Bad Becomes Worse

Author: P. H. Mullen


A new eugenics law and reinvigorated population-control program combine to spell disaster for Chinese Catholics

by P. H. Mullen

In communist China, where independent religious belief has been banned-often violently-for more than 45 years, it is hard enough being Roman Catholic. Woe to Vatican loyalists who defy the Communist Party's one-birth policy, and bring into the world a second or third child.

Consider the remote Roman Catholic enclaves of Feng Jia Zhuang and Long Tian Gou, where enforcement of China's family-planning programs is a brutal combination of religious repression and political coercion. Since March 1994, authorities have laid siege to these two tiny villages, located in the Hebei Province 180 miles southwest of Beijing, in a sustained attempt to force the 2,000 inhabitants to follow China's official birth- control policy. In this area of the country Roman Catholicism is at its strongest, and it is not unusual for couples-especially farmers-to have three to five children.

Using their chilling slogan, "It is better to have more graves than more than one child," local authorities repeatedly raid Catholic homes, confiscate the families' property, and indiscriminately beat those unable to escape into surrounding fields. Forced abortions have been performed on women in their last weeks of pregnancy, and several women who were not pregnant have been sterilized against their will. Following national law to an extreme, the provincial authorities levy against couples with more than one child outrageous fines that far exceed the average farmer's annual income, then beat those unable to pay.

In one case, a villager had his legs so badly broken by police that he nearly died, and when three family members inquired about his condition, they were arrested, abused, and fined the equivalent of several months' pay. Another man reportedly tried unsuccessfully to sell his two children on Beijing's black market, in a desperate effort to free his abused wife from jail.

The methods of torture reportedly in use include hanging men and women upside down, squeezing them under a chair, exposing them to extreme weather conditions for extended periods, and burning their tongues with electric batons to prevent them from invoking God's help. In the last year, a popular tribunal has been set up to try those accused of violating the birth policy, and a prison built to hold the guilty. Exact numbers of those detained by police are unavailable but reportedly all of the people who have been arrested have been physically injured in the process.

China's government insists its family-planning program, which has now been in force for 16 years, relies on education and suggestion. But in rural areas like Hebei, where poor farming couples often have large families to assist with the work and to provide old-age security, authorities have autonomy to do whatever might be necessary to lower the birth rate.

In Beijing, officials who run the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association, the organization that in direct defiance to the Vatican claims to represent Catholic interests in China, have consistently refused to comment on the villagers' plight. Thus far, their only word on the siege has been a single callous pronouncement: "Catholics should follow the policies of the government."

A turn for the worse

Bad as it already is, the population program in China is about to get worse. In October 1994 the government adopted "The Law of the People's Republic of China on Maternal and Infant Health Care," an Orwellian decree that says unborn children will be aborted when a "serious hereditary disease," as defined by the state, exists. The law, which goes into effect in June 1995, also allows the government to force newly married couples to be sterilized or to take long-lasting contraceptives if one or both is "diagnosed to have a serious hereditary disease, which is medically unsuitable for reproduction." The same rule applies to "legal contagious diseases," and "relevant mental disorders."

The law, which has been described by China's state-operated press as a formal eugenics practice, covers all diseases or illnesses causing "total or partial loss of the ability to live independently." For example, couples discovered to have a genetic predisposition toward conditions like diabetes, mild retardation, or even rheumatoid arthritis, which typically manifests itself only after a person's third decade, could be forced by the government's medical establishment to abort their child.

On the same day in mid-February when China's population officially reached 1.2 billion-five years earlier than originally estimated-the government announced that its one-birth policy was not matching Party expectations.

China's annual population growth rate fell from 2.8 percent in 1965 to 1.1 percent in 1994, but an annual "surplus" of 13 million births had Party officials vowing to redouble their efforts. They announced a new goal: to cut the growth rate to 1 percent and to cap the population at 1.3 billion until the year 2000. In the long term, officials hope to reach zero population growth by the year 2040.

Officials hope to encourage lower birth rates by promising impoverished couples "special treatment in supplying fine seeds, information, technical training, and funds so as to raise their incomes to a level higher than the local average," according to the official New China News Agency. At the same time, local family-planning directors and police agents who successfully lower their regional birth rate are to be recognized for their achievements. As the Maternal and Infant Health Care Law states, "Organizations and individuals with outstanding performance in the work of maternal and infant health care...should be rewarded." The results of offering such incentives can already be seen in the siege of Fen Jia Zhuang and Long Elan Gou. According to information smuggled out through Hong Kong by an Italian missionary order, the longer authorities persecute the villagers, the more financial rewards the local bosses receive from their superiors.

The government officially discourages efforts to identify the sex of an unborn child by ultrasound examination, but the new law provides a gaping loophole, allowing the procedure when "it is necessary on medical grounds." By 1990 there were more than 100,000 ultrasound machines in China, and even rural farmers with no schooling know a device exists which can determine the sex of the fetus. The spread of this knowledge has corresponded with the appearance of a disproportionate birth ratio: at least 114 boys are born in China for every 100 girls. (Typically, the world's natural birth ratio is 105:100.) The disparity suggests that females, who have traditionally been considered less valuable than males, are aborted so that a couple does not "waste" its one-birth allowance.

Similarly, the government claims to discourage forced sterilization and abortions, but concedes unauthorized procedures may occur at the hands of local officials, who have been given jurisdiction to use their discretion when enforcing population policy. Beijing contends that instances of forced procedures are rare, but several reports suggest otherwise. For instance, the documents instances of women being taken from bed late at night and brought to 24-hour sterilization clinics, newborns being killed while still partly in the womb, and IUDs being inserted without a woman's knowledge immediately after she gives birth. Rather than holding accountable the local officials who violate women's rights, the government promotes them.

The Patriotic Association offers no respite from the government's relentless birth policies. When Catholic belief in the sanctity of life collides with the government's aggressive push for a reduced birth rate, there is no debate. Government policy wins, hands down.

Increased harassment

Roman Catholics in China suffer intensely from multiple forms of repression, and the government's stepped-up campaign will only make matters worse for both clergy and laity. The government has stated its first targets will be rural farming areas, which include the resistant pockets where most Roman Catholics and other Christian minorities live. The Puebla Institute has documented the cases of 170 Chinese Christian clergy and lay leaders, including 21 Roman Catholic bishops, who are currently imprisoned, detained, or under constant harassment and surveillance. Among them is Father Joseph Jin Dechen, vicar general of the Nanyang diocese in Henan Province. The ailing 71-year-old priest was arrested in 1981 and subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was paroled in 1992, but since the day of his release he has been confined to his home village. His associations are severely restricted and his moves are closely monitored. Father Jin's one and only crime? He believed abortion wrong, and refused to tell Roman Catholics otherwise.

There is one final, cruel twist. In September, just three months after the new birth- control law goes into effect, Beijing will host the UN World Conference on Women-the most significant UN gathering since last year's Cairo population conference. The irony surrounding this much-anticipated event is enormous. At the same time that thousands of international human-rights advocates are declaiming on the rights of women, China's own female population will be under attack from the birth-control police and the surgeons' knives. Conference delegates, committed to improving the status of women worldwide, would do well to start with China.

P.H. Mullen is a Washington, DC correspondent for the National Catholic Register.

This article appeared in the April 1995 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061. Published monthly except bimonthly August/September at $39.95 per year.