A tangram for Clinton

  • 30/07/1993

A tangram for Clinton WHEN CHINESE leader Mao Zedong opposed curbs on China's population growth on the ground that productivity of each extra pair of hands outweighed consumption of each additional mouth, international birth control activists were aghast. The country already accounted for about a quarter of all humans on the earth, they said, and continued growth in numbers would put a break on economic advancement.

But today, when that policy has been reversed and China implements one of the most rigorous birth control programmes in the world, many foreign activists are crying foul, claiming Beijing's approach is too coercive and infringes on human rights.

For 12 years, Washington bowed to the domestic anti-abortion lobby and refused to put money into the non-government International Planned Parenthood Federation and subsequently the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), in order to register its disapproval over the implicit support of the two organisations for the Chinese government and ruling party pressures on women to have abortions.

Following Bill Clinton's move into the White House, Washington let it be known that the new administration planned to resume funding for UNFPA in 1994, as a reflection of its domestic pro-abortion, women's rights line. But now secretary of state Warren Christopher has thrown a spanner in the works by calling on UNFPA to withdraw support for China's family planning programme on the grounds that it continues to include the use of coercive abortions.

His comment is part of a battle within the Clinton administration over the formulation of a China policy: should Washington put pressure on Beijing to move away from communism by imposing a tough line on human rights and trade issues, or should it encourage changes by offering incentives?

Christopher's remarks were also a reaction to an announcement by Beijing in April of a continuing reduction in the country's population growth rate and a follow-up New York Times article, which claimed that the drop had been achieved by a widespread crackdown against violators of communist party directives in favour of one-child families and zero population growth. Directives include village-level drives by communist party activists, official and peer group pressure for late marriage and restrictions on educational and other facilities for second and subsequent children.

China's representative at the New York meeting, Chang Chengsuan, said the population of the Chinese mainland was 1.1 billion and would approach 1.3 billion by the end of the century. Though he admitted zero population growth was the target, he denied the use of coercive measures.

Sharen Camp, vice-president of Population Action International, spoke for many pro-family planning US-based NGOs, which have been agitating for a US return to UNFPA and IPPF, when she accused Washington of "again acting unilaterally". She described US pressure on UNFPA and other UN agencies to leave China as a great disservice to Chinese women.