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Birth Control Policies In Tibet

The abuse of Tibetan women goes beyond torture and ill-treatment into the sensitive area of birth control. Not only do they face numerous pressures from the Chinese authorities to limit the number of their children, possibly to one, but there is growing evidence that women are being forced to have abortions and sterilisations.

Birth Control Policy

The People's Republic of China (PRC) launched, in the 1970's, its third birth control campaign (after largely unsuccessful efforts in the previous two decades). The goal by 1978 was for China's population to be under 1.2 billion people in the year 2000. This was to be achieved by the "one family, one child policy". This 1.2 billion target was in fact reached in early 1995.

Officially, the "one child" policy covers only "nationalities" in China with over 10 million members. Tibet, with a population of 5 to 6 million, is regarded as a "minority nationality" and is in theory, exempt from the provisions of family planning legislation. In practice, birth control has been actively promoted in Tibetan towns since the early-1980s (Tibet Information Network [TIN] Survey of Birth Control Policies in Tibet; March 1994; p.1). According to the report, the Chinese Government "encourages" the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to comply with the official Chinese birth planning policy, promoting it through work units and birth control clinics. Since the late-1980s in the TAR and since the mid-1980s in eastern Tibet, the authorities have progressively extended the range and impact of birth control policies (1994 TIN Survey; p.4). An article in China's Population News described the relaxation of family planning on account of "ethnic customs" as an "absolutely untenable proposition". Almost immediately, birth control in Tibet was tightened, imposing on the Tibetans a punitive family planning programme which has led to reports of abortions, sterilisations and infanticide (Tears of Blood: A Cry for Tibet, Mary Craig, 1992; p.308).

Birth control policy was already in force in towns in the TAR in 1985, or three years earlier by some accounts. This was at a time when Beijing claimed such regulations did not apply to minority non-Chinese citizens. The statement was phrased, however, so as not to include Tibetans living outside the TAR, who have certainly been subject to birth controls since around 1982 (1994 TIN Survey; p.3).

In Ganze, a Tibetan Prefecture within Sichuan Province, the birth control regulations show that Tibetan farmers and nomads there had been limited by law since at least 1989, and probably earlier, to a maximum of three children.

In China's White Paper on Tibet, the Government said that the two-child policy had been in force in towns in the TAR since 1984 (1994 TIN Survey; p.3). Sterilisation was also compulsory in certain situations. The May 1992 TAR Birth Control Regulations stated that Tibetans in towns are allowed only two children as long as the mother is at least 22 when she has the first child, and 25 when she has the second. The 1992 regulations, which are much more severe than the 1985 guidelines and imply the use of force, also extend birth control to Tibetans living in the countryside; (the 1985 document only applied to town dwellers). The 1992 regulations state that Tibetans in the TAR who live "in the heart" of the countryside are encouraged not to have more than three children (TIN News Compilation Mar-Sep 1992, 1992; pp.22-23).

Tibetans have spoken of local officials implementing regulations and punishments even more severe than those in the 1992 regulations. A Tibetan doctor has spoken of a one child per woman limit for Tibetans in her Qinghai area.(TIN 2/10/92).

The threat of enforced abortion or sterilisation is heightened by the emphatic tone of the current 'Five Year Plan' for Tibet which calls on local leaders to implement the birth planning quotas' and says that they need 'strength, resources and administrative means' (TIN 2/10/92).

Abortion and Sterilisation

Abortion is common in Tibet not just because of a lack of contraceptive technology but also because the authorities openly prefer the 'combined method' , a policy that deploys contraception or abortion to limit births (1994 TIN Survey; p.17). For urban women, there are strong incentives to have only one child, and to then abort any others or get sterilised. Women who comply receive bonuses which include an initial payment of 50 yuan followed by five yuan every month. Other incentives include priority for goods, job promotions, and free medical treatment for the child until they are 18 (Determination; Tibetan Women and the Struggle for an Independent Tibet, Carol Devine, 1993; p.70). Job penalties apply to uncooperative women. Given these alternatives, women appear to have little choice about abortion.

There are frequent first-hand accounts by refugees of abortions being carried out. Tashi Drolma, whose own second child was forcibly aborted, was one of four Tibetan doctors at an Amdo hospital, all of whom left their jobs in obstetrics in protest against the inhumanity of the birth control policies. A refugee from a village near Shigatse told the Dalai Lama that a Chinese doctor had admitted to her that in order to fulfil his quota of abortions he was forced to kill the new-born (Craig; p.309).

