Chinese To Ease Strict Family-Planning Policy

Officials seek alternatives to harsh enforcement of the one-child system, which has had mixed results and brought international criticism

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

XIN SHI'S desire for a grandson cost him the precious family sewing machine.

When Mr. Xin's daughter-in-law got pregnant shortly after bearing a daughter, the local village chief confiscated the sewing machine as a penalty for bucking China's one-child policy.

Xin was told he could redeem the machine, which provides a crucial income supplement, for an exorbitant $25 payment to the village leadership. But lacking the money, the farmer says his family will just have to do without.

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"We will be very happy if they have a boy," he says, breaking into a wide smile. "We would rather pay the price than not have another child."

As China's population spirals higher each year, family-planning officials in Beijing say they are ready to change tacks and ease the country away from its controversial one-child policy.

A dramatic about-face is complicated by continued resistance in Beijing and particularly among provincial and local officials, whose coercive tactics cloud China's family-planning effort, professionals and government officials admit.

Such strong-arm practices have not only hurt China's international reputation, they also have not worked in the countryside where the population is exploding, state statistics show.

While the one-child policy has had an impact in cities, many rural families still bear penalties, pay bribes, and circumvent the rules in order to have two to three children.

China will pay the price for that in the years to come, observers say. The country's family-planning program, bolstered by strong educational propaganda, has brought down its total fertility rate from 6.4 in 1965 to only 2.5 in 1990. The fertility rate is the number of children an average woman will bear in her lifetime.

The program will face a renewed challenge when the number of fertile women rises from 300 million in 1993 to 350 million by the turn of the century, according to figures from the State Family Planning Commission in Beijing.

As a result China is projected to have more than 23 million newborns annually for at least the next 10 years and confront a population of 1.6 billion people by the middle of the next century.

Family-planning officials in Beijing say recognition is growing that it is time for a new, "more flexible" approach. Yet officials walk a fine line.

"We can't say that we want to change the policy because then farmers would think we had loosened up and have more children," said Huang Baoshan, a US-educated doctor and an official with the Family Planning Commission, in a Monitor interview.

"However, we are trying to change our working style," he added. "Sometimes our work has not been up to international standards. We don't encourage our workers to use coercion. We have to follow international standards."

Western observers question how ready Beijing is to ease the one-child restriction. Rigid family-planning regulations remain a key control mechanism for a Communist government wrestling with repercussions of greater economic freedom and growing regional autonomy.

"Restrictions on people's movements and power over how many kids they can have are part of the rigid social controls of this government," says a Western economist in Beijing.

Yet with family planning already decentralized, some provinces such as Guangdong and Yunnan are shaping their own birth-control policies.

Others follow national policy more closely but suffer from poorly trained health care workers and overzealous local officials. "In some areas, leaders of local governments are too anxious to reach their target and use too simple or harsh a way," said Dr. Huang. "The population problem in China is quite serious, but we have to use the proper way."

Hebei, Hunan, and Henan provinces are regarded as among the worst. In one Hebei community, chieftain Ma Yuhua says birth-control vigilance, particularly in the last few years, has reduced the birth rate by 15 percent. "A few years back, the villagers didn't have a good understanding of family planning. But since 1982, birth control has been enhanced and the party in rural areas has encouraged only one child per family and has wiped out the birth of the third child," he adds.

Villagers tell a different story. They say that it is often possible to bribe officials to "buy" a birth certificate for a second or even third child. One woman estimated that among the 40 families in her farming production unit, at least half had paid penalties up to $400 to have additional children.

"If a family has one child and the woman become pregnant again, the leadership comes and tries to mobilize the woman to have an abortion," says villager Hu Yingxia.

One motivation for rural families to have more than one child is the age-old compulsion to have a male to perpetuate the family line and support elderly parents. Abortions after sex determination, neglect, and even infanticide are still prevalent in China, Western observers say. Among Chinese newborns, almost 60 percent are boys, the government reports.

Beijing family planning officials say they hope economic development will ease China's population boom. With Japanese government funding, a model project is being set up near Suzhou in southern Jiangsu Province to showcase birth control efforts for the benefit of other provinces.

The area was chosen because the growth of rural enterprises and economic development has increased the status of women, lowered child mortality and birth rates, and as a result reduced the need to have more children.

"We can be more flexible [with policies] there because the fertility desire has changed and women don't want to have as many children," says Huang, the family-planning official.

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