Friday, November 14, 2008

One Child Policy, Research Ethics, and the Undoing of a China Scholar

Several readers have pointed me to a fascinating article by Steven Mosher that paints a vivid picture of how China's one child policy impacts lives, apparently updating work he did in a rural Guangdong village in the early 80s. I became increasingly fascinated by the story of Steven Mosher, the scholar, a figure with in ambiguous background. Maybe that's because I'm a scholar. But in digging into it, I learned tidbits about China that I thought were worth passing on.

In any event, the article starts like this:

Li Aihai, happily married and the mother of a 2½-year-old girl, had a problem.
She was four months pregnant with her second child. Sihui county family-planning officials had come to her home and told her what she alreadyknew: She had gotten pregnant too soon. She hadn’t waited until her daughter was four years old, as Chinese law required of rural couples. The officials assured her that, because her first child had been a girl, she would eventually be allowed a second child. But they were equally insistent that she would have to abort this one. It was January 2000.

She pleaded that she had not intended to get pregnant. She was still wearing the IUD that they had implanted in her after the birth of her first child, as the law required. They were unsympathetic. Report to the family-planning clinic tomorrow morning, they told her. We’ll be expecting you.

Aihai had other plans. Leaving her little daughter in the care of her husband, she quietly packed her things and went to stay with relatives in a neighboring county. She would hide until she brought her baby safely into the world. Childbirth-on-the-run, it was called. When the county family-planning officials discovered that Aihai had disappeared, they began arresting her relatives. . . .

The officials descended on the village with a wrecking crew armed with crowbars and jackhammers. These fell upon Aihai’s home like a horde of angry locusts. They shattered her living-room and bedroom furniture. They ripped window frames out of walls and doors off of hinges. Then the jackhammers began to pound, shattering the brick walls, and knocking great holes in the cement roof and floors. . . .

Aihai came back to find her family in prison, her home destroyed, and family-planning officials furious that she had thwarted their will. . . .

If you want your relatives released, they now told Aihai, you must pay a fine of 17,000 Renminbi (about $2,000). . . .

No sooner had she paid one fine than she was told she owed another, if she wanted to regularize her son’s status. He was currently a “black child,” family-planning officials explained to her. Because he was conceived outside of the family-planning law, he did not exist in the eyes of the state.

I've heard similar stories, as I'm sure many of you have as well. I have no reason to doubt the truth of the stories recounted in the article, though they probably don't paint a picture that is universally true, but the kernal of truth is why I'm sharing it. But I feel I have to add a caveat about the author and his research methods.

According to the website of the Population Research Institute, of which he is the president, Mosher "is widely recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on the population question. His writings demonstrate that overpopulation is a myth, and that the efforts of population controllers to reduce human numbers have led to massive human rights abuses and undermined the health of women and children." OK, I absolutely agree that population control policies in China and elsewhere have led to massive human rights abuses (and that seems a remarkably clinical description of some of the cruelties of the policies). Forced abortions, forced birth control, forced sterilizations, even the basic role of government in controlling the reproductive lives of women is anathema to me. But "overpopulation is a myth?" Not sure I buy that. And if his writings do, in fact, demonstrate that, it isn't evident in the writings on the website which I have perused fairly carefully.

So what about his educational background? What makes him "one of the world's leading authorities on the population question?" The website says he was "the first American social scientist to live in rural China in 1979-80," but it doesn't say what kind of social scientist he is. In digging into this, I discovered that his field was anthropology. Intriguingly, the website goes on to say, "Steve returned to his studies at Stanford University and wrote about the population control horrors he witnessed in China. Bowing to demands of the Chinese government, Stanford expelled Steve Mosher rather than grant him the PhD he had earned."

Does that sound plausible to you? That a major American university would bow to the demands of China and expell a PhD candidate? I don't think it could happen today, but that was in the early days of research opportunities in China. China could very well pressure a university in those days, and have a pretty good stick to use -- we'll shut you out and no one connected to you will be allowed to do any work in China. It could happen, I suppose, but reading that self-serving blurb, I figured there might be another side to the story.

Mosher was expelled from Stanford, and China was definitely unhappy with Mosher, but was China's unhappiness the reason he was expelled? Proving or disproving that causal link is the hard part. According to TIME, reporting at the time:
Mosher left China for Taiwan in June 1980, and in May 1981 took a step that angered Peking and appalled many anthropologists as well: he published an article
in the Times Weekly magazine in Taipei that described the mandatory birth control program in Chinese villages. The article was illustrated with photographs of women in advanced states of pregnancy who were about to have abortions. Peking saw the article as anti-Chinese propaganda. Zhao Fusan, a top official of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, warned Kenneth Prewitt, president of the Social Science Research Council, that if Mosher were not disciplined, there could be "negative consequences" for scholarly exchanges. In February 1982, Fusan asked Stanford to "deal with this matter sternly."

