Steven Mosher was one of the first American scholars allowed to study in China when the U.S. government established diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic in 1979.  He was the only academic permitted to live in a Southern China village for a year to study the lives of the rural Chinese.

His discoveries and observations are published below, taken from an edited transcript of a speech Mr. Mosher gave at the Human Life International Symposium on Sexuality in Montreal in April.

In most of China before 1980 the population control programme relied not on quotas for births but on education.  Women were not told that they had to stop at one child but they were told that it would be better to space the children and to stop having children after the second, third or fourth child.

This changed in March 1980.  A directive, from the government in the province where I was living, warned that the provincial population was threatening to exceed the population increase allowed that year by the central government.  Local officials were told to take all necessary measures to ensure that the number of births did not push the population increase rate over one per cent.


It was clear to local officials that the only way to keep the population growth rate down to one per cent was to focus on one particular group of people: women who were already pregnant, because, by March 1980, all the children allowed to be born that year had already been conceived.  Village women, pregnant with children they thought were legal, were suddenly told that they were illegal.

Forty women were rounded up.  Meetings began in the village, and just over half the women submitted to an abortion after a few days or a couple of weeks.  Most of those who submitted fairly readily were two or three months pregnant, they hadn’t been carrying the child as long and they, or course, were promised that they could have a child next year.

But there were 18 who didn’t submit.  These women were, for the most part, six to nine months pregnant and the officials realized that they had to increase the pressure.  They took these women away from their families to a town about 15 miles distant.  I went with them.

They were locked up and told they would not be allowed to go home until they submitted to an abortion.  Constant study sessions were led by senior officials, who played a game similar to the “good cop, bad cop” game you sometimes see on detective series.

The “good” official would get up and plead with the women, trying to reason with them on the need to control China’s population.  Then the “bad” cop would get up and he would say, pointing to the women, “you have no choice, you’ll get abortions whether you want them or not.  You who are eight months pregnant cannot simply wait here for another month until you have the child naturally, because if you go into labour while you’re still in these meetings, we will take you to the medical clinic and we’ll abort your child as it is in the process of being born.”  That threat of infanticide was carried out on those women who went into labour during the course of the meetings.

The women did not give up easily, but the pressures on them were enormous.  They were incarcerated and they were threatened.  They were harangued and fined for not attending, or for trying to leave the meetings.  Morning-to-night study sessions wore down their will until finally – after days, or weeks, or in a couple of cases, months – all of the women did submit to this procedure.

I witnessed forced abortions.  I witnessed abortions in the second and third trimester.  I witnessed cases of government-sanctioned infanticide.  What was I to do with this information?

Violating human rights

My moral dilemma was made even worse because, in the evening, the men were coming to me and asking, “can you do anything to help us?”  I had to tell them that I was sorry, that I couldn’t do anything because, if I had spoken out, I would simply have been expelled from the country.

Medical personnel came to me and told me that they abhorred the procedures they were required to perform but that they could not refuse official orders.  If they refused, they told me, they would be criticized and fined.  If they persisted in their refusal to perform the sterilizations, the abortions, the infanticide, then they would be demoted or sent away to re-education camps.  They said they did not become doctors to take human life, “we became doctors to save human life but we have no choice.”

I had three more months in China after witnessing this.  When I left in June 1980, I decided to bring these violations of human rights to the attention of the central government.  Naively, I wrote a letter to the Minister of Family Planning and told her that in the province where I had stayed, China’s own laws were being widely violated.  China had a law forbidding abortion after the third month; forbidding the use of coercion to obtain consent for birth control operations, abortion or sterilization; and forbidding infanticide.

I never received a direct a response to that letter but I did get a kind of indirect response.  A few months later I heard that I had been declared by Peking to be an international spy.

Besides writing to the Peking regime to make sure that they knew what was going on, I waited to see whether the kind of problems I had observed would get better with time or would get worse.  The problems in China are still continuing.

Conception certificates

In 1981, the central government imposed a quota system for births throughout the country.  We’ve heard a great deal about the one-child-per-family limitation and about some small exceptions to that limitation.  But the real restriction on births comes from the quota system.

