Population: China: Draconian family planning has desired effect

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The Independent Online
Rigid family planning regimes raise human rights questions, but they get results. Indonesia has almost halved the average family size in less than 30 years, while China says that without strict quotas it would today have 300 million more people. Teresa Poole reports on what life is like for women whose fertility is controlled by government fiat.

On the wall outside the home of the head of Indonesian village of Curugdengdeng was a map to make any new bride blush. The position of each house was drawn, and colour-coded with symbols. In this cartographic venture, greatest detail was given to the houses of couples of child-bearing age. Thus any passer-by would know that the lady at Number 43 used an injectible contraceptive, whereas her neighbour at Number 24 was on the Pill.

Privacy is not an issue in Indonesia's population control programme. Solihat, a jovial 35-year-old mother of three children, had turned up that morning for the sub-village's posyandu, the monthly family planning and baby-care assembly. "My husband is going for a vasectomy," she said. Did he not mind that everyone would know? "He does not feel ashamed, he is not the only one in this sub-village. Another six men have had a vasectomy," said Solihat.

Every month, about 246,000 posyandus are held across Indonesia as part of one of the world's most regimented family planning programmes. In each sub-village, contraceptive preferences are displayed on a map. Those who refuse to use contraceptives are marked out, in the case of Curugdengdeng by an empty white box. The strategy is to apply heavy peer pressure within a traditionally hierarchical social system.

It was 1970 when Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, adopted family planning as a key to economic growth. Demographically, it has been a success; the average number of children dropped from 5.6 to 2.9 per woman over 25 years. Indonesia's population is now 197 million and forecast to stabilise at 230 million in the year 2035.

China operates the world's most severe, and controversial, family planning programme. China's family planning drive started in the early 1970s, but it was in 1979 that the "One Child" policy was imposed. Horror stories soon abounded about women dragged away screaming for forced abortions and sterilisation. According to figures from the State Family Planning Commission (SFPC), the impact was drastic. A 1970 crude birth rate of 33.43 per 1,000 fell to 17.82 in 1979 and 16.98 in 1996. China's population officially stood at 1,224 million at the end of 1996, and the SFPC forecasts a peak of about 1,575 million in 2045.

But two big questions surround these data: are they accurate; and can the trends be sustained? These days almost all urban Chinese families do indeed have just one child, and the growing middle classes celebrate the birth of a daughter as much as a son. But the countryside remains very traditionally focused on male heirs. In most provincial rural areas, government policy has now relaxed so that couples can have two children without penalties. But where are the "missing girls"?

The sex ratio at birth in China is around 118 boys to 100 girls, compared with the natural rate of 106:100. Selective abortion after pre-natal screening is one major cause, but many baby girls are probably simply not registered. China's vast floating population of around 100 million migrant workers is another challenge for statisticians.

Increasingly, rich farmers are able and willing to pay fines or bribes in order to get permission to have more children; poor families simply take the view that they have nothing much to lose.

So the Chinese government is trying to use a carrot as well as a mighty stick. Rural households which obey family planning rules get priority for loans, materials, technical assistance, and social welfare. Or to sum it up by its Chinese slogan, shao sheng kuai fu - fewer births, quickly richer.