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China’s parents have begun to rebel

Brendan O’Neill says that the state’s cruel and antiquated one-child policy is being propped up by British environmentalists with an agenda — but the Chinese are striking back

19 May 2010

12:00 AM

19 May 2010

12:00 AM

Brendan O’Neill says that the state’s cruel and antiquated one-child policy is being propped up by British environmentalists with an agenda — but the Chinese are striking back

Professor Yang Zhizhu is a brave man. In flagrant defiance of China’s womb-policing one-child policy, he and his wife have chosen to become outlaws by having two children and flat out refusing to pay the second-child fine (around £18,000). ‘Why should I pay money for having my own kid?’ asked Professor Yang in an interview last month. ‘It’s our right as citizens.’ For the crime of starting a two-child family, Professor Yang was fired from his job at the Beijing Youth Politics College and now faces an uncertain future.

Yet at the same time as this Beijing-based academic is taking huge risks to become, in his words, ‘a nail in the coffin of China’s one-child policy’, some British academics — of the miserabilist, misanthropic variety — are providing the Chinese state with new arguments for keeping the one-child policy. A Chinese teacher is trying to topple it, while British researchers are helping to prop it up.

It all started when Yang’s wife, Chen Hong, gave birth to their second child on 21 December last year. They were immediately slapped with the hefty state fine. After Professor Yang refused to pay — not, he says, because he couldn’t afford it, but because the one-child policy is ‘ridiculous’ — he was turfed out of his cushy job last month and will now live on ‘subsistence allowances’. As an illegal second child, his daughter, Ruonan, will not get the Beijing hukou, the permanent residency document that recognises her as a citizen. This means she won’t have access to public services such as education, medical facilities and, later in life, Beijing-based jobs. ‘I only pray that she doesn’t come down with some drastic illness,’ says Professor Yang.


Yang has become a hero across China — testament to the extent to which Chinese people hate the National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC), the vast state body which employs an eye-popping 509,000 public servants to police and punish people’s reproductive habits. In a survey of 75,300 people carried out by a popular Chinese website, 91 per cent of respondents said they supported Yang. His university colleagues have written a letter demanding his reinstatement, arguing ‘it is time to adjust the existing family planning policy’. Even China Daily, the English-language state newspaper, admits Yang has won ‘tens of thousands of hearts across the country’.

Before Yang, tycoons and celebs had been infuriating the regime by simply stumping up the cash for the second-child fine in order that they could expand their families. One wealthy couple waltzed into their local birth control office, slammed some money on the table and said: ‘Here is 200,000 yuan [£18,000]. Please do not come to disturb us.’ Poorer families, who can’t afford the fines, are having second children as secretively as possible. Meanwhile, experts argue that the one-child policy is giving rise to a demographic nightmare: China has a growing population of old people but not enough youngsters to provide for them. So some cities, including Shanghai, are starting to relax the one-child policy.

In response, the NPFPC is desperately scrabbling around for new moral justifications for its barbaric bureaucracy. And who is it turning to? Increasingly to green-leaning British Malthusians, in particular to the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), a weird outfit which counts Sir David Attenborough and Jonathon Porritt among its backers and whose anti-human arguments for population reduction are like manna from heaven for China’s beleaguered population police.

Last December, as Professor Yang’s wife was preparing for her rebellious labour, Zhao Baige, vice-minister of the NPFPC, gave a speech at the Copenhagen summit on climate change. To a creepily sympathetic audience of green-leaning officials and activists, she presented the one-child policy as a ‘climate-friendly’ initiative, in the sense that population reduction limits the number of ‘polluters’ (formerly known as human beings) marauding around the planet. To back up her perverse claims, she enthusiastically cited research carried out by Thomas Wire at the London School of Economics, published in August last year, which claimed that ‘promoting family planning’ — that is, curbing human numbers — is the cheapest way to tackle climate change. According to Wire, ‘Each $7 spent on basic family planning would reduce CO2 emissions by more than one tonne.’

Wire’s report — titled ‘Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost’ — was carried out under the Operational Research Unit at the LSE, but was commissioned and published by the Optimum Population Trust. Now it has become the principal reference document for China’s one-child enforcers, who are desperate to dress up their population authoritarianism as an eco-initiative. Porritt, former green adviser to the New Labour government and Prince Charles, has openly boasted about his contribution to the Chinese regime’s population propaganda. Porritt seems to be a big fan of the one-child policy. ‘Had there been no one-child policy in China there would now have been 400 million additional Chinese citizens’, he breathlessly told the Guardian recently.

In February 2007, Porritt suggested that China should face down those who say it isn’t doing enough to tackle climate change by pointing to ‘the billions of tonnes of CO2 not emitted into the atmosphere because of China’s one-child policy’. To his delight, this is exactly what Chinese officials have begun to do. Two years ago, a spokesman defended the regime’s ‘strict family planning policies’ on the basis that they had saved ‘330 billion tonnes in emissions’. At Copenhagen last year, Zhao Baige said the one-child policy ‘resulted in 18 million fewer tonnes of CO2 emissions every year’. Porritt is chuffed with his impact on Chinese thinking, describing it as ‘a major, major step forward for [those] seeking to influence governmental negotiating positions’.

The truth is that China’s one-child policy has long been supported and assisted by Western officials and campaigners. The United Nations Population Fund part-funded the one-child policy for years, and according to the 2005 book Governing China’s Population by Susan Greenhalgh, numerous population-reduction and family-planning outfits in the West provided China with the material and moral resources it needed to keep the policy chugging along. ‘Foreign non-governmental organisations and private foundations… were crucial sources for ideas and arguments, technical resources and political support,’ argues Greenhalgh.

It is gobsmackingly inhumane that Mr Porritt and others can only see China’s one-child policy in terms of how much CO2 it has allegedly saved. Behind the jumped-up stats purportedly demonstrating that China is a good green nation for controlling population growth, there lurks immeasurable suffering, where people have been severely punished for wanting to do that most basic of things: start a family. No amount of pollution reduction can justify that.


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