Every unit – factory, office or village – is given a quota of permissible live births every year.  The head of that unit, the party secretary, is told that he cannot exceed this quota.  He decides who, among the young couples in his unit who has yet to have a child, will receive a “birth certificate.”

It should not be called a birth certificate.  It’s more a conception certificate because it’s issued before conception and those lucky couples who receive this certificate have twelve months in which to conceive a child.  If they succeed, they are allowed to carry that child to term.  If, on the other hand, they get pregnant outside of this system, then, as soon as their pregnancy is discovered, the pressure to abort begins.

Peking has set a goal for China’s population, not to exceed 1200 million by the year 2000, broken down by year and province.  The province takes its quota and breaks it down further to the level of the individual unit.  These quotas are very small.  Where I was living (where there had been from 15 to 20 live births a year), the 1981 quota was seven live births.  The party secretary was given seven coupons to hand out and woe to those who became pregnant without a conception certificate.

The state ensures that local officials will bring heavy pressure to bear on women by expecting the Chinese Communist Party secretary in charge of the unit to be the first one to go along with the programme.  They’ll be the first to stop at one child, the first to agree to tubal ligation and will not marry before the legal marriage age of 25 for women, 26 for men.

Local officials have to sign a contract with their superiors, promising that they will not exceed their unit quota.  Penalties are severe:  If they’ve been given seven and they allow eight women to give birth, their pay is docked by 10 or 20 per cent.  If, on the other hand, they meet their quota then they receive commendation and cash bonuses.  Obviously, officials who are themselves under heavy pressure to meet quotas, bring heavy pressure to bear on the women to submit to abortion and sterilizations.

Childbirth on the run

There is only one way around the plan, “childbirth on the run.”  A young woman, pregnant outside the plan, hides her pregnancy.  When the “granny police” (they’re called that because most of the women doing this sort of checking are elderly women, members of the Women’s Federation of the Chinese Communist Party) come around every month and ask them if they had their periods yet – they ask all women of childbearing age who haven’t been sterilized – then the women lie.  They say “yes, I have had my period.”  When perhaps they may not have had their period in three or four months.

But pregnancy is not the sort of thing you can hide for ever and about the fifth month, or at the latest the sixth month despite wearing loose clothes and binding up their abdomens so that they won’t show, they’re discovered and ordered to attend the meetings that I described earlier.

The night before they’re scheduled to attend these meetings, they escape.  They go to friends or relatives in other villages or towns who may be willing to put them up for a while.  Or they simply go from city to city, town to town, traveling constantly to avoid detection.  Six, seven, eight and nine months pregnant women, on the road, denied medical care because they don’t dare seek medical attention if they, for example, threaten a miscarriage or if they have other medical problems.  If they go to a doctor they’ll be asked to produce their conception certificate, which they don’t have, and the doctor would report them to an official who would tell the doctor to perform an abortion.

Some women do succeed in having their children and returning to their villages.  As far as I know, they’re allowed to keep the children once they’re born.

But so difficult is childbirth on the run, and so traumatic are the forced abortions and the forced sterilizations, that mortality rates are up among women of childbearing age.  Medical care is getting better each year, and yet Chinese women between 25 and 35, because of these operations and because they are denied medical care if they’re pregnant outside the plan, are dying in greater numbers now than 15 years ago.

Involuntary abortions

The number of abortions that have been performed in China is staggering.  From 1971 to 1984 there were over 10 million abortions.  From 1979 to 1984, there were 53 million abortions.  Many of these abortions were late second and third trimester abortions and the reason is simple.

The state is bringing heavy pressure to bear on women to agree to abortion: women who want their children and hide their pregnancies until the second trimester.  By the time the state pressures these women into abortion, they’re already in the late second trimester or third trimester of pregnancy.  Furthermore, I estimate that over the last five years, between 80 and 90 per cent of all the abortions done have been involuntary.

