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Human Rights Quarterly 23.1 (2001) 119-147

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China to CEDAW: An Update on Population Policy

Carmel Shalev

"Hate the sin and not the sinner. . . ." It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself. For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.1

I. Introduction

In January 1999, the People's Republic of China presented its third and fourth periodic reports to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee). China's population policy had raised questions at previous reportings and continued to be of particular concern, not on a substantive level, but in relation to coercion in the implementation. This article presents the information that came to light in the course of the reporting process. Information on violations of human rights is largely anecdotal, due to restrictions on freedom of association and freedom of the press. Nonetheless, the anecdotes point to consistent patterns of abuse in violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). [End Page 119]

It appears that coercive measures, including economic sanctions and physical violence, continue to be employed by local officials, in violation of women's human rights, and are condoned by the state through its failure to take action against wrongdoers. Coercion is a response to popular resistance to the government's population policy. In rural areas, resistance is motivated by an economy dependent on family labor and traditional son preference. In ethnic minority areas (such as Tibet or Uyghur), the resistance is also politically motivated, in connection with freedom of religion. Coercive measures are targeted primarily at women, and thus, constitute gender discrimination. They not only violate fundamental human rights, but are arguably ineffective in achieving population goals. 2

The birth control policy impacts other forms of systemic gender discrimination. Harmful traditional practices associated with son preference in rural areas lead to sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, and the abandonment and non-registration of girl children. The imbalance in the sex ratio at birth raises concern about "shortages" of women in marriage cohorts and about societal instability, and has been linked with an increase in bride-selling and the trafficking in women. In addition, the policy has discriminatory effects in terms of women's mental and physical health, as a result of forced reproductive health interventions, sometimes performed by unskilled workers under nonhygienic conditions.

This article illustrates the monitoring and reporting process of a UN human rights treaty body. Information sources include official reports and statements by the state party under Article 18 of the CEDAW Convention, as well as information from other independent sources, including UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and academic journals. The information provided by NGOs is particularly noteworthy because restrictions on freedom of association in China prevent the kind of grass-roots organization that is critical to local human rights monitoring.

The CEDAW Committee has developed a working method for the examination of periodic reports. The official reports, together with the NGO "shadow" reports and additional information from independent sources, are considered by a pre-session working group. Its task is to present questions in writing to the representative of the reporting state party, in advance of the meeting with the Committee. The delegation of the state party meets with the Committee in "constructive dialogue" for a few hours. The representative of the government presents its responses to the questions of the pre-session working group, then CEDAW members are free to take the floor with additional questions and comments. Finally, the government representative [End Page 120] is given the floor for closing remarks. The Committee then sums up in "Concluding Comments" that are part of its official report.

Part II of this article gives an overview of the...


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