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The Thirty Years War

China | China's one-child policy was supposed to be ending about now, but the nation shows no signs of easing its vicious campaign against women, its children, and ultimately itself

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

BOSTON-On a grassy bank near the Wanquan River in the Haidian District of China, a passerby made a startling discovery on a Sunday morning in January: an hours-old, abandoned baby boy. A hospital tag still tied to the infant's foot bore his mother's name, according to The Global Times. A doctor said the baby was born with deformities that morning, and a witness told police a man dumped the still-breathing child outside hours later. Authorities arrested the suspect. The baby boy died.

In a country where government officials allow most couples to bear only one child, the scenario is painfully common. Many Chinese couples prefer a healthy son. With one opportunity to achieve that result, babies who don't fit the bill sometimes face abortion or abandonment. Most are girls, but even disabled boys like the infant in Haidian don't always escape death or discarding.

Neither do second or third children: China's infamous one-child policy stipulates many women must abort a second child or pay an exorbitant fine that can reach 10 times a family's annual income. In rural areas, some women are allowed to have more than one child under certain conditions, but coerced abortions and forced sterilizations remain common.

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It wasn't always supposed to be this way. Chinese officials introduced the one-child policy in 1979, saying they wanted to control a booming population and encourage economic growth by having fewer people to consume resources. When officials implemented the policy nationwide in 1980, they envisioned a 30-year shelf life. In an open letter to members of the Communist Party in September of 1980, the party's central committee pronounced: "In thirty years, when the current acutely pressing population problem becomes less severe, a different population policy can be adopted."

Thirty years later, a new population policy isn't in sight, despite a new crisis produced by the one-child standards: a disproportionate number of men. A study by the British Medical Journal last year estimated that in 2005, China had 32 million more males than females under the age of 20. That's a crisis that will only worsen for men searching for wives among a dwindling female population in China. Meanwhile, the aging population grows, threatening what Fuxian Yi-a Wisconsin-based physician educated in China-calls "a demographic winter."

If the policy presents a crisis for men, it brings a catastrophe for Chinese women and their baby girls cut down or abandoned. Chinese women have undergone millions of abortions since 1980, many forced or coerced in deplorable conditions. Many abortions have targeted girls: The prevalence of ultrasound technology that costs as little as $12 to determine the sex of a baby in China has led to what some call "gendercide," the widespread extermination of a generation of girls.

Chinese officials boast that the one-child policy has "prevented" at least 300 million births in the last 30 years, whether by birth control, sterilization, or abortion. But despite a demographic calamity and a humanitarian outrage, Chinese officials seem resolved to maintain the status quo, even while making subtle concessions in some areas. Meanwhile, a growing coalition-inside and outside of China-is calling for a reversal: Some call for an end to forced abortions. Others call for an end to the one-child policy. Failure to relent could worsen what Yi-a vociferous opponent of the one-child policy-calls "perhaps the most disastrous mistake in modern China," and what U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., calls "the worst human-rights abuse in the world today."

Ling Chai didn't expect to find herself in a coalition to fight forced abortions in China. For years, the Chinese native was better known as a student leader in the Tiananmen Square movement that ended in a government-induced massacre of demonstrating college students in June of 1989. Chai fled China after the massacre and spent the last two decades getting graduate degrees from Princeton and Harvard, and running a business with her American husband.

From a suite of high-rise offices in downtown Boston, employees at Chai's company, Jenzabar, produce software programs for colleges and universities. But in a nearby conference room, Chai sits perched on the edge of a leather couch talking about the abuse of women and girls in her home country: "God must be so appalled at what is happening in China."

For Chai, the road from Tiananmen Square to God ran straight through grappling with the atrocity of forced abortions in China. After supporting pro-democracy efforts in China, Chai and her husband started the Jenzabar Foundation to direct a portion of their company's profits toward philanthropic efforts in the United States and China.

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