China’s Aborted Openness

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency recently reported on a government investigation into a string of forced sterilizations and abortions in the village of Linyi, Shandong province. The speed of the investigation – said to have begun days after the kidnapping of Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist who had been a public advocate for the victims – and the candor of the report created the impression of greater government responsiveness and bolder official media. Is this impression right?

The story in Linyi is the kind of news that propaganda officials usually bury in the Communist Party’s secret files. According to reports, local authorities in Linyi, seeking to avoid exceeding birth quotas under China’s “one-child” policy, forced several women to undergo abortions and forcibly sterilized many couples with more than one child. Villagers who hid to avoid the campaign reportedly saw their family members jailed. Some in Linyi alleged degrading treatment, torture, and extortion.

Why investigate and report this scandal? The Xinhua reports, I believe, are best read as damage control.

China is trying to secure funding from the United Nations to improve reproductive health – an effort that has been set back by reports of forced abortion. Central authorities did not investigate the Linyi abuses until news of the harassment of Chen Guangcheng – and his abduction with the help of Beijing police – spread into international media.