Deliverance from China

Unmarried and pregnant, she knew her options in a land obsessed with population control: Abort or become an outcast. Lijun looked for another way out.

"Everybody, even friends, all persuaded her to have an abortion. She didn't want to," Lijun says. "[The abortion] was very, very painful, very scary. I think that experience changed almost all of her emotions and even some attitudes towards people. At the time, she just wanted to keep the baby, but there was no way."

Before deciding anything, Lijun and her boyfriend wanted a doctor to confirm that she was pregnant. They took supreme care to hide their identities, visiting a hospital in a nearby city where nobody would know them. She gave a false name to the doctor and did not tell her she was single. But she thinks the doctor saw through her ruse. Upon determining that Lijun was with child, the doctor recommended an abortion. She scribbled out a prescription for the abortion drug, mifepristone.

The drive back to her city was extremely tense, Lijun recalls. Her boyfriend hammered home the point that she would have to terminate the pregnancy. He was a broken record, she says, sounding the same shrill note over and over.

Lijun recalls dreaming of new lands when she saw an airplane fly overhead.
Phung Huyng
Lijun recalls dreaming of new lands when she saw an airplane fly overhead.

"He was very angry and very unhappy," she recalls.

But Lijun had a far bigger fear than her boyfriend's panicked demands: She might have to contend with the heavy hand of the Communist Party as well.


Forceful family planning began in China in the 1970s. The population had grown unwieldy after years of encouragement by Chairman Mao's government that people have as many children as possible. As the country lurched toward one billion people in 1979, the government instituted a policy of one child per family. Deng Xiaoping used it as a central program in his agenda of improving living standards and boosting economic growth.

"The official rationale is that in order for China to develop economically as fast as possible, they had to reduce the population growth rate as fast as possible," says Susan Greenhalgh. She is an anthropology professor at the University of California-Irvine and a leading expert on China's population control program. "Even though they reached their basic fertility control targets in 1993, it continues to be enforced in a legally fairly effective way."

According to a 1999 U.S. State Department report, officials employ a variety of tactics to ensure compliance with the family planning policy, ranging from education and economic incentives to sterilization and forced abortions.

While the central government in Beijing formulates policy, enforcement falls to Communist officials at the local level. Lijun believed they would learn about her situation and try to finish the job she refused to do herself. According to the State Department report, she had reason to fear she would be forced to have an abortion.

"Unmarried women cannot get permission to have a child," the report says. "During an unauthorized pregnancy, a woman often is paid multiple visits by family planning workers and pressured to terminate the pregnancy."

Rice University political scientist Steve Lewis, an authority on China, says the pressure to abort typically happens through the "intimidation and persuasion" of family members.

"By persuasion I mean, 'Hey, you've got to come down to our committee meeting and listen to us all day while we lecture you about all this.' And it's clear that if you want anything from the government in the future … you'd better listen up and follow the plan," he says. "The whole goal of family planning in a lot of cases is to bring the family to bear and the neighborhood to bear on forcing that person."

The strong-arming would not end even if she eluded officials and gave birth. Lewis points out that the implementation of policies varies greatly from region to region, but confirms that typical punishments for an out-of-wedlock baby are stiff fines and loss of health care, education and other services.

"The government policy makes it clear that [a birth has] got to be part of a family unit," Lewis says. "You're still not allowed to marry freely, so of course you're not allowed to have a baby freely. And in this case in particular, if it's a single mother and, on top of that, the father is married to somebody else, there are a lot of potential problems to overcome."

Virtually every community in China has a local committee composed of Communist Party officials who wield inordinate influence over jobs, housing, security, education, health care, family planning and most other functions. Particularly strong in cities, the committees maintain neighborhood offices and keep a close watch on the lives of the residents. The party also operates in the workplace, in units called danwei, which keep close tabs on employees.

"If your neighborhood committee is opposed to you … then everybody treats you as an outsider, and the police literally have the power to say, 'You need to leave,' " Lewis says.

Lijun imagined a refugeelike existence for her and her baby in China. She says she would have had to move to some remote place where nobody knew her, and where she would not have qualified for prenatal care or medical attention for the delivery.

Other problems would emerge after the birth of an illegal baby. The most troubling, perhaps, was the child's possible ineligibility for a crucial document needed for a normal life. The "household registration," a booklet that contains a person's birth information, is required for most employment, housing, school and health care. Without it, Lijun says, her child would essentially become an illegal alien in their own country.

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