China, population and the environment

Issue 

At the failed December United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, the issue of population control was put on the agenda by the delegation from China.

China Daily reported on December 12: "Population and climate change are intertwined, but the population issue has remained a blind spot when countries discuss ways to mitigate climate change and slow down global warming, according to Zhao Baige, vice-minister of National Population and Family Planning Commission of China."

On December 15, Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) issued a statement praising China's efforts to control fertility and calling on the Rudd government to do the same in order to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.

On World Environment Day in 2006, SPA argued that a "humane policy" of one-child families worldwide was urgently needed, ABC.net.au reported on July 11, 2006.

Support for the proposition that population reduction is a key task to tackle climate change has been echoed by some mainstream environmentalists, such as Peggy Liu, chairperson of the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy and a 2008 Time magazine "Hero of the Environment".

In a November 24 debate in the British Economist, Liu argued that "China's one-child policy reduces energy demand and is arguably the most effective way the country can mitigate climate change."

Many population control advocates, including SPA, argue for "non-coercive" methods to reduce fertility. However, they have yet to come up with any concrete plans as to how to reduce population without coercion.

However, the SPA's call to "emulate China" reveals an obvious sympathy with China's efforts. After all, China's one-child policy is the most successful attempt to control reproduction in human history, resulting in an estimated 300-400 million fewer people.

Many climate activists have pointed out that population is far from the key issue in relation to climate change — and the far greater need is to change the dominant destructive economic model.

It is worthwhile examining the destructive social impacts the one-child policy has wrought upon the Chinese people to put the SPA's call in perspective.

This policy is enforced by a series of incentives and disincentives for parents. Most urban parents are only permitted to have two children if the husband and wife were themselves only children.

In rural areas, couples are allowed a second child if their first is a girl. Two children are also allowed if one or both parents are from an ethnic minority.

Local officials who enforce the policy are rewarded or punished on the basis of whether they have met their one-child quotas.

The enforcement of the one-child policy has gone through phases of repression and leniency since its introduction in 1979. Repressive periods have been marked by campaigns of mass forced sterilisation, abortions and compulsory Intra Uterine Device insertion for targeted women.

This is on top of the regular methods of "persuasion" used by the government for those that don't comply, which include financial penalties, denial of free social services and demotion in the workplace.

This has caused serious demographic distortions across the country. The most infamous of these is the growing disparity between birthrates of boys and girls due to a cultural preference for boys.

A recent report in the British Medical Journal said 124 boys are born for every 100 girls in the country as a whole. In one province the figure has risen to 192.

The policy successfully contained population growth in urban areas, but has been far less effective in rural communities. The Chinese government has been forced to relax some of its policies in these regions.

The system is regularly subverted by hiding children with other families, leaving these "black" children without official documentation and unable to access social services.

Many parents unable to keep their "extra" children are forced to sell them to child traffickers. A large market has opened up for richer couples to buy babies in order to guarantee a male child to look after them in old age or else a female child to provide a bride for their son.

Not surprisingly, the one-child policy has a major impact on the well-being of women. Aside from the lack of control women have over their own bodies, countless females have either been aborted, abandoned, sold or forced to live as "black" children.

What has been the effect on the environment? China has experienced massive economic growth in the past decades. The rate of growth and environmental despoilation has not slowed with the lower rate of population growth.

China's massive increase in pollution, recently overtaking the US in greenhouse gas emissions, has not been preceded by an explosion in population.

Many population control advocates argue for non-repressive forms controlling birthrates, but the idea that reducing human population is an urgent environmental priority opens the door to "results-based" policies like China's one-child policy, where population targets are put ahead of people's rights.

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