The failure of China’s massive social experiment in coercive population control should be a warning to the church in the West. When a government is allowed to control the family and muzzle the church, the effects, both intended and unintended, can be devastating. In China, the harm to the family and women over the last three and a half decades has been enormous. The church must speak life where others sow death.
For many Americans, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the realities of China’s “one-child policy.” Our domestic debates over abortion are framed around terms like “choice” and “women’s health.” But, imagine a world in which the government makes the “choice” and where “women’s health” involves trauma from forced abortions and sterilizations. Recent headlines about an end to China’s one-child policy were generally positive, but few expressed shock that the government will continue to use coercion to limit the births of children.
What it is, and what it’s not
How should we respond? We should rejoice that children who would have been aborted will be born, but we should also grieve and protest a policy that empowers the government to issue “birth permits” for some children and death sentences for others. The Chinese Communist Party will now allow married couples to have a second child in its next five-year economic plan to “address the challenge of an ageing population.” This is “fine tuning” the policy, not ending it.
The government should be called to account for killing children and torturing women (Eccl. 5:8, Isa. 1:17), The sheer scale of the injustice is hard to grasp. Genocides kill millions, but by its own admission, the Chinese government has killed 400 million children, and according to the China Life Alliance, an estimated 80 percent of women have been subjected to forced or mandatory abortions. In a country with 1.3 billion people, that means hundreds of millions of mothers have had children taken from their wombs by force.
There have been few attempts to hold the government accountable to their international human rights commitments. The Universal Declaration Human Rights protects the right to life (article 3), the right to found a family (article 16), and the right to be free from torture (article 5). The UN Genocide Convention does not include the unborn among protected people groups, but systemically killing them is no less an atrocity.
However, abortion politics in the West make normally outspoken advocates reticent. The female suicide rate in China is one of the highest in the world, which a report by the U.S. Department of State partially attributed to coercive population control. Yet, women’s rights advocates like the United Nations Population Fund and International Planned Parenthood Federation rarely raise alarm over the physical, mental and emotional health of women due to forced abortion and sterilization.
A culture of death
The loss to society, family and the individual in China has been enormous. In the name of economic progress, the government has created a culture of death for three and a half decades. Now it wants to reverse the trend.
Before 1979, the average family had six children. One of the most common terms of affection for a child was—and still is—“Little Treasure” (bao bei). Then, the government began telling citizens it was their patriotic duty to have only one child and to terminate the others. This created a shift in the view of children. Today, young, upwardly mobile couples are more likely to think of children as an economic burden. After the government loosened restrictions in 2013, births rose only slightly. Paul Coyer warns, “Beijing’s move is as unlikely to alter now entrenched behavior as it is to lessen the fallout from a rapidly ageing population.”
In the traditional family, the highest duty was to care for parents and grandparents. By reducing the average number of children from six to one, the government has placed an enormous burden upon “only children” to care for two parents and four grandparents. One executive predicted that in 100 years China will become “the world’s largest elderly home” and have the “largest population of robots.” Commodification has led to dehumanization. It’s unlikely that there will be enough human branches on China’s family tree to care for older generations.
The policy has also dramatically impacted gender dynamics. Sex-selective abortion created a gender ratio in China of 118:100 (males to females). The world’s ratio is 105:100. This has led to “bride kidnapping” and the increase of “bare branches”—young, unmarried males prone to higher levels of aggression.
In the words of the Washington Post, the policy’s architects “regarded themselves as far smarter . . . and their subjects as far more stupid . . . than they really were.” Now, “it is too late to reverse the damage.” This should be a warning to the church about the power of government to shape culture and the tremendous need for the gospel.
Renewing a culture of life
Reggie Littlejohn, a leading opponent of the policy, called upon the American church to pray: for the victims, those who carry out the policy and the church. The Chinese government silences all opposition to its population control policies by its citizens through the threat of punishment. It terrorized blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng and his family for seven years after he sued on behalf of 130,000 women who were forcibly aborted or sterilized. The government effectively muzzles the church’s voice in the public square, including on issues of life and human dignity. Church leaders may preach to their congregations that children are a gift from the Lord and that every human being is created in the image of God (Ps.127:3-5), but the government must give up its monopoly over public discourse and allow greater religious freedom and freedom of speech before the church can bring the message of the Imago Dei to society.
The gospel-proclaiming church offers so much to a people who have suffered so greatly. The gospel tells of a Savior who told adults to become like children to enter the kingdom of Heaven, a Father who lost his only child to a torturous death, and the day when the evil done will be redeemed through abundant life (Jn. 10:10).
We should rejoice for the lives that will be saved. We should mourn for the lives that will be taken. What we must not do is embrace complacency in China, in the U.S. . . or anywhere.
About the author: E.B. Oak is an international human rights attorney who worked at a women’s legal center in China with women who were forced to undergo coerced and mandatory abortions.