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Chinese fight accusations of forced abortion. Family-planning officials say they use persuasion -- not coercion

Sobbing, the woman turned away from the BBC television camera and walked slowly from her house, surrounded by officials and friends. It was a moving moment. With the birth of her second child only two months away, the woman had reluctantly agreed to an abortion after months of visits from officials urging her to obey China's radical new policy of one child to a couple.

Shown months later on European television in 1983,and later in the United States on PBS, the scene -- as well as the documentary -- had a powerful impact. It convinced many viewers, legislators, and government officials that the Chinese policy was coercive.

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Together with allegations made in a book by US academic Steven Mosher and three articles by former Washington Post correspondent Michael Weisskopf, the documentary ignited a controversy in Washington that is still very much alive.

The US Congress has already withheld $10 million from the United Nations population agency that helps China in census-taking and research and threatens to withhold as much as $38 million, or one-quarter of the agency's budget, in fiscal 1986.

The dispute raises fundamental issues about the one-couple-one-child experiment, one of the most daring yet tried to control record population growth rates. Is the program coercive? If so, is it the concern of any other country? Should China be that radical, introducing a policy that, for example, in India and in Africa (two other third-world areas with high growth rates) would be unthinkable?

What will happen as more and more Chinese earn higher incomes because of Deng Xiaoping's new decentralized, free-market economic reforms, and feel they can afford a second (or third) child?

The BBC film, entitled ``China's Child'' and shown in November 1983 in Britain, illustrates crucial areas of controversy. It portrayed the wife of a well-to-do farmer very much wanting a second child. It showed local officials visiting her daily to persuade her not to have it.

She resisted until the seventh month of her pregnancy. Then came the televised moment when she gave in and left the house in tears to have the abortion.

The Chinese, sources say, liked the film until it was shown in the US on public televsion close to the time when President Reagan made his April 1984 visit to Peking. American right-to-life groups reacted strongly and many Americans who, until then, had no strong feelings either for or against abortion were upset by the way the woman was treated.

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Concerned about the criticism, the Chinese began to criticize the film and the way it was made.

During a recent tour of China, this correspondent was twice told what officials say really happened. Their version was that the BBC pleaded to be able to shoot some abortion footage. The woman it showed had one child who was retarded. She hesitated over having the second child because she feared that it, too, might not be fully normal. Finally, the Chinese say, the woman decided against the second child, but the BBC chose to show her succumbing to pressure and not to mention the condition o f the first child.

The BBC strongly disputes this version. In London, a BBC spokesman replied that ``The woman clearly expressed to us her wish to have a second child because, she told us, she could afford to have two children.''

The crew ``had no way of knowing whether her son had mental problems or not,'' the spokesman said, ``but he looked and acted normally. No one told us there was anything untoward about him.''

One difficult area is the exact definition of ``coercion'' in a communal, Confucian society like China's, where people are amenable to higher authority. Deng himself has told UN officials that the one-couple-one-child policy is urgently necessary to avoid shortages of food, housing, schools, transport, jobs, and health care. Besides, he has said, the policy would apply for two generations only.

Other officials conceded to me that local cases of coerced abortion and sterilization had occurred. They agreed that some zealous local officials could have converted target numbers into fixed and mandatory quotas. But they denied that the Chinese policy was to ``coerce'' anyone. Rather, it was to ``educate'' and ``persuade.''

Western residents of Peking say the line between coercion and persuasion can easily be blurred.

``Local officials, not educated, may oversimplify,'' said one Western official. ``Maybe they don't explain policy very well.''

In fact, the desire to conform is believed to be so strong that people living in the overcrowded cities have apparently followed the government's lead. In one housing development in Shanghai, for example, more than 90 percent of births now are first children. One female worker in Shanghai told a member of our touring group that she and other mothers had to visit a local hospital once every two months. Any sign of a second pregnancy meant she was expected to terminate it then and there.

Details were unclear. The woman did not say how easy it might be to defy official ``advice'' and have the second child. It does appear that a great number of young couples in urban areas are now agreeing to having a single child because they thus become eligible for extra health care, more living space, and other benefits that vanish if a second child is born.

It also was not clear whether the hospital checks were confined to the Shanghai area, or were to be found further afield. But Reagan administration officials say flatly that ``coercion is the fact'' in China.

At the urging of, among others, Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York and Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, the officials say, all US money to the UN Fund for Population Activities will be halted in fiscal 1986 unless China radically changes course. Chinese officials, this newspaper learned, considered changing some aspects of policy, but finally decided in November to go on as before. Their line is to respond to US criticisms but not to be deterred by them.

Officials denied that many cases of coercion existed. They gave no specific examples. They were more prepared to respond to questions about female infanticide, which occurs in other third world countries as well. They gave the group a report of prosecutions in 1982, 1983, 1983, and early this year. Sentences ranged from 13 years to six months. Third of several reports from a recent eight-city tour of China.

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