“A legal child”

When I was in China, I did a fertility survey among village women.  I interviewed well over a hundred women to find out what their fertility desires were: how many children they wanted and what sex.  Every woman told me that she wanted at least two children, most said three, and some said four.  The only ones who said two children were those who went on to specify that both the children be boys.  No women in the village was willing to stop at one child.  The government did statistical surveys in 1983 and 1984, with the same results.  The state is closing the gap between the fertility desires of the people for more children and the state limit by force.  There is no time for education to take effect.  The quotas get smaller each year and they’re enforced.  The Chinese programme is not family planning. It’s not just providing the means and education for couples to decide for themselves how many children they want to have and at what time they want to have them, it’s coercive population control, following a state plan.

An unknown number of these 53 million abortions, probably in the millions, actually consists not of abortions but of infanticide.  A Washington Post reporter, in Peking for four years, did hundreds of interviews before he wrote on the population control programme.  He reported that in Northern Chinese hospitals, medical personnel are under orders to make sure that each woman brought into the delivery room has a conception certificate, proving that she is carrying a legal child.  If she can produce this certificate the child is allowed to live.  If she cannot produce such a certificate, the child is aborted in the very process of being born.

In North China, he reported, this is normally done by an injection of formaldehyde into the soft spot of the child’s skull.  This, of course, results in instantaneous death.  In South China, where I was, the procedure was normally to use forceps to crush the child’s skull as he or she descents down the birth canal.

There is also female infanticide in China: the killing of girl infants by their own parents.  This is a tragic, shocking and barbaric act and it’s very difficult for North American’s to understand how Chinese parents could bring themselves to kill their own child.

If you listen to the Chinese government, they will say “we’ve always had female infanticide in China and we’re campaigning to stamp it out.”  That’s not true.  There was female infanticide in parts of traditional China but the practice had died out by the 40s and 50s, even in the poorer and remote areas.  It is being practiced now, even in areas formerly free of this barbarism.

In my village, female infanticide had never been practiced.  I spoke with elderly midwives who had delivered thousands of children, and they told me very emphatically that  “our land here is a land of fish and rice. We can afford to raise all of our children, not just the boys but the girls too.”  And yet, in my village and in other wealthy areas of China, infant girls die in mysterious circumstances at birth.

The answer is clearly related to the population control campaign.  The government has told peasants (who provide 85 per cent of China’s population) that they can only have one child, but it makes no provision for the support of the elderly.

There are no social security programmes in the Chinese countryside.  Only the workers in the cities, that privileged minority, enjoy social security programmes, retirement benefits and free medical care.

The way the rural Chinese ensure their economic well being in old age is to have one son, preferably two, so that when they retire form the fields their son will work to put food on the table.  Girls cannot support their parents because, after they marry, their responsibilities are to their husbands’ parents not to their own.  It’s critical in rural China to have at least one son.

Birth has become a kind of Russian roulette.  If the child that emerges from the womb is a little boy, the whole village sends gifts.  If the child is a female, people despair for the parents because they have use the one chance they had to have a child.  The most pitied people in the village are those who fail to have a son.  Under population regulations, if your first child dies, you can be given a quota to have another child.  So people keep a bucket of water beside the bed.  As the child is being born, and if the child is a girl, she is taken and plunged into the bucket of water and suffocates before she draws her first breath.

Forced consent

The government denies, of course, that their policies have anything to do with female infanticide, or that the programme is involuntary.  They say that every operation performed in China, be it sterilization, or an IUD insertion or an abortion, is completely voluntary.

I was initially tempted to dismiss these claims as out and out deprecations.  It’s clear to me – I have been there and observed the pressures brought to bear on women – that the operations are in no sense voluntary because force, has been used to obtain consent.  But once I thought about it, I began to see what China’s leaders meant when they said that the programme is voluntary.

An example from one prefecture in Southern China is very important in understanding what the Chinese leadership means by the term “voluntary.”  This prefecture, very close to where I did my own research, has a population of about 16 million people.  In 1981, the party secretary decided that there was not going to be a single excess birth in that year.  Instead of sending out the granny police to detect pregnant women, he sent out the regular police to make house-to-house checks in every village and town and to round up all those women found to be pregnant outside the plan.  He even allowed them to issue arrest warrants on which, in the space in which you write the crime, was written “pregnant.”

