Unmasking an unsubstantiated op-ed

By Wang Zichen Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/26 17:41:12

A lengthy op-ed on China's family planning program titled "China Dropped Its One-Child Policy. So Why Aren't Chinese Women Having More Babies?" in Wednesday's New York Times contains so much misleading information that it deserves a dedicated rebuttal.

The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportionate. Scathing allegations such as China "continues to view women as the reproductive agents of the state, as instruments of implementation for its eugenic development agenda" in a premier newspaper should be backed up by facts. In most part, they didn't. In rare cases when the op-ed did try to cobble together purported evidence, it failed miserably.

For starters, the op-ed stated in a misleading fashion that the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper is "the official publication of the Communist Youth League." The newspaper, in fact, does not belong to the Communist Youth League (CYL) of China, but to CYL Beijing branch. There is a big difference between the two as the CYL has over 30 branches across municipalities and provinces.

The op-ed then centers its longest paragraph on an article in the Beijing Youth Daily, which observes that anecdotal interviews taken in Beijing's universities showed that female graduates who had given birth are at an advantage when looking for a job. The article is complemented by a brief commentary, asking in its headline that literally translates to "the government should make preferential policies to encourage employers to hire women."

The op-ed, however, somehow summarized the entire article to be "urging female students to have babies." This is inaccurate and biased at best, and an outright distortion at worst.

The op-ed went on to suggest that the piece, published by a CYL-related paper and "widely reprinted" on other Chinese websites, is evidence of a government "campaign that takes special aim at the educated women." This line of insinuation fails to understand the basics of Chinese mediasphere and cybersphere.

And unlike their peers in the West, where The New York Times website doesn't show a Financial Times story, Chinese websites operate differently. Being owned by the People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, or by the NASDAQ-listed for-profit tech firm Sohu, Chinese websites constantly reprint news and opinion from other newspapers and portals. And one can Google or Baidu any piece of Chinese news to see that.

Therefore, contrary to what the op-ed hints at, there is nothing extraordinary at all about a story being "widely reprinted" on various Chinese websites, unless proved otherwise, which the op-ed didn't.

The bottom line is — with due respect to Beijing Youth Daily — no qualified journalist or commentator with good knowledge of China will quote it and publish its report in other websites to conclude that the Chinese "government has unleashed in recent years a propaganda blitz" on anything, which is essentially what the op-ed did.

Immediately following that, the op-ed claims in recent years — without offering evidence — that "at the same time, the government discourages unmarried women from having babies — by way of fines and administrative hurdles — because it sees marriage and family as a pillar of social stability."

The problem with an assertion not backed up by facts is that it will be difficult for readers without sufficient knowledge to judge its truthfulness. In this case, the opposite is true: Measures discouraging unmarried women from having babies have been diluted by two major policy changes.

The first is that fines are disappearing. Fines, or formally "social maintenance fees" in the Chinese context, is a local matter. Guangdong, China's largest provincial economy and most populous province with over 100 million residents, amended its family planning regulations in 2016 to scrap fines for unwed mothers. It is now standard practice across many other provinces.

The second is that at the end of 2015, the Chinese government ordered that children of unwed mothers who have previously been denied household registration — known in Chinese as hukou — be allowed to get household registration, clearing a significant administrative hurdle for such children to enjoy the rights others do.

The op-ed, in its online version, inserter a hyperlink to a Time magazine story, to explain that it is because of "particularly urban, educated women" that China's birth rate fell by 3.5 percent in 2017. Only that the story is dated 2013.

There is another angle which speaks to the generally off-the-mark observation of the op-ed. China has deployed significant "zeal to extol the glories of having more children," said the piece, which depicts a government on a "propaganda blitz" because it is "terrified."

Ambitious and intrusive government action because of "plummeting birth rates" can be perceived throughout the op-ed, but that's just not the real-world scenario.

If one can read Chinese, he or she will find Chinese scholars and politicians increasingly and visibly lobbying for more forceful action, as the overall feeling on the ground is that the government just did not care enough.

This month The Economist reported "China is in a muddle over population policy," adding that "at present it is difficult to imagine the (Communist) party doing enough to make a difference."

"Why China must wake up to demographic reality," wrote the South China Morning Post at the end of last month, warning that the "population is ageing more quickly than the authorities imagined" and "relaxations proved too mild and too small."

The Nikkei Asian Review reported that "China's falling births expose limits of 'two-child policy,'" which, according to the Financial Times, leads "economists (to) warn of a long-term threat to the country's development."

To sum up, this article fails to grasp the real picture of the situation in China. 

The author is a Chinese journalist with the Xinhua News Agency. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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