It might appear a quixotic crusade — a blind peasant with limited legal training taking on the Communist Party’s one-child policy, which has long been considered a pillar of the nation’s economic development strategy and off-limits to public debate. But the Linyi case marks a legal milestone in challenging the coercive measures used for decades to limit population growth in China.
While there have been scattered cases of individuals suing family planning officials, legal scholars say the Linyi farmers appear to be the first to band together and challenge the state’s power to compel people to undergo sterilization or abort a pregnancy since the enactment of a 2002 law guaranteeing citizens an "informed choice" in such matters.
"The population and family planning law affects everyone’s individual rights, so a case like this is an important test," said Zhan Zhongle, a law professor at Beijing University who helped draft the legislation. "By suing the government, the Linyi peasants are merely asserting their legal rights. Whether the courts accept the case, and how they handle it, will be a test of China’s justice system and of whether China can govern according to law."
Forced abortions and compulsory sterilization, though never openly endorsed by the government, have been an element of China’s family planning practices since at least 1980, when the national population topped 1 billion and the party concluded that unchecked growth could undermine economic development and launched the one-child policy. But resistance has always been widespread, especially in the countryside, where farmers depend on children to help in the fields and support them in their old age.
As rural anger mounted and international criticism of such practices grew, the party began experimenting in the mid-1990s with less coercive methods, expanding health services for women, providing more information about contraception and implementing regulations barring involuntary sterilization and abortion. The government adopted the law granting citizens the right to make an "informed choice" in family planning, and in recent years it has moved toward a system of economic rewards for couples with only one child and fines or fees for those with more.
But many local officials continue to rely on forced abortion and sterilization, in part because the ability to limit population growth remains a top consideration in party deliberations about promotions and raises. In much of China, an official who misses a population target, even if he or she excels in other fields, is dismissed, according to researchers and family planning officials.