talk: Peter Hitchens in a suburb of Kunming which
is a hot-spot for child abductions in China
things are for sure. It cannot now be prevented,
and it is already beginning to be obvious in the
schools. It is also stimulating a miserable trade
in stolen children.
Chinese state, never having intended this result
and increasingly alarmed by it, is now using all
its huge propaganda resources to try to stop the
slaughter of unborn girls.
it will be hard to fight against the cold hard
prejudice in favour of sons and against daughters,
rooted in a prehistoric belief that sons will
care for their aged parents while daughters will
cost money in dowries, and desert to the families
into which they marry.
problems were starkly obvious when I visited the
country districts around the medium-sized city
of Danzhou, among the rubber and sugar plantations
of sub-tropical Hainan Island.
I visited several state comprehensive schools,
primary and secondary, in Danzhou and in the nearby
These were not official visits, nothing had been
prearranged, and European foreigners are so rare
in this part of China that the children (and often
their friendly teachers too) were enthralled to
see that the Europeans they call 'long-noses'
really do live up to the name.
But as the children stared and chattered and giggled
- and pulled at their own little noses to make
fun of my enormous one - I quietly counted them,
while my colleague Richard photographed them.
in every cheerful classroom there was a slightly
sinister shortage of girls, as if we had wandered
into some sort of science fiction fantasy.
We had come to this region because of rumours that
it has the most startling ratio of boys to girls
in the country. One academic source has suggested
there could be a ratio of 168 males for every 100
girls in Danzhou.
tie their children to posts to stop them being stolen
is clearly out of kilter. In one class of ten-year-olds,
only 20 out of 80 were girls. In another classroom,
it was 25 out of 63.
is possible that some girls were being kept away
from school because their parents did not think
it worth sending them, but even so, the inequality
was enormous and perplexing.
What made it more disturbing was the way teachers
accepted there was a mismatch, but refused to
talk about how this could have come about. One
school principal simply would not discuss the
matter. There was a strong sense that I was breaking
a taboo by asking.
In a village primary school outside Danzhou, so
remote that the staff live behind the school building
in a dormitory and keep their own chickens, the
gap was not quite so obvious.
But an unusually talkative teacher reckoned that
in this small place there was a 60-40 ratio of
boys to girls. He laughed and said: 'The state
is always taking measures to try to persuade people
to have daughters. But the people have their own
first: A market worker in Kunming keeps her baby
close to her at all times
over this district, the evidence of government concern
is on display. A 20-yard-long propaganda poster
in one tiny hamlet dwells sternly and very frankly
on the problem, declaring: 'Our current family planning
policy is this, "Pay attention to the issue
of gender imbalance."'
It quotes a recent national census showing a growing
imbalance and predicts: 'In 2040 there will be 300million
men and 250 million women under 40. At least 30million
men will have difficulty getting married.
will cause "elements of instability"
and hinder economic growth. The harm caused by
this imbalance could include disintegration of
families, high divorce rates, "sex offences"
and distortion of the birth rate.'
The poster, astonishingly candid in a country
where critical journalism and dissent are still
suppressed with all the force of the state, is
sadly lame when it comes to suggesting what to
It calls for 'action to care for girls' and then
sets out four vague and wordy slogans which can
be summed up as 'girls are good'. And so they
we travelled around the countryside, it was interesting
to see that the traditional Chinese rural propaganda
- charmingly naive tiled pictures calling for one-child
families, until recently an inescapable feature
of the country's rural landscape, often on every
corner and at any crossroads - had recently disappeared,
or been covered up.
message remains but it has been altered, although
some old slogans, such as 'fewer births, better
are also financial inducements, important to parents
who have traditionally seen a big family as the
only promise of security in old age.
