Australia's Unjust Legislation on Chinese Refugees

Author: Rita M. Joseph


Rita M. Joseph (Internet address ) Canberra, Australia

27 March 1995

It will be interesting to see what the Australian Government makes of Amnesty International's latest revelations concerning Catholics in Northern China being subjected to arbitrary detention and torture for breaching China's one-child policy. Can Australia's Immigration Minister, Senator Bolkus, go on believing that China's one-child policy is being implemented without coercion? Was he misleading Australians or was he himself misled when he gave assurances recently that the one- child policy is being enforced only "by means of financial sanctions, education, and propaganda"?

There was another glaring error in Senator Bolkus's stance. China's one-child policy, he said, is of general application and therefore is not inherently persecutory.

History has shown definitively that totalitarian governments are all too capable of applying persecutory policies to whole populations, e.g. Pol Pot's savage ruralization programs. Apartheid is another infamous example of persecution applied on a grand scale to a majority.

Senator Bolkus must ditch his comfortable illusion that persecution can apply only to minorities.

No amount of clever word play can obfuscate the basic truth that there is no honorably defensible distinction between serious violations of human rights and persecution. Piffling semantics are no substitute for real live justice on human rights. Every serious violation of human rights constitutes a persecution of individuals singled out from the rest of humanity for inhumane treatment.

Experience of persecution is always essentially personal and individual. The persecuted may suffer in solitude or along with millions, but the pain is always excruciatingly intimate to the person. Pain is irrelevant to the numerical size of any group to which one may or may not belong. There is no group persecution existing prior to or independently of the lives, ideals, fears and hopes of individual persons. A particular person, for whatever reason, is selected for persecution precisely when singled out for exclusion from the rights and the dignities that belong inherently and inalienably to the entire membership, past present and future, of the most significant group of all, the human race.

There can be no valid ethical distinction between persecution en masse and persecution of more manageable minorities. With the escalation of numbers subject to persecution, Australia's obligation to do something about it should, in all conscience, increase not decrease.

Fundamental obligations of decency dictate not only that we must accept, at least temporarily, all refugees fleeing persecution, but also that we must join in the international condemnation of any government's policies that give rise to waves of refugees. Logically, with revelation of the staggering numbers of victims of China's one-child policy, the volume and stringency of that condemnation should intensify rather than falter into a whimper of cowardly complicity.

The Australian Government places excessively pedantic weight on the UN Refugee Convention requirement that refugees must have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of "membership of a particular social group". The particular social group here, fertile Chinese couples fearing forced abortion and sterilization, is a very large one. But it is nonetheless both smaller than and distinctively separate from the whole human membership which enjoys by virtue of that membership the basic human right to procreate.

The basic human right of every couple to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children was reasserted by all countries, including China, at the Cairo Conference on Population and Development.

Despite this, the Chinese government has usurped from its nationals the natural autonomy enjoyed by the rest of the human species over procreation. The power of procreation has been given to mothers and fathers, and in the natural order of things, should remain with them. The regulation of births is not the rightful domain of any government.

Chinese couples are being subjected to appalling persecution because they are Chinese. No other race in the world is being systemically persecuted according to the number of pregnancies incurred. The justification for persecution is the perception that there are too many Chinese. That both the Chinese and Australian governments concur in this sweeping judgment does not lessen the racism rife in this attitude. If the savageries of a one-child policy were to be exercised on Britons, would the Australian government's response be different? Yet Britain is one of more than thirty countries with greater population density per square kilometre of agricultural land than China.

It is unfortunate that Senator Bolkus is trapped in anachronistic Malthusianism. His Departmental minders need to update his reading on population growth, to encompass the growing body of internationally respected research and scholarship that has brought rapid progress towards a more profound, multi-faceted understanding of population issues.

Crucial to this understanding is the recognition by a number of excellently credentialled demographers that the global demographic transition is far more likely to be hastened by development than by coercive population control policies. World fertility and birthrates have been declining since 1955. China's growth rate, in decline sine the 1960s, is now below replacement level. This year there will be fewer babies born on every continent other than Africa. The 1994 UN World Population Prospects low variant projection sees total world population declining less than fifty years from now.

Governments must be made to understand the temporary nature of population growth. Bolkus's Immigration Department needs to develop a far more critical attitude towards glib "over- population" excuses for the systemic coercion operating in the one-child policy. It should reject Bolkus's simplistic neo- Malthusian vision of China's future population as an endless series of geometrical progressions that will overflow onto an armada of Chinese boats threatening Australian shores.

In the meantime, the Keating government needs to grapple with the immensity of human rights abuse in China. All the following are well documented to be both routine and widespread:

* Forced full-term abortions: mothers arriving in labour at the hospital are asked for their child-bearing licences. Babies being delivered without a licence are given "the poison shot". A hypodermic syringe filled with iodine or formaldehyde is injected through a 5cm needle directly into the soft part of the baby's head as it crowns. The baby can take up to 48 hours to die.

* Maternal mortality rates have been rising in China since the 1980s as a direct result of the proscription of illegal children under the one-child policy. The psychological and physical consequences on maternal health have been calamitous.

* Every woman of child-bearing age, even if infertile, is subject to offensively intrusive monitoring of her menstrual cycle with mandatory three-monthly pelvic examinations to make sure that an unauthorized baby is not on the way.

* Detection of unauthorized pregnancies, even if it is a first pregnancy, means compulsory abortion. Mothers who express reluctance are subjected first to "study sessions", then to harassment; fathers who won't persuade mothers to abort are beaten and imprisoned, and extended family members are harassed, threatened, and fined daily for the mother's recalcitrance until the mother's "consent" is successfully forced. Higher authorities use the Nazi tactic of punishing the whole village or the whole factory for the escape of even one mother with an unlicensed baby.

A disturbing account of the atrocities listed above was furnished by Stephen Mosher to the Senate Inquiry on Bolkus's new refugee laws. It was as a Stanford anthropologist working in a Chinese rural commune in 1980 that Stephen Mosher first alerted the world to the vicious nature of the one-child policy.

Confronted with 15 years of painstaking accumulation of evidence, it is unconscionable that any government could continue to deny or to deliberately trivialize the appalling suffering of Chinese couples under their government's one-child policy.

The Keating government insists that the new Migration Legislation Amendment Bill No 4 will send a stern message to the Chinese victims of the one-child policy that it is useless to even attempt to seek refugee status in Australia. It is however the cruellest of ironies that the real message being sent by this legislation is a loud clear message to the totalitarian rulers of those victims that Australia endorses their infamous policy.

Strong unequivocal condemnation of Chinese policy is urgently needed. This is not the time for Australians to shilly-shally in morally bankrupt diplomacies of appeasement. China, awaiting the imminent death of Deng Xiaoping, teeters on the brink of anarchy and upheaval the ferocity of which promises to shake our world. Its million-strong army, riddled with corruption and profiteering, has been re-equipped with some $70 billion worth of sophisticated Russian weaponry, and has developed a nuclear capability. Already Chinese expansionism has made a bold clear thrust into the South China Sea, seizing the Spratley Islands from Vietnam, and more recently, some island territory from the Philippines.

In view of this, it is ludicrous for the Australian Government to be ramming through this ill-conceived defensive legislation against some 900 Chinese boat people. The far more disturbing potential threat lies in the Chinese acquisition of modern submarines newly purchased from Russia, not a few old wooden boats carrying Chinese refugees seeking sanctuary from heinous government brutality.