A veiled cri­tique of the one-child pol­icy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Steven W. Mosher

In out­line, Mo Yan’s new novel, “Frog,” sounds sub­ver­sive enough: A jilted Chi­nese mid­wife turns agent of the state. She is re­lent­less in her pur­suit of women who have con­ceived “il­le­gal” sec­ond chil­dren. She is piti­less in co­erc­ing them one and all into ter­mi­na­tions.

But 30 years (and thou­sands of forced abor­tions) later Gugu — the mid­wife in ques­tion — has a change of heart.

Filled with re­morse, she mar­ries a tal­ented sculp­tor of clay dolls, then sets him to work mak­ing clay fig­urines of her tiny vic­tims: one for each of the 2,800 ba­bies whose life she has ex­tin­guished. She turns one of the rooms of her house into a kind of shrine, fill­ing it floor to ceil­ing with the fig­urines. She goes there daily to light in­cense and pray for their souls.

Upon wit­ness­ing this scene, her nephew ex­claims: “I knew that by em­ploy­ing her hus­band’s tal­ents, Gugu was bring­ing to life all the chil­dren she’s stopped from be­ing born. I guessed that was her way to as­suage deep-seated feel­ings of guilt ... .” The re­pen­tant mid­wife is even made to ut­ter the un-Com­mu­nist sen­ti­ment that, once the souls of the sac­ri­ficed chil­dren have reached “spir­i­tual at­tain­ment” they can be “re­born.”

This is ob­vi­ously not a full-throated en­dorse­ment of the Chi­nese State’s one-child pol­icy by a party pro­pa­gan­dist. But nei­ther is it an un­am­bigu­ous con­dem­na­tion of a pol­icy that has cost the lives of some 400 mil­lion Chi­nese, ei­ther. Each time Gugu com­mits some new atroc­ity, Mo Yan has her launch into a de­fense of Bei­jing’s Dra­co­nian pro­gram. She re­peat­edly par­rots the regime in claim­ing that the pol­icy was nec­es­sary for the coun­try’s devel­op­ment and was “a con­tri­bu­tion to hu­man­ity.” China is sav­ing the planet, you see.

Mo Yan is no Alexander Solzhen­it­syn, ea­ger to ex­pose the crimes of the Stal­in­ist state that he re­sides in. Truth be told, this po­si­tion is al­ready be­ing ad­mirably filled by Liu Xiaobo, who won the No­bel Peace Prize in 2010, and who is cur­rently serv­ing an 11-year pri­son sen­tence as, one might say, the “dis­si­dent writer-in­res­i­dence” at Qincheng Pri­son out­side of Bei­jing.

In fact, Mo Yan should prob­a­bly split his prize money for the 2012 No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture with Liu Xiaobo. Liu’s No­bel Peace Prize sent the Bei­jing regime into pre­dictable parox­ysms of anger. And its out­rage in turn may well have prompted the No­bel Com­mit­tee to dou­ble back to China a cou­ple of years later. And in Mo Yan they found one of Bei­jing’s house au­thors who is gen­er­ally care­ful to work “in­side the sys­tem.”

Dis­si­dent writ­ers like Liu Xiaobo not only tell the un­var­nished truth about life in China, they coura­geously de­nounce those who lead it. In­side-thesys­tem writ­ers like Mo Yan, on the other hand, blame lo­cal of­fi­cials for ex­cesses and abuses, largely ex­cul­pat­ing their su­pe­ri­ors, and com­pletely ex­cus­ing the sys­tem it­self.

In “Frog,” for ex­am­ple, he keeps the fo­cus of his book nar­rowly on Gugu and her nephew, re­fus­ing to ad­dress the over­all cost of the pro­gram, or re­flect on the wis­dom of those who or­dered it. In this he mim­ics the party-state it­self, whose top lead­ers in­vari­ably blame lower-level of­fi­cials for car­ry­ing out in­hu­mane poli­cies that they them­selves have or­dered be en­forced.

Still, Gugu’s late-in-life re­jec­tion of the one-child pol­icy im­plies dis­sent, even if Mo Yan is care­ful not to de­clare him­self openly. In­stead, speak­ing through her nephew, he ob­serves that “if no one had done what [Gugu] did, it is truly hard to say what China might be like to­day.”

Here Mo Yan chooses his words very care­fully — as those in China who wish to avoid cen­sor­ship, if not ar­rest and im­pris­on­ment, cus­tom­ar­ily do.

Chi­nese is a slip­pery lan­guage, full of ho­mo­phones and the dou­ble and even triple en­ten­dres that they al­low.

“It is truly hard to say” (zhende hen nan­jiang) can be taken in one of two ways. It can be taken fig­u­ra­tively, in which case Mo Yan’s ver­dict on the one-child pol­icy would mean some­thing along the lines of “the con­se­quences of unchecked re­pro­duc­tion might have been cat­a­strophic.”

But it can also be taken lit­er­ally. In which case Mo Yan is say­ing that it is “hard” (in a to­tal­i­tar­ian state) to “speak” the truth.

For the sake of his fel­low writ­ers in China, in­clud­ing the im­pris­oned Liu Xiaobo, I hope that he meant the lat­ter. If he will use his new­found stature to protest the sup­pres­sion of speech to pro­tect state power he could do tremen­dous good. Steven W. Mosher, pres­i­dent of the Pop­u­la­tion Re­search In­sti­tute, is the au­thor of “A Mother’s Or­deal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Pol­icy” (Park Press).

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