are only a girl. You are spilt water': This cold,
dismissive expression is universally used about
unwanted daughters - and to their faces
one model village, a neat concrete communist idea
of what rural life should be like, with its own
clinic and school, there is a poster advertising
benefits of £8 per month and easier access
to good schools for parents who stick to one child,
as well as large compensation payments by Chinese
standards (around £5,000) if an only child
a painted slogan also discourages the abortion of
unborn girls that everyone knows is going on despite
laws which - in theory - ban the use of scans to
check the sex of the child, and punish selective
red lettering on the village hall are the optimistic
words: 'Boy or Girl? Let Nature decide.' And huge
new billboards stand at key points throughout
They show idealised young families: a single daughter
accompanies her parents, her arms affectionately
outstretched amid fields of flowers. And they
carry such slogans as 'Caring for girls is caring
for the future of our nation!' or 'Times have
changed! Boys and girls are the same!' and 'Boys
and girls are both treasures'.
a scruffy roadside cafe next to one of these giant
placards a farmer from a rubber plantation muttered
mutinously: 'That's all very well, but they're not
the same really, and you want to be sure what it
is before you have it, if you only have one child.'
Classrooms are full of the ghosts of all those girls
who were never born
In fact, in country districts couples whose first
child is a daughter are usually permitted a second
chance. However, they take elaborate steps to
make sure that the second child is a boy.
this is not just a rural problem, and it is already
having some very nasty side-effects on China's urban
poor. From Hainan I travelled north-west to Kunming,
an outwardly civilised university city of six million
people, 6,000ft up on a high plateau.
I asked a Chinese friend (let us call her Yuan
Quan) to visit some abortion clinics for me, to
see what was going on in them.
legal clinics are openly advertised in the narrow,
poor and dirty streets of Kunming's inner city,
where grubby children play under the watchful eyes
of their mothers (we shall see why they are watchful
in a moment).
is also a police presence, but it far too often
takes the form of a strange black plastic Robocop
figure, which can be used like an old-fashioned
British police box to call for help.
of the many posters for medical services advertised
what it called a 'dream abortion - totally painless',
which made me wonder what the considerably cheaper
non-dream versions must be like.
Utopia: A poster advocates the one-child family
Quan slipped into a busy down-market establishment
in a grim and basic part of town, with a flourishing
market for stolen bicycles just outside, and the
police looking the other way.
She asked the abortionist if he ever aborted boys.
He gaped. 'Are you mad?' he almost shouted, 'Nobody
aborts boys unless they are deformed. Girls are
what we abort.'
cheap and squalid storefront business offers abortions
from around £10. Scans, which reveal a
baby's sex, cost a fiver. True, this is a rough
neighbourhood, but similar businesses flourish in
more respectable districts as well.
usually start from £20, while supposedly painless
procedures can go up to about £200.
authorities, who have no moral objection to abortion
itself, have been known to force women to have
abortions in their ninth month of pregnancy to
keep to the one-child policy.
They cannot really complain about the huge numbers
of legal, commercial abortionists. Nor can they
do much to ban the cheap portable scanning machines
which detect the sex of the baby and condemn so
many unborn girls to death.
you know more about China's attitude to girls, it
is surprising that so many survive. Yuan Quan told
me of her own experience: 'When I was a little girl
my grandparents doted on me, and gave me generous
presents. I was their first and only grandchild.
But when my aunt had a son, it all stopped.
presents got much smaller and the fuss died away.
My male cousin got all the attention. There was
no pretence about it. They would always have much
preferred a boy, and now they had one.
said to me, "You are only a girl. You are
spilt water."' This cold, dismissive expression
is universally used about unwanted daughters -
and to their faces.
were educated, urban people. Imagine, then, how
much coarser and more brutal the attitude is in
the villages or among the sweatshops where the poor
and uneducated gather.
a century ago, historians recorded that such sayings
as 'There is no thief like a family with five daughters'
and 'Daughters are goods which lose you money' were
common among Chinese peasants.
in those disease threatened times would often dress
little boys as girls in the hope of deceiving the
angel of death as it passed over their village.
this has survived into the 21st Century, and is
now combined with a government which puts frightening
pressure on every couple to keep to just one child.
civilisation might be 3,000 years old, but it
is very different from ours, as we shall learn
in more detail over the coming decades.
