The China Model: Looking at Population Control

On March 9, 2009, I found myself sitting in a modest concrete farmhouse, deep inside the labyrinthine network of rural farming villages that make up Lipu County, China. Warm, clear sunlight streamed in the house’s open back door, a rare break from the unending drizzle that seems to plague southern China in the spring. Pinned carefully over the rough-hewn staircase, the ever-present portrait of Chairman Mao leered down at me like a malevolent household god.

Across from me sat a wizened man in a rickety wooden chair. A worn blue jacket hung from his bony shoulders, eerily reminiscent of the olive-drab jackets worn by the grim-faced Communist cadre members who had hounded almost my every step since I entered China two days earlier.

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Through an interpreter, I asked the man what would happen to a couple who had an “illegal” child, according to China’s infamous “planned birth policy.” The answer was something I had never heard before. “At the present time,” the man said, “if you don’t pay the fine, they come and abduct the baby you just gave birth to and give it to someone else.”

The interpreter, a slight, soft-spoken Chinese girl, turned to me and quickly translated what the man had said. I couldn’t believe it. I had heard of all manner of human-rights abuses committed in the name of this policy: forced abortions, forced sterilizations, arrests, destruction of property — but never outright kidnapping. This was new.

Two years later, the story of these kidnappings has exploded. Reports have flooded the news of “illegal” Chinese children stolen from their parents by population control officials, trafficked to orphanages, and adopted by unsuspecting parents from the West. It is part of what the world is reluctantly beginning to see as a growing pantheon of problems with China’s restrictive planned birth policy.

But back then, sitting in that little farmhouse on a warm spring day in southern China, it was a startling piece of information.

I had entered China two days earlier as an undercover operative, working for the Virginia-based Population Research Institute (PRI). In 2001, PRI had conducted a similar investigation in China, which discovered that Chinese family-planning officials were carrying out forced abortions and sterilizations with the full knowledge and consent of a United Nations agency, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The UNFPA’s own paperwork claimed that its involvement in China’s affairs had only served as a force for reform in the counties where it operated. Our investigation found that the very opposite was the case, as Chinese authorities captured and forced abortions on women, abusing them right under the noses of UN agents.

Our investigation was so damning that the State Department sent its own investigation to China, where they found our claims to be fully credible. The Bush administration promptly banned American tax dollars from going toward the UNFPA, a ban that remained in place until President Obama reinstated it in 2008.

My 2009 China expedition had a simple purpose: to check and see if the situation in these counties had improved. To no one’s surprise, it had not.

Back in the farmhouse, the old man got up, walked over to his phone, and dialed a number. I heard the phone ring on the other end a few times before someone answered. The man stared evenly at me as he spoke into the receiver: “There are foreigners here, interviewing me. They keep asking me questions about the policy. Maybe you’d better come over and talk to them. I’ll keep them here until you get here.”

I’ll remember the following adrenaline-fueled minutes for the rest of my life: Somehow we managed to get out of the house, cross several acres of rice paddy, find our car, and make a mad dash for the main highway without getting caught. I don’t use the word “miracle” lightly, but I think that day I experienced one.


When I recount this story and other tales of abuse in front of audiences today, responses are surprisingly mixed. Some people are shocked and horrified. Others are confused. But far more have a strangely measured, pragmatic reaction.

“Well, that’s probably not a good thing,” they say. “But China does have to deal with its overpopulation problem somehow. What would you suggest they do instead?”

It’s a common way of thinking: The world (particularly countries like China and India) is overpopulated. This overpopulation is wreaking havoc on the natural world, our resources, and our political landscape. Population control may be distasteful, and even sometimes morally repugnant, but it is often necessary for the survival of the species.

Although concerns about population date further back, the issue became a foreign policy matter in the United States in the 1960s, when we began requiring other countries to have population-control measures in place before they could qualify for foreign aid. United Nations agencies like the UNFPA still operate on this principle, which essentially makes them the world’s de facto population police.

Predictably, UNFPA leaders have praised the so-called “China model,” including a now-infamous 1991 statement from former UNFPA executive director Nafis Sadik. Sadik said that China had “every reason to feel proud of and pleased with its remarkable achievements” made in the name of population reduction, recommending that China “offer its experiences and special experts to help other countries.”

The idea of a worldwide overpopulation crisis has been debunked again and again. (PRI’s detailed analysis of world demographics can be found on its website,  The more serious and less well known problem, however, is that population control invariably involves human-rights abuses: There has never been an administrative population-control campaign that has not involved coercion, corruption, and the degradation of basic human dignity.

PRI president Steven Mosher, the first American social scientist to visit China, was in that country in 1979 when its one-child policy was handed down… and brutally carried out. Expectant mothers were dragged in for forced abortions and forced sterilizations. The families of women who fled were imprisoned; sometimes their houses were torn down as punishment. Babies who were born illegally were treated as social non-entities: Called “black children” by the authorities, they have no official Chinese identification and no right to government benefits like school or health care.


Thirty years later, the situation isn’t much improved. Homes are still torn down. Women (and men) are still arrested, sometimes tortured and mutilated. And now, children are literally stolen from their parents and sold abroad — for the sake of a problem that doesn’t exist — with the aid and collusion of the UNFPA.

And the abuse is not restricted to China: Vietnam has had a planned-birth policy in place for some time. Rwanda has instituted an administrative population-control goal, complete with plans to sterilize 700,000 men within 3 years. The Philippines has been battling forces within their government that are seeking to institute a two-child policy. All of these efforts are either implicitly or explicitly being promoted by Western NGOs, particularly the UNFPA. (For an excellent history of Western-funded population-control programs, I would recommend Steven Mosher’s latest book, Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits.)

It’s time for us to wake up and see population control for what it really is: a serious human-rights abuse made possible by generous tax contributions from our country and others in the West.


  • Colin Mason

    Colin Mason is the Director of Media Production at the Population Research Institute.

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