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The human suffering caused by China’s one-child policy

October 29, 2015 at 12:37 p.m. EDT

A woman with an infant strolls visits a morning market in Beijing in March 2012. (Andy Wong/AP)

After 35 years, China has announced that it will abandon its "one-child policy." The decision appears to have been driven by concerns that the country's low fertility rate would create a crisis that eventually could threaten the legitimacy of Communist Party rule. Behind that big picture, however, are millions of smaller pictures: the individual lives touched by the one-child policy and the human suffering it caused.

Although they were not endorsed by the government, forced abortions and compulsory sterilization had been a part of China's one-child policy since the 1980s. Growing anger about the practices led Beijing to push for less coercive measures in the 1990s, including family planning methods. However, though the national government may have prohibited these practices, local and provincial officials implementing the policy frequently did not pay heed, because helping to keep the birthrate low was often a path to a promotion.

In 2005, farmers in the city of Linyi told The Washington Post that local authorities raided the homes of families with two children and demanded that at least one parent be sterilized. Pregnant women who already had two children were rounded up for abortions. If people tried to hide, their relatives were jailed.

"My aunts, uncles, cousins, my pregnant younger sister, my in-laws, they were all taken to the family planning office," one woman who was pregnant at the time said. "Many of them didn't get food or water, and all of them were severely beaten." This woman eventually had her fetus aborted. She was subsequently sterilized, too.

Such operations were often carried out by staff members with little or no medical training, leading to various side effects.

Cases of forced abortions were reported as recently as 2012. That year, a pregnant woman was dragged to a hospital by authorities in Shaanxi province and forced to have an abortion because she could not pay the $6,300 fine imposed for having a second child. After photos of the mother — who was seven months pregnant — on a hospital bed holding the corpse of her daughter were posted on social media, outrage spread across the country.

Initially, local authorities said the woman's abortion had been carried out "according to the law." An investigation later deemed that the late-term abortion was a "serious violation" of national policies. The woman's husband was eventually given about $785 as compensation.

Those who sought to draw attention to these practices risked the wrath of local authorities. Perhaps the most famous is Chen Guangcheng, a blind "barefoot lawyer" who filed a class-action suit against authorities in Linyi for their use of forced abortions and sterilizations in the implementation of the one-child policy. Chen was later jailed for four years in what was widely seen as a punishment for his legal action. Even after his release, he and his family were placed under house arrest and faced repeated violence.

Chen escaped his house arrest in 2012 and sought shelter at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He currently lives in the United States, though he has repeatedly complained that his family continues to be persecuted.

The one-child policy had a profound effect on the lives of ordinary Chinese. Notably, in a country where sons had long been favored in rural communities, a problem of female infanticide swiftly developed after the policy was implemented. One report suggested that at least 1 million babies were killed in the first 10 years of the policy, most of them girls. "I loved my daughter," one farmer who killed his child told The Post's Michael Weisskopf in a groundbreaking 1985 article that addressed the problem. "But sooner or later she would get married and leave me for a husband. I would have supported her for 20 years for nothing."

Later, despite government opposition, parents would use sex-selective technologies to ensure they had a male child. One widely cited statistic suggests that up to 95 percent of the children in Chinese orphanages are female.

This has had a remarkable effect on Chinese society. According to the latest census, men outnumber women by at least 33 million. Even recent birth sex ratios remain skewed, with 115.88 male babies projected for every 100 female babies in 2014 — one of the highest ratios in the world. Single men, unable to find a wife, are dubbed guanggun, or “bare branches.” The problem is likely to get worse: It has been estimated that there will be a surplus of 40 million to 50 million bachelors in China throughout the mid- to late 21st century. That figure leads experts to worry about the future stability of the country — polyandry has even been mooted as a potential solution to the problem.

And whatever their sex, most children born in China since the one-child rule went into effect in 1979 have lived a life without siblings. As their parents get older, the strain of being an only child has become clearer — in China, the generation of single grandchildren born of two parents and four grandparents has been dubbed the "4-2-1 phenomenon." These children were once criticized as pampered brats, but the financial strain on them as their family grows older is a whole different problem. For the parents, who place all their hopes for the future on a single child, the death of that child can be especially devastating. A 2009 study by the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated that more than 1 million parents in China have lost their only child.

“Who will take care of his tomb after we are gone?" one parent whose son died in a car accident told The Post a few years ago. "Who will take care of ours?”

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