These women were arrested for the crime of being pregnant.  They were sometimes bound hand and foot, they were sometimes handcuffed, they were sometimes put in wicker baskets usually used to carry pigs to market.  They were taken by the truck-load to rural medical clinics where they were strapped down on tables and aborted.  There was nothing voluntary about this process from beginning to end.  Over the course of the 45 days that this reign of terror existed, the number of victims reached 38,000: there were 19,000 women aborted and of course, 19,000 unborn children they carried.

I was very curious to see what the reaction of the central government would be to this programme.  Would they tell the prefecture that they had gone too far?  Ignoring the principle of voluntarism?  Or would they pat the party secretary on the back and give him a promotion?

In the beginning, Peking said very positive things, congratulating the party committee for bringing down the birth rate among the masses.  But, as the months went by, I began to see in the Chinese newspapers more references to the need to obtain a person’s consent prior to an operation.  I saw such phrases as “on the one hand, we must meet our population control plan, but, on the other hand, no operation can be done by binding a person hand and foot and taking him against his will to an abortion clinic.”  A clear reference to what happened in this prefecture.  And, in the end, the party secretary was transferred.

So what is acceptable in China under the so-called voluntary programme?  It’s all right to take a woman away from her home and family, to lock her up for weeks and subject her to morning to night study sessions, but she must walk the last few steps to the abortion clinic under her own power.

As long as she walks into the clinic, the operation is considered by the government to be voluntary – ignoring the enormous pressures that have come before.  Next time you see the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. or Canada saying that the programme is based on voluntarism, you’ll know what it means.

Eugenics and genetics

China’s programme is not merely population control, it’s also a eugenics programme.  The governing principle is late marriage, late births, few births and quality births.

There is a law saying that handicapped individuals will not be given conception certificates, not allowed to reproduce children.  The 10 million handicapped individuals in China (both physically and mentally handicapped) are said by the Minister of Family Planning to be “a big burden on the economy.”  An extremely unfair statement since they’re cared for by their families, not the state.  There are very few facilities for the handicapped in the cities and none in the countryside.

There is a policy under discussion, which would ensure that couples undergo genetic testing before being issued a conception certificate to show that they’re not carrying any defective genes that may come out in the next generation.  One Chinese professor has suggested that everyone’s contribution to society should be measured and those who rank high should be given preference to have children, those who rank low – criminals and other undesirable elements – should not receive a quota.

The Chinese government has been at pains to distinguish its programme from that of the Nazis, yet in the Peking Review a couple of years ago, the government said, “our programme in no respect resembles that of the Nazi government in Germany: Our programme is not designed to produce racial superiority, our programme is simply designed to produce a better breed of Chinese man.”

Long-term consequences

There are long-term consequences of the programme.  First of all, the number of infant girls who are being killed at birth seems to be on the rise.  According to 1982 statistics, 235,000 baby girls were missing and presumed dead.  The number rose to 300,000 in 1983 and to 345,000 the year after. These are calculations based on the sex ratio for newborns, normally there are 164 boys for every 100 girls born.

The reason that this is continuing is simple.  The Chinese government may tell local officials that they should seek out and punish those who put infant girls to death but at the same time they tell officials that they must meet their quota.  Every missing child, and every child that is put to death at birth, is one less head that he has to account for at the end of the year, so he’s not going to be active in seeking out violators.  The programme itself produces these violations.

The long-term effects of Peking’s population control policy will be seen in 20 years.  By that time there will be no young women for the men to marry.  Studies have shown that young single men are more likely to commit crimes and, in general, behave less responsibly in social matters.

The population pyramid will become inverted and there will not be enough young people to support the old.  In 20 years, the population control programme will be targeted on the old.  It will start with “re-education” meetings where the parents will be told that their son will be better off if they die.  The old people will be held by the authorities until they “voluntarily” decide to die.