China's one-child policy puts a price on human life

A woman forced to undergo a late-term abortion receives 70,600 yuan in compensation.

How much is a human life worth? The Chinese authorities appear to have valued it at 70,600 yuan (£7,160). That is the amount they have agreed to pay to the family of Feng Jianmei, a woman forced to undergo a late-term abortion because she could not afford the fine for breaking China’s strict one-child policy.

The case, which I blogged about last month, caused outrage worldwide after a photograph of Feng with the dead seven month old foetus was distributed online.

The family – who suffered harassment and were labelled “traitors” for talking to foreign media – had planned to take legal action but have decided not to after the government announced the payout. Feng’s husband, Deng Jiyuan, told the Associated Press that his family wanted to return to normality.

While forced abortions are technically illegal in China, they are not unusual, given that the 300,000 officials employed to enforce the one-child policy receive financial incentives to meet quotas of abortions and sterilisations.

The sheer violence of what happened to Feng – who was hooded, bundled into a car and given an injection that induced a stillbirth – is difficult to comprehend. The emotive power of this incident has segued into a wider debate about the one-child policy, with prominent researchers both outside and within China urging authorities to ease the restrictions.

Chinese government researchers argued that the policy must be relaxed because of the drastically ageing population and an impending labour shortage. A group of Chinese scholars also signed a letter calling for a change to the law, reiterating the risk to economic sustainability – with the imminent crisis of a shortage of young workers – but also the human rights issue. James Liang, one of the signatories, said: "From an economic perspective, the one-child policy is irrational. From a human-rights perspective, it's even less rational."

So what are the chances of a change? If past example is anything to go by, they are slim – calls for a relaxation of the rules are nothing new. The regime still believes that there are too many people (an impression borne out by overcrowded urban centres) and besides, is risk-averse. The sheer size of China makes any central change slow.

While officials debate the economic and rational arguments for and against the one-child policy, women and families will continue to suffer. Last month, a former official with China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission made an astonishing tearful apology on television in Hong Kong. In an interview with Pheonix TV, Zhang Erli said: "I felt sorry for our Chinese women. I feel guilty. Chinese women have made huge sacrifices. A responsible government should repay them."

But "repayment" goes little way towards tackling the trauma of a forced abortion, or the invasiveness of vaginal checks and random pregnancy tests which are commonplace in some areas. Zhang Kai, a lawyer advising Feng and her family, dismissed the pay off: "70,000 for a person's life? It is too little."

The best repayment would be to end this policy, which is being used as a brutal tool against women and their rights over their own bodies.

A baby looks up at its mother on a street in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.