For more than three decades now, state control over childbirth has been a fact of life in China. Abortions usually do not raise eyebrows in the land of the one-child policy. But a late-term abortion involving a seven-month old fetus, in a provincial city, is breaking into the national consciousness and has become a national, and international, media sensation.
Why? What makes this case so different?
First, it was illegal. By China's own laws, an abortion at such a late stage in a pregnancy is against the country's constitution. Local authorities had to carry out something akin to a manhunt before finding 23-year-old Feng Jianmai, forcing her to sign a letter of consent, and then injecting her with drugs meant to induce a miscarriage. That took place on June 2. The reason was her family's inability to pay a 40,000 yuan (over $6,200) fine for having a second child in violation of government restrictions.
But that wasn't the end of it. After Feng and her family went public with the story, local officials paraded with banners condemning them as traitors or maiguozei (literally nation-selling thieves) for speaking with foreign journalists.
Second, it was highly graphic. Grisly images of the woman with her aborted fetus were posted on Chinese micro-blogs. The sensational images did not fail to evoke a sensational response.
Third, it was public. The speed with which both the images and news of the abortion spread across the Chinese web made it nearly impossible for authorities to restrict. The abortion occurred in a local hospital in Zhenping County, outside the city of Ankang in Shaanxi Province. In a few days, the country's leading web portals and micro-blog sites were carrying slideshows and updates. The blatant abuse of local power and disregard for the law reverberated around a country increasingly concerned with social fairness, accountability and transparency.
So how common is such an act in China today?
In one sense, the massive response suggests that it was quite rare. Although human rights groups say abuses in one-child policy enforcement are still quite common, authorities today can more readily rely on financial punishments.
And the financial disincentive to restrict births is quite powerful. No one wants to be slapped with a fine that can be many times higher than their own average annual salary. The fine against Feng was locally adjusted. Payments elsewhere can be in the hundreds of thousands of yuan, or even millions of yuan -- hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars -- depending on the number of subsequent children. Independent researchers and activists against the policy say the government has taken in $314 billion since 1980 from birth fines. That high number, essentially a birth tax, indicates the government was not very successful at enforcing compliance.
But in fact the one-child policy was never meant for the entire population. City dwellers were most harshly affected, but they are the least likely to have more than one child to begin with. In many rural areas, first having a daughter meant that many families could have a second child. In many other areas, minority populations and non-Han ethnic groups had no restrictions on birth. Only children who marry other only children are also exempt from the rule.
Recent estimates from the Economist based on figures from the U.N. state that, had China really enforced a universal one-child policy, its population today would be only around 800 million, not the actual figure of 1.34 billion.
In addition, in recent years families have increasingly found ways around the policy. Some call in connections and friends in government in order to avoid punishment; others buy black-market hukou IDs for themselves or their children (a hukou is a household registration document that determines where one can legally reside, buy homes, go to school, seek work, and other activities) to get around restrictions.
So enforcement of China's one-child policy, as is the case with all legal enforcement in China, has always been spotty -- perhaps getting even spottier with time.
Criticism that demographic decline in China has already left it with a massive labor shortage and retirement income crisis has pushed increasing numbers to oppose the policy. Yet large numbers still support the plan in principle. In a 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey conducted in China, more than three-fourths of respondents said they approved of the policy.
If the government is ever to do away with the plan, it will likely be in a gradual manner, similar to policy experiments that have already occurred in Shanghai, a city that has one of Asia's lowest birth rates.
But perhaps that's another reason why this particular case has created such a backlash among Chinese citizens. In an environment where everyone acknowledges an atmosphere of increasing laxity in birth enforcement, the extreme example in Zhenping would appear all the more hateful.
One consequence is that the government can no longer ignore the wave of anger welling up across the country. State media reported on Wednesday that local officials had been fired over the incident.
The official Xinhua news agency noted that the government has decided to subject Yu Yanmei, deputy county magistrate of Zhenping in charge of family planning, to administrative demerits according to national and provincial policies and regulation.
Other reports added that Jiang Nenghai, head of the family planning bureau of Zhenping, has been removed from his post. Minor officials at the township and county levels and in the local hospital were also punished for using crude means.