A recently released census in the People’s Republic of China reminds us that China is just as bad as the Republic of Gilead when it comes to the treatment of women.
More about the census in a moment, but perhaps you are already saying that’s not a reasonable comparison because Gilead is the fictional setting of Margaret Atwood’s chilling novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” now a celebrated Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss. But as Atwood observed, there is nothing in her novel that “didn’t happen, somewhere,” and China is doing its best to prove her point.
In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the government of Gilead, to compensate for an infertility crisis, has institutionalized rape in order to force young women, known as Handmaids, to bear children. Handmaids who dare exercise control of their sexuality are severely punished, especially if they engage in “gender treachery,” which is Gilead’s term for a lesbian relationship. One Handmaid caught in such a relationship was subjected to a clitoridectomy.
The Chinese government’s equally chilling version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” likewise involves forcible state control of women’s procreation for policy purposes, but with the opposite objective. I am referring to China’s genocidal policy of forcibly preventing Uyghur women in the western region of Xinjiang from having children.
China’s brutal campaign against Uyghur women was underscored this week by a national census report revealing that China’s population has barely increased over the past decade and that its demographic profile is rapidly trending older. In 2016 the aging crisis forced China to lift its “one child” policy, and the census report may lead to further easing of the current restrictions. It’s a crisis because, absent population growth, Chinese economic growth could falter.
China has long had a birth control regime, but when it comes to the Uyghurs, whom China fears as potential ethnic separatists, China is aggressively suppressing their birth rate despite its demographic time bomb. The suppression violates the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which prohibits “imposing measures to prevent births” within an ethnic or religious group.
One victim was Qelbinur Sidik, formerly a Uyghur teacher in Xinjiang. She recently fled China for The Netherlands and told her story to The Guardian newspaper and other outlets. In 2017, when Sidek was 47 years old and had one daughter, local officials told her to fit herself with an IUD, even though another pregnancy was unlikely. She insisted that she did not want more children, but the officials threatened her and her family and she gave in. The IUD caused her to bleed heavily and she paid to have it removed illegally. A routine medical check revealed the removal, and she was forced to have another IUD. “I felt that I was no longer a normal woman,” recalled Sidek who, unable to bear the IUDs, had herself sterilized.
It’s fair to ask how long the Uyghur community can survive. Research by Dr. Adrian Zenz, a leading China scholar, found that in 2018, an extraordinary 80 percent of net IUD placements (IUDs fitted less IUDs removed) in China were fitted in Xinjiang, even though that mostly Uyghur province has only 1.8 percent of China’s population. In the two largest Uyghur prefectures, or sub-provincial units, in Xinjiang growth rates fell by 84 percent between 2015 and 2018. A planned campaign of mass sterilization in rural Uyghur regions has received enough government funding for hundreds of thousands of tubal ligation sterilization procedures.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations, and the European Union, condemned as genocide this and other measures against the Uyghurs, including extrajudicial mass incarcerations, torture and forced labor, which violate multiple provisions of the genocide convention. China furiously denied the charge of genocide and imposed sanctions on some foreign critics. China also mounted a harassment and intimidation campaign against Uyghur women who publicly described their abuse by releasing the women’s private medical information and accusing them of having sexually transmitted diseases. One target was Ms. Sidek, who received threatening phone calls to her home in The Netherlands from policemen in China using her sister’s phone.
The comparison with Gilead in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is fair because China is doing terrible things to women.
Gregory J. Wallance is a writer in New York City and a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team that convicted a U.S. senator and six congressmen of bribery. He is a long time human rights activist and the author of “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and The Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy.” Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.