The U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which had guaranteed a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion since 1973, has brought the question of state involvement in reproductive rights issues on both sides of the Pacific into sharp focus. Abortion is not overtly central to debates about China’s One Child policy, a mass-scale reproductive control infrastructure introduced in 1980 that is now being gradually rolled back. But as in the post-Roe U.S., the Chinese state’s encroachment on individual autonomy and family planning choices nonetheless looms large when it comes to reproductive rights.
Forced intrauterine devices, or IUDs, and many other involuntary procedures litter the landscape of Nanfu Wang’s 2019 documentary about the policy, “
One Child Nation.
” Huaru Yuan, a midwife working and living in Jiangxi who spoke to Wang in the film, pointed to the more than 60,000 abortions and sterilizations she performed in her career. “We didn’t make decisions,” said Yuan, who no longer provides treatments aside from infertility care. “We executed orders.”
That same sense of executing orders decided by state authorities permeated coverage of the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision this week. At an abortion clinic in Texas, which immediately moved to enforce its statewide abortion ban, a nurse identified only as “Jenny” entered a patient’s room the moment the decision was handed down to inform the patient to put her clothes back on. “The doctor will explain more … but we can’t even give you a consultation today,” she said
. According to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, abortion providers who continue to practice in the state are liable for prosecution. In Alabama, Robin Marty opened her clinic with a new sign out front. “We are still open,” it read
, followed by an underlined “for non-abortion services.”
As protesters took to the streets across the U.S. following the announcement of the ruling, religious couples with signs reading
, “We will adopt your baby,” did so as well. This callously opportunistic message also has a precedent in the international black market for adoptions of Chinese girls in the heyday of the One Child policy. Traffickers made up to $20,000 per child, and the adoptive parents could bask in the satisfaction of having “saved” a Chinese girl from destitution and death. In some cases, according to Wang’s documentary, adoptees were cut off from their biological families in China, and some were discouraged from reaching out to them as adults. In the U.S., Chinese adoptees in transracial families in particular have suffered from racialized bullying, psychological harm and loneliness
As the political reckoning over reproductive rights in the U.S. continues, the rationale for China’s One Child policy is worth reexamining, as are contemporary Chinese policies around pregnancy and childbirth. Mandatory abortions and sterilization were a priority back when China sought to control birth rates while climbing the development ladder to industrialization. Today, China has an aging workforce and low birth levels that are causing concern among policymakers tasked with sustaining a large, healthy pool of labor. As a result, policies regarding abortion have changed, from restrictions on the procedure after the 14th week of pregnancy announced in Jiangxi
in 2018, to a 9-year national gender policy plan announced in 2021
, which seeks to limit “non-medical” abortions, although some vagueness in the wording of the national plan suggests it was crafted to leave some wiggle room.
As is true in many other policy areas, health centers and local-level cadres in China have leeway to exercise some discretion in interpreting instructions and executing decisions. However, changing laws governing gender and birth policies, including a cooling-off period for couples seeking a divorce
, suggest the tide may be turning for contraceptive and reproductive rights. Cultural nationalists have seized
on the shifting government posture to scapegoat “fierce feminists” and LGBTQ people for China’s declining birth rate
. In the spring of 2022, the Chinese Communist Youth League, a faction of the Communist Party, published a post on its Weibo account
calling “extreme feminism” a “malignant tumor.”
These kinds of inflammatory comments have avoided censorship, while keywords relating to high-profile cases of sexual assault and gender-based violence have been throttled across China’s firewall-protected social media platforms
. All indications are that feminism and gender are hot-button topics that are carefully monitored by the authorities.
Culturally and politically, the reproductive choices of all Chinese couples, individuals and families are increasingly scrutinized by the state. But the policing and governance of reproductive rights in China has an ethnic component as well. Even as the availability of abortion is being reconsidered across China, Beijing is increasing its surveillance and monitoring of Turkic and Tibetan minorities in Qinghai province as well as the Tibetan and Xinjiang autonomous regions, including—according to testimonies from Uyghur and Kazakh women—the use of forced sterilization and IUD insertion
While these stories may seem unfamiliar to the U.S. public, they too have painful parallels in the documented histories of the sterilization of Indigenous people in Canada and the United States
as part of public health programs. In a post-Roe United States, to say nothing of a China that is increasingly cracking down on family planning options, the state’s encroachment on the bodies of pregnant women—as well as trans men and nonbinary people—is only likely to get worse.
In Other News
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to China. Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend meetings and festivities in the city as part of a highly publicized visit, with Hong Kong’s streets set to be decorated with flowers and flags of the People’s Republic of China. The visit, Xi’s first outside of mainland China since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, will be accompanied by a beefed-up security protocol in the city, including barriers and heavy police presence.
Within Hong Kong itself, press coverage and potential demonstrations by civil society have been restricted by authorities,
while accredited photojournalists have been barred from attending events organized as part of Xi’s visit
. In recent weeks, more than 180 activists detained under the 2020
national security law have been indicted or sentenced.
Worth a Read
U.S. President Joe Biden joined the leaders of the other G-7 countries this week in Germany, where among other things they rolled out a $600 billion global infrastructure plan regarded as the latest Western counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Biden said
I want to be clear: This isn’t aid or charity; it’s an investment that will deliver returns for everyone, including the American people and the people of all our nations. It’ll boost all of our economies, and it’s a chance for us to share our positive vision for the future and let communities around the world see … for themselves the concrete benefits of partnering with democracies.
Although Biden did not explicitly mention China in his remarks, the initiative is in line with efforts by the U.S. to emphasize the competitive aspects of the U.S.-China relationship, particularly when it comes to engagement with the developing world. The idea of matching Chinese infrastructure investment in the Global South is based in part on the argument—often advanced by Washington and its European allies—that the loans issued by Chinese firms to African, Latin American, Southeast Asian and Central Asian states are predatory. The criticism of “debt-trap diplomacy” has often been leveled at Beijing, although on closer examination it is rarely well-founded. Critics have also raised concerns that Belt and Road Initiative projects pave the way for the use of ports and other strategic outposts by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Whatever the stated intentions of this new G-7 plan, it has been criticized for focusing more on China than on the countries it is ostensibly meant to benefit. In any case, its success will come down to implementation.
Rui Zhong is the writer of World Politics Review’s China Note. She works as a program associate at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., where she conducts programming and research on U.S.-China diplomatic and cultural relations. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, WIRED magazine, the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and the MIT Technology Review. She can be found on Twitter at @rzhongnotes.