One-child policy enforcers have to find new roles after liberalization

By Thepaper.cn-Global Times Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/29 19:23:39

As family planning policy enforcement becomes less important due to the policy loosening and the fact that people are increasingly satisfied with having smaller families, China's millions of family planning workers face budget cuts and redundancy. Some grass-roots family planning workers have been transferred to other posts, some have taken time off to have a second child and some have stayed on to ensure there are "better" births.

A woman carrying a baby walks past a slogan that reads "give birth according to the policy, raise children responsibly" in Hua county, Henan Province in August 2015. Photo: CFP

Only after he gets up in the middle of the night, drives for two hours until he reaches a field in the countryside miles away from his home, and turns off his car can Zhang Chen (pseudonym) begin his work - waiting around until daybreak and trying to spot any farmers burning the stubble left over after harvest, part of a government initiative to clamp down on this source of air pollution.

This is one of the errands Zhang has started running since he left the local family planning branch after 10 years of service, according to a recent report by news portal thepaper.cn.

In December 2013, China took the first steps toward relaxing its family planning policy, allowing all couples to have a second child if either parent was an only child. From January 1 this year onward all couples are allowed to have two children, ending the one-child policy that was initiated in the 1980s.

Zhang, 40, was one of tens of thousands grass-roots family planning officials who were put at risk of redundancy. But early this year, he was transferred to his current post with a township government in East China's Shandong Province.

At the gate of the government building where Zhang works, a red sign exhorts locals to build a "sanitary" town. Previously, a slogan outside the building called on residents to "create excellence with good family planning policy enforcement."

Like the other grass-roots officials who did this work in past decades, Zhang has witnessed the changes of the family planning policy and what it has done.

Changes

In 1999 Zhang became a township family planning worker and his day-to-day duties included taking women of childbearing age to have ultrasound scans, helping keep birth rates low and fining violators.

But now his job includes preventing stubble burning, checking on the recipients of minimum living allowance and entering the personal information of disabled township residents into an online database.

At the family planning office where he previously worked, half of the workers have left. Du Lili (pseudonym), the office's director, is busy but the other desks are all empty.

"Some workers have gone home to have their second child. I'm a bit busy," Du told the thepaper.cn.

Her job is no longer focused on keeping the birth rate low. She spends most of her time collecting data about the gender imbalance, administering subsidies to couples who have lost their only child, and managing prenatal and postnatal care, such as encouraging pregnant women to receive healthcare checks and providing them with health supplements.

She took her job at age of 19. The office minivan she used to drive from village to village to investigate one-child policy violations rarely moves now due to a sharp drop in field visits.

But unlike Zhang and Du, many other family planning workers are worried about being made redundant. As China loosens its family planning policy, their role has become less important and their departments have shrunk.

In late May, dozens of family planning officials in Gong'an county, Central China's Hubei Province, staged a protest in front of the county bureau of health and family planning, demanding better wages. They claimed their monthly salary had been cut to less than 2,000 yuan($303), half of what most grass-roots civil servants can expect to be paid.

In January, family planning workers in Xingning, South China's Guangdong Province, wrote a joint open letter titled "Please give family planning workers a way out," complaining about what they say is unfair treatment and layoffs. They said the changes which have taken place have made them feel like the proverbial "donkey which is killed the moment it leaves the millstone."

According to official figures released in 2009, besides the half a million people then working for local governments, at that time there were about 1.2 million people employed by village committees and 6 million in sub-village groups working to enforce the family planning policy.  

Less pressure

A doctor spreads knowledge about contraception in a village in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, August 2003. Photo: CFP

To Ren Xianghua, an official from a development zone neighboring the township where Zhang worked, the two-child policy didn't help much in easing the tensions between family planning workers and residents. "Some villagers wrongly believe that the policy loosening means the birth restrictions have been totally lifted. The difficulty of collecting fines from violators still remains," Ren was quoted as saying.

Couples who have more children than they are allowed have to pay a fine based on their personal income and the average local annual income, with the fines often coming to three or more times the annual average.

But it's becoming more difficult to collect the fees. Du said that some couples now strongly object to paying fines for their second children born before the policy changed on January 1, 2016.

