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China birth-control policy: controversial but very effective

When delegates sit down at the United Nations population conference in Mexico City next week, China will almost certainly receive praise for its national birth-control program.

During the decade since the last conference at Bucharest in 1974, China's annual population growth rate has averaged 1.5 percent. It is estimated to be 1. 3 percent this year. For the previous decade, China's annual growth rate had been 2.6 percent.

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This slower growth for China's massive population of more than 1 billion people has made it a leader in family planning among third-world nations, Western experts here say.

But China also has been the target of continuing criticism from abroad for the way its stringent family-planning measures have been enforced. In particular , critics say, the one-child-per-family policy adopted in 1979 has made abortions commonplace. China's one-child-per-family policy reportedly has involved virtually mandatory sterilization for couples with two or more children in certain parts of the country.

The state's birth-control policies also have aggravated the problem of female infanticide in certain rural areas, though such cases are severely dealt with under the law, say Chinese officials. Shen Gaoxing, director of the education department of China's State Family Planning Commission, recently announced that while the problem still existed in China, ''The figures had dropped drastically.'' But he said he had no statistics on the subject.

Family-planning officials here admit there have been problems and excesses in implementing state policies. But they say that much of the criticism from the West arises because most Western countries have never faced overpopulation and do not understand the problem.

''There is much misunderstanding in the West about our family-planning situation,'' Mr. Shen said. For one thing, he says, China's overpopulation has been a heavy burden on its economic development plans. ''If we had adopted an appropriate policy during the 1950s and '60s,'' he said, ''we would not have had to advocate a one-child-per-couple policy now.''

Peking's family-planning program rests on the premise that China needs to control population growth as well as increase the production of goods and services if it is to reach its goal of quadrupling per capita income by the year 2000.

During the 1950s, a well-known dictum of Mao Tse-tung was, ''When there are more people picking up firewood, then there will be a bigger fire.'' Or put more directly: The more people there are, the more work will get done.

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By the early 1970s, Mao had revised his opinion about the advantages of a large population, but not before China had grown by more than 300 million people in the two decades after 1949. The children born during those years, especially during the ''baby boom'' of the early 1960s, now are reaching marrying age.

One particular cause for dispute between China and its family-planning critics concerns the degree of coercion in local enforcement of birth-control measures.

A Western observer who has interviewed many birth-control workers at the county and village level over several years confirmed that often they have been heavy-handed in their tactics. He attributed this partly to their lack of education and professional skills.

In recent months, however, he has noted a marked willingness to let a couple have the extra child if all other means of persuasion fail. In the past, he said , they would have required an abortion.

The main weapons in bringing down China's birth rate have been its massive public education effort carried out by tens of thousands of officials and part-time workers in every village and county in the country, and the liberal distribution of contraceptives. The social pressures the public education program has generated have been hard for most couples to resist.

''One of the objects of our work is to change the people's consciousness [ about the value of large families],'' Shen said.

He added that public surveys show that attitudes have changed significantly in the past 10 years and that many people - mostly in urban areas - no longer want many children. But many Chinese still value families that are larger than current policy allows, even with its exceptions, mainly for ethnic minorities.

The State Family Planning Commission recently reported that only 21.2 percent of married women of reproductive age who have children have only one child, although 70 percent of married couples of reproductive age have adopted some form of contraception.

''The one-child-per-family policy is not ideal,'' said Lin Wen Bing, director of education for Peking's Municipal Family Planning Commission. ''But we need to explain the true situation, to make (people) see the point that a lower population will benefit the state as well as themselves.''

The latest emphasis in family-planning education has been to counter the social effects of the nation's economic reform policies. The job responsibility system has permitted families in the countryside, where 80 percent of China's population lives, to go into business for themselves, thereby rewarding households with more laborers. The government has been trying to persuade Chinese peasants that the correct way to get rich is not to have more children, but to improve management techniques and adopt new technology.

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