Late last week Chinese family planning officials made headlines by indicating that Beijing might consider relaxing its thirty-year-old mandatory one-child policy. On Thursday, Zhao Baige, vice minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, stated that, ''We want incrementally to have this change…I cannot answer at what time or how, but this has become a big issue among decision makers.'' China's policy limits family size to one child, with certain limited exceptions – for farmers whose first children are girls, or for minorities. While the policy is less severely enforced now than it once was – now, officials mostly rely on fines to punish offenders – stories of forced abortions do surface (NPR did a particularly powerful report on forced abortions in Guangxi Province in April 2007).
Then on Monday, Wu Jianmin, spokesman for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, hailed the one-child policy as a success, saying it was the "only choice we had given the conditions when we initiated the policy." But now, he acknowledged, "when designing a policy we need to take into consideration the reality…So as things develop, there might be some changes to the policy and relevant departments are considering this." According to the Associated Press, Wu did not issue a timeline for any changes.
China's family planning policies are notable not only for being baldly coercive but also for being the excuse the Bush administration offers for defunding the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The U.S. is the only country that has ever refused funding to UNFPA for non-budgetary reasons, and the Bush administration has claimed — based on the scantest shreds of evidence, all of which were later disproved — that UNFPA is complicit with China's one-child policy.
The real story? As Cristina Page thoroughly and convincingly documents in How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, UNFPA became a critical agency in providing family planning services to women — giving women the ability to determine the number and spacing of their children — after the Cairo Conference on Population and Development. In Cairo, attending countries agreed to shift their focus from meeting certain demographic targets to providing the resources to plan families to women and couples. As Page writes, "This was a fundamental change, and it seemed to be written with one nation in mind: China." Since the Cairo conference, UNFPA officials worked with Beijing to demonstrate that voluntary birth control was a more effective approach to family planning than forced abortion and coercive sterilization. UNFPA's work was widely considered promising and even hailed by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, from within the Bush administration.
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But for its pains, UNFPA was rewarded with a series of investigations – first by international humanitarian workers tapped by UNFPA, then by the State Department, then by British officials – all because an employee of the anti-contraception group Population Research International claimed to uncover "evidence" on a trip to China that UNFPA was complicit in China's one-child policy. The result? Aside from PRI's one-person investigation, none of the teams discovered any evidence that UNFPA worked in concert with China's one-child policy. Nonetheless, President Bush has withheld the U.S.'s $34 million debt to UNFPA every year since his second in office.
Is China's tentative move to a less restrictive policy grounded in the understanding forged in Cairo that women must be the authors of their own reproductive lives? Or is it simply a response to the fact that, as the Guardian Unlimited noted, China's birth rate has dropped below the replacement rate of 2.1 (down from 5.8 before the policy was adopted)? Vice-minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission Zhao said that "In the 70s it was always the same language: 'One child is best.' Now it is about giving information on contraception." Will information, paired with UNFPA's advocacy and rights-centered perspective, be enough to bring real choices to Chinese women and couples? If the US re-funds UNFPA, we could be much closer to finding out.