China's baby boom: Will it take coercion to stop it?

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A young Chinese woman who was carrying her first baby recently had an abortion.

Why? The child was not in the city's plan for this year. Next year she may be able to have her baby.

Was she coerced? Not officially. No government official came to the one-room apartment where she and her husband live to forbid the birth. But superiors and coworkers from her place of work ''persuaded'' her that it would be in the best interests of the country if she delayed having a child for one more year.

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She had, of course, already signed a pledge that in any case she would not have more than one child. This young woman, who is a relative of a friend of mine, is a city-dweller, and in cities the government's one-child-per-family campaign seems to be going well.

Housing is short, nurseries are full, and baby sitters not always easy to find. A young couple I know, having seen the problems an older brother was having with three children, made the drastic decision that they would not have even one child.

''Our own education has been set back 10 years by the Cultural Revolution,'' the husband explained. ''There's so much we want to learn and absorb before we even think of having children. And anyway how can we think of children when our two salaries put together come to less than 100 yuan ($60) per month?''

In the countryside where peasants have space to build their own houses, where increased crop yields and sideline occupations have made many farmers rich, it is a different story. Eighty percent of China's billion people live in villages, and that is where the government has been making the main thrust of its one-child-per-family campaign.

What will the census to be taken July 1 show regarding the success or failure of this campaign?

The census is China's third and its first to be fully computerized. (The United Nations has contributed 21 computers, plus technical assistance, while China has bought eight Wang computers with its own funds.) It will come up with a whole range of elaborate sophisticated information in about two years.

But meanwhile China's annual population estimates, laboriously compiled by abacus, have come up with some disconcerting figures. Last year, the state statistical bureau disclosed, China's population reached 996,220,000 (exclusive of Taiwan) or 1.4 percent higher than the year before. This is the largest annual growth rate since 1975, when the rate was nearly 1.6 percent. If this rate is maintained for the next two decades, China will have 1.3 billion people - 100 million more than the planned target of 1.2 billion in the year 2000.

Rural propaganda in favor of one-child-per-couple must therefore be intensified at a time when many peasants feel the government's economic incentive policies make it profitable for them to have more manpower, and hence more children.

From time to time there are reports of pregnant women being forced to have abortions, sometimes dangerously late in their pregnancies. A comprehensive and generally favorable report entitled ''Population and Birth Planning in the People's Republic of China,'' published by the Population Information Program of Johns Hopkins University, takes note of this possibility, then says, ''The main thrust of the Chinese program is to encourage understanding and voluntary compliance . . .'' (January 1982).

Central authorities are well aware that sooner or later coercion is counterproductive. But local officials who have set themselves targets for planned births may, it is acknowledged, overstep the fine line between ''persuasion'' and coercion. The problem is acute.

A Western diplomat who recently visited a reasonably prosperous commune in Gansu Province was told that 99 percent of commune families had two or more children and that 600 of these families had had their second child after 1979, when the one-child-per-couple campaign began in that region. In comparison with other third-world countries, China's birth control program is considered a great success and an important factor in bringing down the expected growth in world population during the next two decades. (The United Nations now expects world population in the year 2000 to total 6.1 billion, 20 percent less than its original projections.)

In terms of China's own need to raise living standards and reach economic modernization, the population pressure against available resources is so great that what the authorities ultimately hope for is not only zero growth but an actual reduction in population.

With the most sustained effort, China will take the rest of the century to reach zero population growth. Then another century must elapse until population drops to what Chinese demographers see as the optimum figure of 700 million. This is required to solve a problem that, by its very nature, so heavily influences and constrains every other problem China confronts today.

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