By Jackie Sheehan.

The photograph of Feng Jianmei lying exhausted in her hospital bed next to the seven-month-old foetus she was forced to abort has gone around the world. But if the publication of such graphic evidence is unusual, forced third-trimester abortions in China are not. Medical opinion abroad is that many stillbirths in perinatal mortality statistics there are actually late abortions. Despite the global reaction to Feng’s case, it is unlikely to change the way family-planning regulations are enforced in practice.

It will undoubtedly make officials more careful about allowing relatives with cameras into hospital. In Fujian last April, Pan Chunyan was forced to put her fingerprint on a document without knowing it was an agreement to undergo an abortion in her eighth month of pregnancy – she had already paid a ¥20,000 ‘social compensation fee’ for the pregnancy and agreed to pay ¥55,000 more. When her relatives tried to reach her as she was given the injection to induce stillbirth, her mother was beaten by security guards and a cousin who tried to film this on his phone was also assaulted.

The people who track down pregnant women, force their fingerprints onto documents, and carry out terminations and sterilizations on clearly unwilling women, do it not because they are evil or unfeeling. They do it because of powerful institutional and personal incentives to meet their targets and please their superiors. The head of Feng Jianmei’s local family-planning bureau has reportedly been removed from his post, but that was the least his bosses could do, and I would be surprised if inside a year he were not either back in that job or in another one of equal or greater rank, as usually happens. Others implicated in the case face only ‘administrative demerits’, and if they continue their jobs with enough zeal, there will be opportunities to make those up and to move up the career ladder.

Social compensation fees matter as a source of income for local officials. They pay for family-planning officials’ overtime, bonuses, pensions, and travel expenses, and those officials are on performance-related pay, losing points for every out-of-quota birth in their area and every failure to carry out a mandated sterilization, and earning large cash bonuses for every abortion and sterilization they can enforce, by whatever means. In Puning county, Guangdong, it was officials who did not apply illegal methods who were disciplined, not the ones who ‘‘spared no effort’ to carry out 5,601 sterilizations out of a target of 9,559 in the month of April 2010.

During a spring enforcement campaign, or any time a local area is over its quota for unauthorized pregnancies, officials keen to keep their jobs or get promoted use ‘measures that exceed conventional practice’ or ‘local methods’, not only forced abortions and sterilizations, but also illegal withdrawal of hukou registration from unsterilized women, cancellation of relatives’ state benefits and permits, detention and beating of parents of out-of-quota children and their relatives, some of whom die from their injuries, confiscation of land, and destruction of property.

Feng Jianmei’s family have been called traitors for speaking to the foreign media and have had demonstrators organized by officials surrounding their home. The costs of going public can be considerable, and until it ceases to be in the state’s interests to enforce the one-child policy – when the gender and generational imbalances it produces become incompatible with continued economic growth – the complaints of a few brave individuals will not stop officials’ abuses of their power.

 Jackie Sheehan is Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute and Associate Professor of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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