Commentary Magazine

A Mother's Ordeal, by Steven W. Mosher

China’s Lost Children

A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy.
by Steven W. Mosher.
Harcourt Brace. 335 pp. $21.95.

Of all the world’s languages, few can be more vividly informed by images of home and family than Chinese. The character for “good,” for example, is a son and a daughter. “Safe” or “secure” is rendered as a woman with a roof over her head. A woman who is pregnant will commonly describe her condition as “having happiness.”

Originally even Chairman Mao subscribed to the view that the more Chinese, the merrier, and rejoiced in the muscle of China’s millions. But later he changed his mind. In one of those swings of the pendulum that have wreaked such damage on the Chinese people over the centuries, party officials in the 1970’s launched what has become the most ruthless population-control program in history, the so-called one-child policy. As usual, the masses lagged behind the vanguard, and measures to ensure their conformity became progressively severe.

In 1980, Steven Mosher, a doctoral student at Stanford University and one of the first Western academics to visit a then-newly-opened China, was also among the first to expose the harsh realities of Chinese population control. Over the course of a year spent in rural Guangdong, Mosher witnessed Chinese women being herded into clinics to be aborted and sterilized. Others were subjected to family-planning “study sessions”—much like the “struggle sessions” of the Cultural Revolution—in which they were harangued and cajoled by local officials.

All these abuses Mosher duly reported in studies that would eventually result in his first book, Broken Earth. But Mosher’s findings proved almost as embarrassing to the West as to Beijing; in response to pressure from the Chinese, who threatened to cancel all academic exchanges, Stanford chucked Mosher out of its doctoral program. Few rallied to his side.



Now Mosher has returned to the issue in A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy. Along with John S. Aird’s 1990 classic treatment,1 Mosher’s latest work should remove any doubts about the nature and reach of the Chinese program. But what makes his book so compelling is Mosher’s decision to stay in the background and allow the drama to unfold through the voice of a participant-turned-victim, a Chinese nurse now living in America whom Mosher names Chi An.

In China, Chi An had brutally implemented population control on others—her activities included hunting down, forcibly aborting, and then sterilizing a best friend who had gone into hiding to have her second baby. Then, after joining her husband in America—he had come here on an engineering scholarship—Chi An suddenly found herself on the other side of the Chinese authorities when she herself became pregnant. Mosher details the extraordinary lengths to which the Chinese bureaucracy went from afar to have her abort (“Comrade Chi An,” read one letter, “any further delays and you will be punished according to the law. There is nothing ambiguous about our order!”); the anguish that would not go away even after the birth of her daughter (“she was both balm and wound, consolation and accusation, for her very presence seemed to speak to me of all those other children who were absent”); and the couple’s ultimately successful bid for political asylum.

For the most part, however, A Mother’s Ordeal is simply a retelling of Chi An’s life, which is the story of how a nice girl got involved in a dirty business—and also, thereby, the story of modern China.

Chi An was born in 1949, the year the Red Flag was first raised over Tiananmen Square. In contrast to her elder brother, whose birth, ensuring the family line, occasioned great celebration, Chi An does not even know the exact date she was born. Her childhood, normal enough, was punctuated by the hardships and occasional food shortages ushered in by Mao’s grand experiments. When the Cultural Revolution arrived in the 1960’s, Chi An was a teenager, the perfect age; she reports the rush of pride she felt when she slapped the president of her college during a public “struggle session.” For this she was awarded a coveted Red Guard armband.

But then the Cultural Revolution petered out, and Chi An ultimately settled into a nursing career. In China this meant that she would be enforcing the country’s population program. She and her team traveled into the countryside to insert IUD’s and to abort and if possible sterilize peasant women:

We worked very fast—one four-inch incision in the lower abdomen, clamps to hold it open, the bladder flipped up out of the way, left and right fallopian tubes severed, the several layers of muscle and skin sutured back together, and then onto the woman on the next table. “This is like spaying sows or cows,” the doctors used to joke coarsely after several days of morning-tonight sterilizations. “I bet we are almost as fast as veterinarians.”

Occasionally Chi An suffered pangs of guilt, as when the only son of a village woman who had recently been sterilized was struck down by meningitis. Late-term abortions were the worst: one runaway girl brought in by the authorities went into labor before she could be aborted; her infant shrieked for a half-hour before dying from an injection of formaldehyde into the soft spot in his tiny skull. Chi An was spooked when a fellow population officer kidded her about having “lots of little hands clawing at you” in the next life.

But the horror the reader feels in following Chi An’s story has less to do with abortion per se than with the accompanying elements of coercion and violence, and less to do even with these than with a philosophy which impels the regimentation of the life-force itself according to some abstract central-planning target. The list of specific indignities imposed on the Chinese people by that philosophy is numbing: factories keeping track of their female exployees’ menses; couples forced to sign an agreement at marriage that they will have no more than one child; births allocated by ration tickets; the inserting of steel IUD’s which can show up on regulation X-rays; and so forth.

The party’s retreat to euphemism—“persuasion,” “remedial measures,” “administrative action”—only sharpens the Orwellian edge. In an interview recently reprinted in the South China Morning Post, the director of the Chinese population-control effort, Peng Peiyun, conceded that what Beijing calls persuasion the West defines as force. (“We in China,” she said, “consider it to be persuasion and reasoning until she agrees” [emphasis added].) Chi An became an expert in such persuasion, locking up those who would not go along until they changed their minds.



All this Chi An tells in clear and direct prose, the more striking because there has been little effort to conceal the colder aspects of her character. Not that Chi An is, or was, any kind of monster. Rather, she is an ordinary human being whose own survival, like the survival of those around her, depended on her deadening the normal impulse to empathy and decency. “It was,” she says, “dangerous in China to be too sympathetic to others.”

Today her story has acquired particular urgency. This past spring, both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran pieces highlighting the grisly facts behind the just-released Chinese figures for 1992, which show that the country has met population-control targets hitherto thought impossible until 2010. The irony involved in such exercises does not escape Chi An. Mao came into power proclaiming that “women hold up half the sky”; after four decades of rule by a one-party state, his heirs have decided to hold not themselves but Chinese mothers responsible for the country’s development. “How convenient,” she notes, “for the authorities to have a prestigious foreign theory—overpopulation—that allows them once again to shift the blame onto the Chinese people.”

As for Chi An herself, she and her family are safe in the U.S., thanks to a decision by then-Attorney General Edwin Meese to extend refugee status to those caught in her dilemma. Expressing her appreciation with typical Chinese grace, Chi An has named her daughter Mei, which means beautiful. It is also how the Chinese say America.


1 Slaughter of the Innocents: Coercive Birth Control in China (American Enterprise Institute, 1990). Aird, who has been writing about Chinese demography for more than three decades, marshals an exhaustive body of evidence to refute the idea that there is anything moderate or voluntary about Beijing's one-child policy. “The Chinese program remains highly coercive,” he writes, “not because of local deviations from central policies but as a direct, inevitable, and intentional consequence of those policies.”

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