Acton Commentary

Saving China’s Children From Their Government


Heavy-handed government intervention without regard for human dignity produces long-term deleterious effects. Unintended consequences include a dehumanized social sphere and a debilitated economy. China’s family planning policies, established nearly 30 years ago, are a case in point.

China’s one-child policy, often enforced by coercive measures, has led to the systematic extermination of girls, a rise in child abductions, and a weakening of the Chinese family. It has created a market in human beings and decimated the traditional family-based system of old-age support. This is the fallout from government mandates that violate the freedom of people to pursue the good.

With most couples limited to one child, cultural and economic factors conspire to create a strong preference for male offspring. As a result, a market for boys has developed. Conservative estimates put the number of child abductions in China at 190 per day. Prices for stolen boys continue to rise, with levels approaching six months’ of an average worker’s wages. In 2006, 49-year-old Lin Yudi, was executed in southeastern China after she was found guilty of being part of a five-member gang involved in trafficking 31 baby boys. The New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs reported on April 5 that demand for baby boys is particularly strong in rural areas of South China. In the Fujian province, Su Qingcai, 38, recently spent $3,500 for a 5-year-old stolen boy.

Lower income parents find it difficult to get help from police to protect their children. Chinese authorities respond more faithfully to high profile cases of crimes affecting people with political connections. It is another consequence of government-planned societies that elitism is enshrined, as the police exist to protect the interests of the decision makers rather than the disempowered, regular citizen.

Article 240 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, adopted at the Second Session of the Fifth National People's Congress on July 1, 1979, made illegal the abducting, kidnapping, buying, trafficking in, fetching, sending, or transferring a woman or child, for the purpose of selling the victim. What is illegal is not necessarily rare. Some Chinese activists have tried to start private organizations to help rescue and protect children but the central government will not approve them. The police only have incentives to protect the interests of the few.

The market for kidnapped boys can be traced directly to China’s family planning policies, which encourage sex-selective abortion of baby girls. In 2005, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that abortion after ultrasoundnography accounts for a large proportion of the decline in female birth rates. Estimates put the number of female sex-selected abortions at 40 million, generating a combination of one of the lowest fertility rates in the world and a disproportionately high number of male births.

Brides have thus become scarce. By 2000, among rural men, 27 percent at age 40 were unmarried. This situation has created demand for other illicit markets: for kidnapping and trafficking women for marriage or sex slavery, and to staff the burgeoning commercial sex industry.

The shortage of children has also made the cost of care for the elderly an increasingly unbearable burden, according to Wang Feng, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. As the elderly population balloons, financial dependency on offspring is imperative for approximately 70 percent of older Chinese. Because married daughters usually shift their care allegiance to the husband’s family, parents fear not having male heirs to care for them as they age. If current fertility rates hold, by 2025 those 65 and over in China will be 25 percent of the population, which will create an unsustainable burden on working adults and the government welfare system.

China’s policy is another chapter in a long narrative of state intervention impinging on the freedom of the human person. Government exists to protect and cultivate the family, which is vital for a flourishing social and economic order. Parents should be free to make virtuous decisions, consistent with the dignity of marriage, about their procreative contribution to society. China’s policy uses the power of the state to violate parents’ moral conscience. This coercion has promoted abortion, fostered child trafficking, and put the elderly at risk.

China’s government should terminate all such policies. Permitting parents the freedom to pursue the goods of marriage is a basic requirement for a healthy civil society and long-term social and economic progress.