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Congress's Quixotic Stance On China, Family Planning

By Werner Fornos. Werner Fornos is president of the Population Institutea Washington-based nonprofit organization. / December 4, 1995



FOR the first time in its history, the Great Wall of China has been lighted. It's about time the lights were turned on in the United States Congress, where it is annually debated whether American dollars should go to a United Nations agency so long as it continues to support voluntary family-planning programs in China.

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Those who would withhold US money from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) say the organization should not support the Chinese program, claiming the country's one-child family policy leads to coercive abortion and forced sterilizations.

Current law, in fact, prevents American money for UNFPA from being used in China. But cutting off funds, rather than penalizing China, actually punishes women in 140 other poor nations the agency supports by denying them access to family planning. Detractors contend, however, that even if the US contribution was used only in these 140 countries it would free up other UNFPA dollars to be used in China.

The 104th Congress has been playing legislative ping-pong with the issue since last May. First the House of Representatives voted to cease funding UNFPA. Then the Senate refused to concur and the matter went to a Senate-House conference committee. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, a member of that committee, noted that the conferees deliberated on 192 items in the foreign assistance bill and resolved 191 of them; but neither side budged on the UNFPA issue.

Following that impasse, the House voted again in November, as it had in May, to cease all funding of the UN agency. And again it was rejected by the Senate.

Meanwhile, despite a spectacular economic surge, China is speeding with bad brakes toward the consumption cliff, and it is taking the world along for the ride. As its 1.2 billion people begin to consume at Western levels, an unprecedented strain on world resources is inevitable.

China has 22 percent of the world's population and a mere 7 percent of its arable land. But with its population expected to grow by 16 million this year and to continue to rise at a rate of more than 12 million per year over the next four decades, even that small amount of cropland is increasingly being converted to other uses.

Furthermore, greater affluence has led to Chinese consuming more meat and poultry products than ever before, creating a need for even more grain to raise cattle and chickens. Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, calculates that if China is to reach its goal of 200 eggs consumed per person per year (Americans average 235), it will require 1.3 billion hens. That many hens would consume in one year an amount of grain equal to the total annual export of Canada, the world's second largest grain exporter.

If China can no longer depend on its own agricultural base to feed itself, it will have to turn elsewhere.

When Japan's economy began to soar and its agricultural base diminished, it turned to the seas for food. But 17 major ocean fisheries already have been exploited at or beyond sustainability. According to Mr. Brown, if the world's most populous country begins to consume seafood at the rate Japan does, it would eat the entire world catch by itself.

Allegations of coercive abortions in China cannot be taken lightly. But is it rational to punish a country that would resort to such extremes, in an effort to slow population growth, by denying it modern family-planning services? It is these very services - not abortion, coercive or voluntary - that UNFPA supports in China.

Over the dozen years that the China-UNFPA debate has been waged in Congress, no one has provided a thread of evidence that links a single penny from UNFPA to the financing of a single coercive abortion or sterilization in China.

Meanwhile, time is running out. If we are already doubtful about the world's ability to feed China, the myth of a bottomless cornucopia is about to explode. Once it is truly shattered - as other populous countries develop and crowd the rungs of the consumption ladder - it may be too late for family-planning programs to provide part of the solution to global hunger.