- Behind the Silence: Chinese Voices on Abortion
Nie Jing-Bao’s book Behind the Silence is an exceptionally thorough and well-documented examination of abortion in the PRC. This is a truly pioneering work in that the PRC government’s antagonism to research that has anything to do with the one-child policy has, until now, made such a project impossible. Nie successfully overcame this barrier, however, producing this very important contribution to the academic study of China.
The book draws on fieldwork in five Chinese cities (Beijing, Changsha, Dalian, Guangzhou, and Qingdao) and three villages in Hunan. It includes thirty interviews with women who had abortions and thirty interviews with doctors administering abortions. Nie also provides data from his survey in China, which had a total of 601 respondents, as well as a smaller survey he conducted of Chinese residing in the United States.
The book begins with a brief foreword by Arthur Kleinman, who vividly demonstrates the often great gap between Chinese and Americans on the issue of abortion. The introduction outlines the array of Western responses to China’s one-child policy, ranging from outraged condemnation to sympathetic support. Chapter 2 provides a well-written and detailed outline of the PRC’s history of population growth, laws concerning abortion, and the one-child policy. Chapter 3 addresses views on abortion in imperial China. [End Page 186]
Chapters 4–6 deal with responses to his surveys, interviews with women who have had abortions, and interviews with people administering abortions, respectively. All three chapters contain a wealth of information and succeed in giving a sense of the range of emotional and intellectual responses to this matter.
In Chapter 7 Nie explores the slippery issue of “coercion” as a response to Western attacks on China on the one-child policy. Chapter 8 is the conclusion.
Nie creates a well-balanced account of both abortion and the one-child policy. He neither condones the human tragedies caused by coerced abortion nor approves of the demonization of the government, which, he points out, takes no joy in the traumas the one-child policy has inflicted but, rather, enforces the policy out of a sincere concern for the public good (p. 189).
Nie points out that the policy has reached its goals in that China’s growth rate has leveled off at 2 percent in the last two decades (p. 200). In contrast with many Americans’ outspoken condemnation of the one-child policy, many of the respondents to his survey stated that they wanted abortions for their own reasons (p. 149). Also, though most of his respondents reported that they would prefer two children, the majority of them also supported the one-child policy (pp. 113, 116, 132, 154) and even endorsed the idea of coerced abortion for women violating the one-child policy (p. 117). Nie likens this issue to paying one’s taxes in the United States in that one might desire to maximize one’s personal gain by paying as little tax as possible while still recognizing that taxes are necessary for society as a whole (pp. 207–211). Thus, the tension of what is good for the individual and what is good for the nation becomes an important theme of this book.
As with any work, there are points that could have been stronger. Nie highlights the arguments that people have extremely diverse views of abortion in China and that this demonstrates that China is not as homogeneous as presented in the West. These are very important points, and it is good that they were raised, but they tend to dominate the theoretical focus of the book to a degree that might not be warranted. Given that the book is written for an academic audience, which has already come to accept the idea of China being more heterogeneous than once believed, Nie’s ideas on this matter were sufficiently demonstrated in the introduction, and indeed with the materials...