Zhang said the growing number of rural Chinese who have moved to cities but are still under the administration of their village has made tracking births more challenging.

But he added that he pities some policy violators, especially those who gave birth to their second child shortly before January 1.

"Their [the children's] fate might totally different [just because of being born a few days earlier]," he said.

As having two children is now allowed, many people who were punished for to having a second child are now demanding compensation.

On August 9, dozens of people from several provincial regions, including Guangdong, Guangxi, and Anhui, petitioned at the National Health and Family Planning Commission in Beijing, demanding their jobs back. They were fired from their posts as civil servants or teachers due to having a second child.

When these people were punished, family planning was at the top of local government agendas. Officials could face demotion or sacking if they were not able to keep births low.

"Officials would be criticized if the birth rate and gender ratio were substandard. Now we no longer mention it. It's not scientific. A number alone can't represent the official's performance," said Chen Ran (pseudonym). He became a family planning worker in 1987 in the township where Zhang later worked. This year, he was transferred to the township's petition office.

At that time, officials would try every means at their disposal to coerce women of childbearing age to take an ultrasound scan. The more checks, the better rank the township will get in the county's family planning ratings, Zhang said.

Zhang was in charge of a village with 370 women of childbearing age. Nearly every day, he visited them one by one, door-to-door, recording data about their menstrual cycles and pregnancy situation.

Sometimes, the job was rather challenging. After the department received a tip-off that a woman in his village was illicitly pregnant, Zhang had 20 days to investigate. If he couldn't prove that the woman wasn't pregnant within that period, the tip-off would be officially regarded as true and he would be assessed poorly.

The hardest job

GT

Zhang was born in a rural Shandong family with two elder sisters. After graduating from high school, he went to study demographics at the Taian Population School (which merged with Taishan Medical University in 2001), a popular major in the 1990s.

Though it was a vocational school, it had a high status.

"Because it was a higher learning institute run by the National Population and Family Planning Commission [which was merged with health ministry in 2013], its Communist Youth League chief was equal to a county-level official," Zhang told the thepaper.cn.

At school, he mainly studied the theories of "the two Ma's" - Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), an English scholar and advocate of population control, and Ma Yinchu (1882-1982), known in China as the father of the family planning policy.

He thought it was important to implement family planning policies. "When [then] Premier Zhou Enlai first proposed 'one couple, one child,' many women told the premier that they didn't want to give birth to so many children, but they didn't know how to prevent the pregnancy," Zhang explained.

The school song of the Taian Population School encouraged students to devote themselves to their career.

"We must be the pioneer of the frontline to enforce the family planning policy for our country, and devote ourselves to the hardest job in the world," went the school song.

But he was never a good worker in his colleagues' eyes. "He is softhearted, not aggressive and tough enough," commented Chen Ran who used to work with Zhang.

In early times, women were made to have contraceptive devices placed in their uteruses after having their first child and men were required to have a vasectomy if they had a second child, according to Du.

"The villagers were even more scared of the arrival of the family planning workers than of the policemen," Du recalled.

These practices and high fines created a stigma about being a family planning worker that has lasted until this day.

"Why do you take such a job?" Zhang's aunt asked him to his face. Zhang has regularly lied about his job when meeting people.

In 2001, the country promulgated the Population and Family Planning Law and tried to regulate policy enforcement. Forced abortions had been part of family planning efforts for a long time.

But Zhang and his colleagues found it hard to continue their job without taking coercive measures. Using a "carrot and stick" method, they tried to persuade  residents to have abortion operations.

Receiving little recognition and working a stressful job for little money, Zhang believes that they sacrificed a lot.

Zhang himself was a firm believer in the one-child policy. He has only one daughter, despite his mother's complaints about the lack of a grandson.

But he never doubted the policy. Though he is no longer responsible for enforcing it, he still defends the policy. A few days ago, he got angry when he read an article that claimed the birth control devices placed into women's uteruses harmed their health.

"I oppose judging the previous undertakings with current situation. The family planning policy was not wrong. It was a product of a special historical period," he argued.

Thepaper.cn - Global Times


Newspaper headline: Family planners reborn


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