Kunming I saw another of China's harsh faces. You
may have seen pictures of children in cages, or
tethered to posts, and gasped at the cruelty. But
you did not know the half of it.
seemingly brutal parents are in fact trying to prevent
their children from being stolen.
are kidnapped by families who want a male heir and
do not care where they get him. Girls are taken
to be brought up as child brides for cherished,
spoiled boys, who will not have to worry about the
increasing shortage of girls.
danger is one that China's censored state prefers
not to talk about. When I arranged a meeting with
the parents of four abducted children in Kunming,
I was advised to speak only to the fathers.
on Hainan Island is the epicentre of China's gender
mothers, I was warned, would become too emotional
and might draw attention to our meeting. And that
had to be avoided in case the parents were prevented
by the authorities from attending.
feared that our meeting might even be raided by
the police, and were deeply nervous the whole time
I spoke to them, in the private room of a back-street
Chinese local authorities fight hard to keep news
of their failures out of the foreign Press.
even chase after citizens who go to Peking to
complain about their treatment, or to petition
for help. Parents who had put up posters begging
for news of their stolen children were shocked
to find that officials immediately snatched them
June 1 last year, International Children's Day,
dozens of Kunming parents held up posters in a central
square, advertising their missing children. City
officials told them to take down the posters and
disperse because they were 'defacing the city with
are the stories of the parents who talked to me.
Xiong Fu Ping, (like all the men I spoke to, he
is 36) lost his son Xiong Ting-Lei when the boy
was 16 months old: 'One minute he was playing outside
our house and the next he was gone.'
said a woman had driven the child away in her car.
Xiong Fu Ping has already spent nearly half the
family's income, which is just £80 a month,
on posters and advertisements for the missing boy.
Fa Ming lost his two-and-a-halfyearold little girl
Xiang Xiang (the name means 'One I long for'). Her
mother was looking after their sick son when Xiang
went out to buy an ice-lolly a few yards away. She
did not come back.
Fa Ming said: 'The police never contacted us after
we reported it. Now it is very hard to get hold
roamed the city, putting up posters, took out advertisements,
followed rumours, travelled to cities 1,000 miles
away when we heard stories of people selling abducted
children, but we found nothing, and were sometimes
beaten up because the people we were dealing with
were criminal types.
had a son and a daughter: what we call "a
dragon and a phoenix", the ideal, perfect
thing. Now that family is broken and there is
nothing you can do to bring it back.'
Yuan Ying Shu's two-and-a-halfyearold daughter
Yuan Ming was abducted a year ago.
police were alerted only 20 minutes after the child
disappeared while playing outside, but no clue was
ever found. They, too, have been following rumours,
Ding De actually has six children, an amazing breach
of the rules which he has got away with by living
'off the grid' and constantly moving from one city
to another: a ruse used by many who want traditional
20-month-old son Zhi vanished last September. The
police have advised the family not to advertise
their loss, in case they attract the attention of
those I spoke to are miserable and demoralised,
afraid that their children are being used for criminal
purposes. Li Fa Ming said: 'The meaning has gone
from our lives, I have one child remaining, he is
18 months old, and I will tell him when he grows
up that he must never stop searching for his sister.
I will never stop. The feeling of losing a child
like this is beyond words.
police, of course, say they are looking, but they
have seen so many of these cases they are numb.
This is the worst city in China for such abductions.
When it comes to keeping the lid on this, the government
wants peace and quiet. We are just going to have
to keep doing this to get attention.'
he quickly adds - and the others all anxiously
join in, fearful of offending the authorities
who rule their lives: 'I am sure the police are
trying their best.'
am not so sure myself. Although there has been one
recent case of a child being recovered by the Kunming
police, China's criminal gangs are powerful, and
the police are often weak and sometimes corrupt.
Clans and whole villages can and do combine to shield
child-thieves from the law because of the strong
and ancient prejudices in favour of continuing the
lingers in the mind, in the midst of this surging
economic and political titan with its dozens of
vast, ultra-modern cities, its advanced plans to
land men on the Moon, its utopian schemes to control
population and its unstoppable power over the rest
of the world, is the inconsolable misery of the
bereft parents, the pinched squalor of the places
where they must try to live a happy life, the jaunty
wickedness of the cheap abortion clinics and the
classrooms full of the ghosts of all those girls
who were never born.
we have been used to and thought of as normal is
coming to an end.