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Special Report: China

Abortions changing social makeup


The highway to Beijing from the airport is wide, straight and clean. The trip takes 30 minutes. As if signaling kilometer markers, uniformed soldiers, standing at attention, punctuate the route.

We checked into the Gloria Plaza Hotel, a modern twenty-some story complex with spacious lobby and clean rooms. It seemed to accommodate mostly Chinese businessmen, Asian tourists and a few group tours from the states. This appeared to be the case in each hotel we stayed in during our six-city tour organized by an efficiently operated, government-sponsored tourist agency.

A Chinese English-speaking tour guide, with a solid understanding of Western culture, accompanied us throughout our trip. Local guides met us at airports and ushered us to awaiting buses. Each night before leaving a city we placed our luggage outside our hotel rooms -- and each time the baggage showed up the next day in our new hotel.

The view out my 12th-floor room window onto a sprawling Beijing each morning was clouded by a thick brownish-orange haze that stayed through the day. China’s growing energy appetite has been fueled by the ever greater need to burn low-grade, high-sulfur-content coal. Additional pollutants have been generated by greater numbers of automobiles, buses and trucks. The capital’s 1.2 million automobiles now compete with its 5 million bicycles.

Many cities, particularly in the north, exceed the World Health Organization pollution standards by five or six times. When I asked about China’s pollution problem, I was reminded more than once that the United States is responsible for nearly 10 times China’s greenhouse gas emissions.

China’s population is daunting. It has 22 percent of the world’s population but rests on only 7 percent of the world’s arable land. It is difficult to imagine governing a population of 1.3 billion or nearly one quarter of all the world’s people.

Population control

More than two decades ago, the Chinese leadership concluded the nation would never advance if population continued to outpace development. So in the 1970s, China introduced its controversial one-child-per-couple policy. Except for ethnic minorities, China’s parents are allowed only one child. Any subsequent child is frowned on. Reports of forced abortions have been common, especially in rural areas. Second children must be raised without any social benefits, including subsidized education. Further, families with more than one child pay special fees and taxes.

Almost all I spoke with defended the policy. If they disagreed, few would dare say so. Catholic leaders deferred from addressing the issue when asked. They are in a difficult position of having to pay lip service to the policy or suffer the consequences. One evening, however, I spoke with a Catholic woman who told me she is appalled by the policy and the way it has led to the abortion of female fetuses. She added, however, that she recognized the reasons behind the policy, saying that crowding is an enormous problem in China where there are no simple answers.

It is said that computers are revolutionizing modern China, but others have said that the machine that has most shaped life in the past 20 years is the ultrasound scanner. By the early 1990s, China was importing more than 2,000 scanners yearly and making 10,000 of its own. All this allegedly to improve the nation’s health care but in reality to search and destroy female fetuses. If a couple is to have only one child, most prefer a boy. As an adult, he will carry on the name and more likely be able to provide financial support.

One Chinese demographer estimated that the Chinese were operating 100,000 scanners in 1990. An early 1990s government-sponsored survey found the sex ratio for newborn infants -- normally 100 boys to 106 girls -- had reached 118.5 boys for every 100 girls. This means that more than 12 percent of Chinese infant girls -- 1.7 million -- were missing each year.

Officially, sex choice abortions are strictly forbidden. But the practice goes on -- and China’s growth rate has slowed dramatically.

Crowded streets

One morning in Beijing, our group headed out by bus down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, a large boulevard that runs east and west alongside the Forbidden City, Beijing’s traditional home of its emperors. We saw scores of merchants in blue smocks with white kerchiefs on their heads who had stacked mounds of winter cabbages along the streets. These squared-off mounds ran for blocks. The merchants, we were told, continue selling cabbages as hedges against winter famine. Our guide seemed embarrassed to explain this to us, saying that China had vanquished famine. He admitted, however, that old habits -- and fears -- die hard.

On roadsides across the country, elderly Chinese worked as street cleaners, sweeping debris with large straw brooms and placing it into carts supported by large wheels. They work part-time earning money as part of a government-sponsored social security program. The streets of the Chinese cities we visited were clean and uncluttered.

Eleven million live in Beijing. China has many cities larger than Chicago with names unrecognizable to most foreigners. Beijing has a boxlike look to it. On street after street, one finds 15- to 20-story block-like apartment buildings. Most look alike, square and made of brick.

Driving on a Beijing street can be a chilling experience. As our bus moved through traffic, we were inches from the edge of a steady stream of bicycles that moved along the outer lanes. At intersections, bike riders would turn in front of cars and trucks in seeming defiance, seeming to stake their lives on their dares. Occasionally, we saw accidents along the roads.

Development is taking its toll.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999