CHANG BAOMING should be one of the happiest men in his village. He and his wife have two lovely children - an eleven-year-old daughter, a nine-year-old son. Chang earns forty dollars a month as a construction foreman - a reasonable wage in China. His wife, a traveling salesperson for a local garment factory, makes a bit more on commission. His mother is vigorous enough to look after the family vegetable plot and to be around when the children come home from school. But when Chang talks to a visiting reporter about his family, his eyes are downcast and he seems ill at ease. To have two children breaks China's strict rule forbidding more than one child per couple. The rule, adopted eleven years ago, seems draconian. Village authorities of Nandian, a hamlet of 600 about an hour's drive north of Beijing, insist that they use only moral suasion to ensure compliance. In Chang's case, this may be true. Mrs. Wang Guirong, the village's family planning counselor, says she spent many days trying to persuade the Changs to abort their second child. ``The couple themselves were not the problem,'' she said. ``It was their mother. She wasn't satisfied just to have a granddaughter. She still had this old-fashioned notion that a son is better than a daughter. I just couldn't persuade her otherwise.''
Visitors to other villages sometimes tell of forced abortions late in pregnancy, or of infanticide when a baby turns out to be a girl. Indeed, China's family planning program is highly controversial. On one hand, it is given credit for curbing China's galloping population figures, bringing the annual growth rate down from more than 2 percent in the 1970s to 1.4 percent in the late 1980s. On the other hand, it takes an enormous bureaucracy to administer the program, and a degree of intrusion into private lives intolerable by Western standards.
``But what is our choice?'' asks Mrs. Peng Peiyun, China's Family Planning Minister. A mother of four, each of whom has the exemplary single child, she listened attentively to a case this newspaper's Beijing correspondent had encountered - a mother forced to abort in the fifth month of her pregnancy, even though she was bearing her first child, because that particular birth was not ``in the plan.'' Mrs. Peng admitted that bureaucratic over-zealousness and lack of feeling were problems.
But in many rural areas two, three or more children per family are still quite common. Free market reforms have made many far families prosperous. And without a nationwide social security system, people continue to count on their children to support them in their old age. So, despite the penalties, they continued to have more than one child. The Changs' penalty - which seems relatively mild - was loss of the medical and educational subsidies one-child families get. In addition they must pay 10 percent of their monthly wages to the village. The family has not been ostracized by their neighbors, nor are the Chang children discriminated against by their schoolmates or teachers.
Meanwhile, population growth placed pressure on the land. Forty years ago, China had 2.7 mu (about half an acre) of farmland per person. Today, according to Mrs. Peng, the country has less than half that amount. Last year, despite a record harvest, people had less to eat per capita than they did five years earlier. Which was more inhuman, Mrs. Peng asks, to insist on one child per family or to allow a growth in population that lets people die of hunger?
It is not a question that's easy to answer. Family planning officials admit their distress that more than 10 million abortions take place each year. They say abortion is not their preferred method of birth control. But clearly China cannot enjoy the modest rise in living standards its people desire without keeping the closest watch on its population growth. Just as clearly, an explosion on the scale of Africa or Latin America is in the interest of neither China nor the world.