By 1990, 3% of the 600,000 Tibetan women of child-bearing age in the TAR had "volunteered for sterilisation operations"; most if not all of these lived in towns. It is unlikely, however, that all these sterilisations were voluntary (1994 TIN Survey; p19). While the law does not specifically demand abortions or the use of surgical controls, the effect of the law in practice, with its use of fines and other punishments, is that many women may feel forced to accept abortions and sterilisations. There have also been allegations of physical force. Mobile teams have been sent out to countryside areas for abrupt one-off sterilisation and abortion campaigns from as early as 1986. Monks in Amdo have spoken of such a group in 1987 working from a birth-control tent beside their monastery. Women who refused to attend were forcibly operated upon (International Physicians for Human Rights, Tibetan Bulletin July/ August 1991).

In April 1994, five hundred Tibetan women protested in New Delhi against forced sterilisation and abortion programmes launched by the Chinese authorities in their homeland. They claimed sterilisation was practised "under coercion and subterfuge", and that women giving birth to a second or even first child without possessing a "certified to bear children" permit were often liable to have their baby killed at birth by injection.

Human rights groups come to different conclusions about charges of coercive birth control policies in Tibet. The 1994 TIN survey argues that the evidence available is not conclusive. Dr. John Aird ( in "Slaughter of the Innocents" 1990) concludes that 'coercion has been an integral part of Chinese family planning', especially since 1979. Certainly, no Tibetan government cadre has ever been punished for the recognised cases of coercion. There is no express prohibition of forced abortions in provincial family planning regulations and Beijing's delegation of power to 'autonomous' regions like Tibet allows it to disapprove publicly of forced birth control (see China's White Paper on Tibet 1992), while tacitly encouraging it.

Fines and Punishment

The birth control regulations imposed on Tibetans affect both parents and children. Aside from complex regulations controlling how many children Tibetans can have, there are a series of fines and punishments for couples who break the rules and have an unauthorised child.

Ordinary Tibetans are allowed two children, employees of the state only one. In China's White Paper on Tibet, fines and punishments for urban Tibetans who exceeded the birth control quota were extended to all Tibetan residents of towns, whether or not they were government employees. In the May 1992 TAR Birth Control Regulations, an urban Tibetan couple who have an unauthorised child are fined at least 500 yuan - about three months income for a government employee, or a year's income for a farmer. The fine is 300 yuan if one of the couple does not have a "stable profession". Neither partner is then eligible for promotion, wage rises or bonuses for two years. The fine for a second illegal Tibetan child is 1,000 yuan for an employed couple, or 600 yuan for couples with no "stable profession". Families outside the state system who exceed the two-child threshold have to pay heavily. Fines can be as high as 8,000 yuan, about 10 or 15 times the average rural income, for an unauthorised child (1994 TIN Survey; pp.19-20).

Under the regulations, children can be denied residence, food rations or even schooling. Tashi Drolma explained that when her mother's cousin had a third child, the penalty did not stop at a huge fine. "When he [the child] is six, he will be barred from receiving an education and will not be given a food ration card. The family will have to share their own rations with him, and in addition pay 500 yuan a year as a penalty tax". (Craig; p.245) The Chinese working and living in Tibet are normally allowed only one child, so they officially have it worse than Tibetans. The fines are also much higher - 3,000 yuan for the first unauthorised child, 5,000 yuan for the second. Administrative punishments such as bans on promotion and salary cuts are greater, and there is compulsory sterilisation. Fines must be looked at though in the context of higher Chinese wages. Also, the Chinese may have greater access to officials who will interpret favourably the complex rules (1994 TIN Survey; pp.19-20).

Ideology of Birth Control: Eugenics

Underpinning China's birth control policy is an ideological conviction that national minorities are "racially inferior". Since 1988 its controversial eugenics plan to raise 'population quality' has been particularly directed at national minorities, including Tibetans. The presentation of the Draft National Law on Eugenics in December 1993, combined with the unsubstantiated announcement of high numbers of mentally defective Tibetans, indicates China's strong intention to apply eugenic controls on Tibetans in the future. It is also likely that there will be even more limits on the number of children. In a ministerial statement the minorities were identified as one of the groups responsible for the "inferior quality births" which China aims to stop. This new law, if implemented, is likely to lead to stricter and possibly more discriminatory birth control regulations in Tibet (1994 TIN Survey; pp.3-4).

FURTHER READING: Tibet Facts 2 (Chinese Population Transfer)
Tibet Facts 13 (Role of Women in Protest Movement)

All attempts to discuss Tibet are bedevilled by the Chinese redefinition of the country's borders since 1949. Tibet Support Group UK uses the term Tibet to refer to the three original provinces of U Tsang, Kham and Amdo (sometimes called Greater Tibet). When the Chinese refer to Tibet they invariably mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which includes only one province, U Tsang (the TAR was formally inaugurated in 1965). In 1949 the other two provinces, Amdo and Kham, were renamed by the Chinese as parts of China proper and became the province of Qinghai and parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces.

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