At the end of October 2015, the Chinese government announced that it would end its one-child policy by replacing it with the two-child policy. China’s two-child policy is a false triumph for human rights. Whilst some have greeted this as a step in the right direction, the mere existence of a policy controlling the number of children one can have is a violation of the right to self-determination and reproductive autonomy.
The reason behind the implementation of the two-child policy is not to ensure the fulfillment of basic rights. Instead, it is a response to the one-child policy’s negative impact on the economy as the old age dependency ratio has increased. Implemented in the late 1970s, the one-child policy was a development project intended to maximise quality of life by preventing a boom in population growth. The motive behind the implementation of the two-child policy demonstrates the ever-present draconian grasp of the government and its principal concern: it will only act to boost its economic agenda. This is evident in Xinhua’s report, which states the aim was in fact to foster a “balanced growth of population”. Human rights were never at the forefront of the new policy.
Increasing the number of children a couple may have does not alleviate the suppression of human rights – any restriction on reproductive rights is an assault on human rights. Paragraph 7.3 of the International Conference on Population and Development states that couples have the right to decide whether and when to have children as well as the number of children, and “the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health”. The right to decide “the number and the spacing” of children is reaffirmed by Article 16(1)(e) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Further, Article 12(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”. “Health” includes the right to the control one’s body and reproductive health. The two-child policy violates all of the above-mentioned rights. Couples are prohibited to decide the number of children they wish to have, and such restriction on reproduction is not the “highest attainable standard” of mental health.
What is equally worrying are the measures used to enforce the two-child policy. Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) have reported countless cases of pressured insertions of intrauterine devices (IUD), forced abortions, sterilisations under duress, arbitrary detention and physical punishment such as beatings. According to CHRD, monetary bonuses and job promotions are used as incentives to encourage local authorities to implement family planning policies. For instance, local authorities are divided into teams and pitched against each other to meet certain targets for the number of abortive surgeries they can perform, with the most ‘accomplished’ team receiving ‘rewards’. These incentives promote the blatant disregard for reproductive freedom.
The current one-child policy’s human rights violation has been further exacerbated by a lack of remedies for abuses relating to the enforcement of the policy and this exact issue will continue when the two-child policy is implemented. Complications such as infertility and health impediments have occurred after forced abortions and women have suffered from a lack of redress. Attempts to sue the local authorities are often futile as the courts are hesitant to challenge the authority of local government. This lack of independence leaves couples in a lacuna with no means to hold authorities accountable. There is no suggestion that this lack of accountability will end with the introduction of the two-child policy.
A mere change in the number of children a couple can have will not alleviate China’s violation of reproductive freedoms. Until the Chinese government develops a conscience, China will continue its assault on human rights.