IN an effort to improve the image of its population program abroad, China plans to crack down on officials who use coercion to enforce birth control, according to a Western diplomat. The government plans to formally investigate and publicly punish officials involved in family-planning abuses such as forced abortion and infanticide, the diplomat says. Punishments could range from expulsion from the Communist Party and government posts to jail sentences, he says.
China's assurances that it will take sterner, public action against reported labuses came during meetings between Chinese family-planning officials and Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) last week, the diplomat says.
``Chinese officials are investigating cases of abuses and planning [to establish] an administrative mechanism to punish those involved,'' the diplomat says. He says some past cases of abuses reported in the Chinese press have been publicly ``ignored'' by the government.
Beijing has strongly denied past allegations that its population-control policy includes compulsory abortion or sterilization, describing such coercive measures as isolated acts by local officials violating state regulations.
Reports of forced abortions in China led the United States in 1985 to limit and then halt its sizeable funding for the UNFPA, which runs a multimillion dollar aid program in China. UNFPA officials say they carefully monitor the organization's aid to China to ensure that none goes to fund abortions.
The UNFPA recently formulated a new, $57-million aid program for China for the period 1990-94, which will be presented for approval by the US and other nations at a meeting of the UNFPA governing council in June. Aided by the UNFPA, China is increasing its contraceptive production, maternal- and child-health programs in poor areas, and research in family planning and demographics.
``The Chinese need to counter their negative image,'' said Ms. Sadik during a visit to Beijing last week. She said she is hopeful that Washington will resume funding of the UNFPA. ``There is a new opportunity, a new administration,'' she said, adding that President Bush had been supportive of UNFPA efforts in the past.
However, she cited the example of China's recent decision to impose compulsory sterilizations or abortions on thousands of severely retarded people in some regions as ``things the Chinese should not do'' if they hope to win broader support overseas.
Beijing's effort to improve the image of its ``one couple, one child'' birth-control policy comes amid rising concerns of Chinese leaders over a 1 billion-plus population that threatens to burgeon out of control.
China's population, which is expected to top the 1.1 billion mark by April, has been expanding at a far faster pace than officials had planned.
Late last year, Chinese Family-Planning Minister Peng Peiyun announced that the long-term goal of holding the population to 1.2 billion at the year 2000 was unrealistic. She said that 1.27 billion might be a plausible target.
But this month brought even higher projections. In a front-page article entitled ``Population Explosion Closing in,'' the official Economic Daily reported that, by conservative estimates, the population will surpass 1.32 billion by the end of the century, meaning a staggering 120 million more Chinese than planned for.
``There's no way the population is going to stabilize at 1.2 Billion in the year 2000. Maybe 1.3 billion to 1.5 billion,'' Sadik said.
The economic, biological, and social consequences for China of more rapid population growth are potentially disasterous.
For example, China now feeds 20 percent of the globe's population with only 2 percent of total farmland. But each year, as China's encroaching population grows by about 15 million people, its arable land shrinks 5 percent, Economic Daily said.
Put more broadly, each year China's new population consumes 20 percent of the increase in gross national product, half the added output of meat and foodstuffs, and 40 percent of newly built housing, the paper said.
``If our population increase greatly surpasses the target ... modernization will be out of reach,'' it warned.
Several factors have added to the urgency and difficulty of China's current population control effort:
China is entering the third baby boom of its communist history as the older members of a generation of 360 million baby boomers born from 1962 to 1975 enter peak reproductive years. Officials expect the baby boom to last until the turn of the century.
Greater social mobility arising from market-driven economic reforms has hindered official monitoring of pregnancy and birth. China's transient population, negligible during Maoist times, has mushroomed to 50 million as a vast surplus farming population quits the land. Labeled ``birth guerrillas,'' the transients shift from place to place evading population controls and producing millions of ``black children,'' unregistered offspring who are ineligible for schooling, subsidies and food rations.
Looser social restraints have also led to a rise in teenage pregnancy and marriage before the legal age of 20 for women and 22 for men. According to official statistics, last year about 2.5 million teenagers became pregnant.
Greater economic opportunity for Chinese families has given couples an incentive to bear more children, while rising prosperity has allowed them to pay state fines imposed on extra offspring. Three and more children are common in rural families, where farmers follow the popular adage: ``More sons, more wealth.'
``Some rich farmers are willing to pay the price, no matter how high, to have more children,'' says Gu Hailu, a family-planning official.
Beijing admits its birth-control policy is unpopular, revealing recently that only 11 percent of rural couples and 36 percent in cities had volunteered to have just one child.
``It is not a normal psychology to have only one child in a family, because parents are always worried in case their child should have an accident,'' Zhou Boping, vice-chariman of the China Family-Planning Association, told the official China Daily.