Peking softens line on the 'one baby' rule

Teresa Poole in Peking sees change in China's tough population control
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IN A DEPARTURE from its controversial approach to family planning, China has launched a pilot rural population project which will drop the coercive system of fixing quotas for the number of babies born. Instead, family planning officials will try the gentler methods of education and persuasion as a means of encouraging voluntary contraceptive use and restricting the birth rate. The pilot programme is backed by $14m (pounds 8.5m) from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the first time for three years that the UN body has financed a project in China.

The potentially significant change in approach will be tried in 32 counties in 22 provinces, covering about 20 million people out of the country's 1.22 billion total. Both Peking and the UN have, for their own reasons, kept the project low-profile. The government does not want its people to think that the "one child" policy has been abandoned; and the UN does not want its China activities to prompt an outcry about UN funding from US political groups which object to Peking's record of forced abortions and sterilisations.

The new pilot started quietly last month, but will formally launch in April. The counties chosen are mostly in central and western China, said the official China Daily at the weekend. Cong Jun, at the State Family Planning Commission, said the move was a response to the 1984 UN population conference in Cairo which called for family planning to be part of wider reproductive healthcare programmes for women, including sex education. In the pilot areas, sex education will include information on venereal diseases and Aids as well as contraception, and will also be available for teenagers.

China Daily said five kinds of contraceptives would be provided for couples "to choose from". Peking will be watching to see whether the pilot, which is scheduled to run until 2000, results in a explosion of births. If it does not, and if it can be demonstrated that health education can result in couples voluntarily limiting family size - as has happened in other Asian countries - then the pilot study could result in a more humane family planning programme in the rest of China.

China's agreement to embark on the new pilot programme probably reflects both a wish to improve its human rights image and also the realisation that its often brutal, coercive policy has reached its limits. In the cities, couples are indeed permitted to have only one child. In the countryside these days, most families are allowed to have two, particularly if the first is a girl, so long as there is a five-year gap. Minority nationalities in rural areas are allowed up to three.

In reality, poor peasants often have more children, because they have little to lose if they do. Richer peasants are increasingly paying the fines or bribes to have more than the quota. So over the past two years there has been more emphasis from the Family Planning Commission on the need to combine population control with poverty alleviation measures with the motto: "fewer births, quickly richer".

The one child policy was imposed in 1979 and China estimates that, without it, the population would have been 300 million higher today. Peking expects the population to peak at 1.6 billion in 2050 if the targets are achieved.