan Province in 1979 and offered a package of financial and social incentives and penalties to limit childbirth to one child per family. Similar policies proliferated throughout the PRC to limit reproduction using a variety of measures. Parents of single children received large cash subsidies, priority in education, employment, and medical care, and plots of land for family production. Violators of the policy were subject to severely limited social benefits (which is particularly devastating in a socialist state), employment insecurity, and fines. Agricultural decollectivization policies in the 1980s pressured parents to bear more children as they transitioned back to more independent farming, so after 1984 couples “in real difficulties” were allowed second children. This provision originally targeted impoverished families, but it later included parents of girls that still desired sons, which revealed the underlying gender-bias of the policy. Other notable exceptions to the one-child policy were ethnic minorities with populations of less than 0.1 million and parents with one disabled child. As I examine the one-child policy from my Western perspective, the affirmative action of birth control in China contrasts with American discourses on affirmative action, which clearly highlights the immense difference between Western and Chinese cultures.

I can critique the one child policy from essentially two different perspectives. Either I can argue that the idea of collectivization of reproduction is fundamentally wrong, despite its historical depth in Chinese culture, or I could accept the Marxist Chinese desire for the collectivization of reproduction and instead argue against the disproportionate affects of the one-child policy on Chinese women and girls. I will discuss this distinction more next week, but hopefully you have an idea of where I am going with this distinction of perspectives.

Hartmann, Betsy. Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control and Contraceptive Choice. HarperCollins Publishers, 1987.

Sen, Amartya. “Population: Delusion and Reality.” New York Review of Books, Vol 41, No. 15, Sept. 1994.

Wong, Yuk-Lin Renita. “Dispersing the ‘Public’ and the ‘Private’: Gender and the State in Birth Planning Policy of China. Gender & Society, Vol. 11 No. 4, August 1997, 509-525.



  1. Maggie Chen says:

    It’s great that you’re turning to China this week, it seems like a good direction to take in your blog discourse. While reading your entry, I couldn’t help but think of my family in China–my grandma was the only one of her 7 siblings to leave the country, so most of my family is still there.
    Yet another issue that is coming up against the one child policy is the increasing urbanization and increasing dichotomy between people living in urban and rural places. My aunt lives in Shanghai, and works for an American corporation. She and her husband worked hard and ’saved up’ so that they could have a second child (they already had a girl, and ended up having a boy). Being able to afford the penalties of having a second child is apparently becoming a status factor. It’s interesting to look at how, for some wealthy urbanites, the one child policy is becoming a barrier to overcome, rather than a policy rooted in communism that is supposed to be the rule for all.

  2. jliebner@stanford.edu says:

    So it seems that Communist China imposed the one-child policy not out of necessity (as in so many people were starving or impoverished) but rather to improve efficiency. In places were there is widespread poverty, do you think the government has a right to try and limit the number of births? Do you think there could be an incentive method that is successful without denying people access to certain services?

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