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Women harmed by China’s draconian family planning policies still seek redress

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Chinese women are still seeking redress after their health was destroyed by botched or untested reproductive procedures aimed at keeping births within targets set by Beijing.

Peng Dongxiang, of Qianjiang in the central province of Hubei, gave birth to two children in defiance of population controls, drawing the ire of local officials.

“We did as the government said and went to the family planning station to get injections,” Peng said. “But they were experimenting on us; using our bodies.”

“They injected us straight into the Fallopian tubes … I fainted and was freezing cold instantly,” Peng recalls. “Later they told me I had to get another injection because I hadn’t had tubal ligation, but that second injection ruined my health.”

Peng has suffered from decades of lower back pain, abdominal pain and organ adhesions, and was bed-bound for several years immediately after the sterilization shots. Her sons were sent to live with their grandparents because she was unable to work any more.

“If [my husband’s family] hadn’t treated me well, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Peng, who has been engaged for more than a decade in a bid to win redress through official channels.

She knows of hundreds of other Qianjiang women who had similar experiences.

“Some of them died outright … the government didn’t care and just injected anyone at the time, even pregnant women,” Peng said.

Birth quotas

The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a long history of controlling the reproductive lives of Chinese women, mostly through a decades-long “one-child” policy that led to widespread violence and rights violations against women by local family planning officials keen to stay within birth quotas.

The period became infamous worldwide for the use of late-term, forced abortions, compulsory sterilization, female infanticide or selective abortion and the constant policing of women’s fertility, as well as violent attacks, forced evictions and other privations imposed on families guilty of “excess births.”

Liang Zhongtang, a former government family planning adviser, said the Qianjiang women could have been subjected to a particular form of “adhesive surgery” that was used in Hubei, Sichuan and Shanxi in the mid-1980s.

“The National Family Planning Commission supported this method to a certain extent back then,” Liang said. “But … the operation wasn’t recognized by the Ministry of Health, so it was dropped after a while.”

But the women have yet to find any kind of redress for their grievances.

One of the Qianjiang victims said she was exhausted by years of petitioning and official violence, and gave up the struggle.

Another said she had stopped petitioning for fear that her children’s careers would be politically tainted by her actions.

“My family … has to make money so that I can keep taking my medications and stay alive,” one 60-year-old woman told RFA. “If I give a media interview, will my son lose his job? Will they refuse to pay my compensation?”

Liang said poorly educated rural cadres likely also contributed to the women’s suffering.

“Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were very few medical institutions in rural areas below county level, and the conditions weren’t there for the implementation of such family planning policies,” Liang said.

In December 2007, Zhang Weiqing, then director of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, admitted that one-third of the 150,000 family planning technical service personnel — the ones carrying out abortions and sterilizations — lacked any kind of medical qualification, while many facilities used outdated equipment.

An official who answered the phone at the Qianjiang municipal government denied there was an issue with the mass sterilization of women in the 1980s.

“[You will] need evidence and some basis for this … and if you do investigate I think you will find … it never happened; it’s a rumor,” the official said.

Repeated calls to the Hubei provincial health commission and the Qianjiang municipal health commission rang unanswered in early April.

Call for compensation

Zhang Jing, New York-based founder of Women’s Rights in China, said the CCP has long controlled the reproductive lives of Chinese women.

“If the party tells you to give birth, you will give birth. If it tells you not to, then you won’t,” Zhang said. “This is a terrible and tragic policy.”

Zhang called on the CCP set up a nationwide compensation system for women who have been harmed by family planning policies over the years.

“The CCP and the Chinese government control the wombs of Chinese women,” she said, adding that rural women are most vulnerable to the kinds of abuse and mistreatment described by the women of Qianjiang.

And they aren’t the only victims.

Fifty-eight-year-old Jing Liping lives alone in a dangerous building on the outskirts of Beijing.

She gave birth to a single child more than three decades ago, then spent a month recuperating at her husband’s family home in the western province of Gansu.

There, the local family planning team caught up with her and forced her to undergo tubal ligation using metal clips.

Jing’s health was also destroyed by the procedure, she told RFA.

“The doctors told me that my Fallopian tubes were inflamed … but I had to rely on others to get me anti-inflammatory drugs,” Jing said. “No local doctor in Gansu would help me because I was ligated.”

“It wasn’t until 2017, when I passed out on the side of the road and was sent to the hospital, that they found a problem with the clips. My Fallopian tubes had been inflamed for a long time, and they already had necrotic tissue, so I could only have them removed,” said Jing, whose husband left her, taking the couple’s son, because she started passing out every time the couple attempted intercourse.

A staff member surnamed Zheng who answered the phone at the Gansu provincial health commission said officials hadn’t approved Jing’s procedure, which would have been carried out based on “expert” medical opinion.

“This decision can only be made by experts … whose opinions we respect,” the official said.

Jing rejected this response, and insisted on an explanation, saying she will lodge a further appeal in her petition for some kind of recognition and redress.

“Why were my Fallopian tubes inflamed? Why did I lose sexual function after the birth control operation?” she said. “They should explain this clearly.”

Xi Jinping’s U-turn

U.S.-based rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who helped rural women battle violent family planning policies in the eastern province of Shandong, said violence has always been an inherent part of China’s family planning policies.

“[Family planning] is a tool used by the Communist Party to control the people,” Chen told RFA. “The biggest obstacle to the realization of the rule of law in China is the CCP. The party and state are above the law.”

Since the CCP under Xi Jinping announced a U-turn and started encouraging couples to have up to three children, the government has been on a mission to get women to remove their intrauterine contraceptive devices (IUDs), with 3.25 million IUDs removed from women in 2019 alone.

But even IUD-related procedure aren’t without risk in the wrong hands.

Teng Youxia, who lives in the eastern province of Anhui, was left in critical condition after her internal organs were perforated during a botched IUD insertion procedure, but no hospital was prepared to help because of the association with the family planning regime.

“They put the IUD in in 2013, but halfway through the procedure, my wife started bleeding heavily, so they didn’t complete the procedure,” Teng’s husband Li Kai told RFA. “It wasn’t until we went to the Kunshan Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital in Jiangsu in 2013 that we found out the IUD was still inside of her.”

Repeated calls to the Anhui provincial health commission and the Wuhu municipal health commission rang unanswered during office hours in early April 2022.

At one point, Li and Teng were violently kidnapped by local officials in Anhui, and prevented from seeking medical attention. They were turned away by more than 20 hospitals before they finally found one that would help.

“All the money I make goes on my wife’s medical care, otherwise she would have died long ago,” Li said. “I want the government to be held responsible for its own actions.”

“The lives of ordinary people shouldn’t be used as a stepping stone for officials to advance their careers.”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.