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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.

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

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.