The university set up a fact-finding committee that looked into all the accusations against Mosher, including those by his exwife, who independently charged that he had acted unethically. After hearing Mosher's side of the case, twelve members of the anthropology department voted unanimously to expel him for "behavior inappropriate for an anthropologist." Mosher, who plans to appeal the decision to the Stanford administration and may take the case to court, insists: "I was expelled because Stanford chose to believe the charges brought against me by the Chinese and chose to believe that by publishing articles and photographs in Taiwan that I gravely endangered innocent villagers."

Mosher now admits that he was foolish to have published the article. Many leading U.S. anthropologists believe that it violated the profession's code of ethics by failing to disguise the women pictured and to protect their privacy. In addition, officials who allowed Mosher to take the photographs were exposed to possible punishment by higher authorities. Says Prewitt: "What Mosher discovered is an important contribution to anthropology. How he reported it is a tragedy for the field."

So, he might be an unethical researcher -- I can easily accept that publishing identifiable photos of those women endangered them and those who cooperated in getting the photos. And I can see that anthropologists are supposed to be neutral observers who follow a non-interference policy. I doubt that was China's concern in seeking to have Mosher disciplined, but I'm sure Stanford was concerned. Expelling him -- the nuclear option -- seems draconian, but Mosher also seems to have been unrepentant, not really recognizing that he violated any ethical obligations. I can understand a scholar becoming caught up and emotionally involved in the plight of his subjects, but I'm afraid that academic truth does not allow for it. He lost his objectivity, an unforgiveable sin for a researcher.

Then there are the questions about the accuracy of his work, which might also be explained by the loss of objectivity. Another social scientist, working in China at the same time as Mosher, questioned even the factual assertions we find in this article, criticizing Mosher's book on the same subject:

[Mosher's] writings on birth control policies seem to [suggest] that both late abortion and female infanticide are sanctioned practices. From my own daily readings of the Chinese press, and my own fieldwork in China in 1979-80 (at the same time Mosher was there), I would have to disagree. At most, I would say that in some localities, including the commune where Mosher was resident, national policies and recommended strategies to implement policy goals were disastrously misinterpreted by orverzealous local cadres. Mosher could easily have compared notes with Jack and Sulamith Potter, who were doing fieldwork in a nearby county at the same time, [The Potters ended up writing a fascinating book about China, China's Peasants: Anatomy of a Revolution] and/or read the national and provincial press to discover that something odd was going on in his area. In Shandong province, where I was working, rural couples were indeed under pressure to have no more than two children. The penalties for going over the recommended number included private payment (rather than collective coverage) for prenatal care, delivery, infant immunization shots, and eventual school fees. It was further stated that a family could not request expanded housing or an increase in private-plot lands to accommodate an additional child. Nor would it receive its additional grain at the brigade-subsidized price of .28 yuan per kilo, a threat that became meaningless within a year when grain production was transferred from the collective to household contracts. The other penalties that Mosher mentions in his book, Broken Earth, were not raised at all. And third-trimester abortions were out of the question.

But I find Mosher's account puzzling on further grounds. In one of his publications, he states that his community of 8,000 persons had a quota of no more than seven births a year. 1 find this totally unbelievable when the stated goal is a 1 percent birthrate, not rapid decimation. The quota in my area was twenty births per thousand population. Moreover, Shunde county, where Mosher worked, has a high percentage of households which are "overseas Chinese," meaning either families that have returned from overseas or that are supported by remittances from kinsmen (including husbands of women in the childbearing age groups) who are working in Hong Kong, Macao, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Until July 1983, overseas Chinese were exempt from the two-child limit. Mosher, married at the time to a Hong Kong resident from the village, could not have been unaware of what the official policies were in regard to overseas Chinese.

How accurate are these criticisms? Hard to say. The criticism seems to be two-fold: 1) Mosher extrapolated what he saw to make conclusions about general policy throughout China, and 2) Mosher made fundamental errors about the quota numbers, though he was clearly in a position to know the truth. The first criticism doesn't deny what Mosher saw, just the conclusions he drew. But accurate scholarship is more than reporting, it is also making judgments about observed events. The second criticism goes directly to accuracy, and is, therefore, much more troubling. He seems to have either accepted uncritically what he was told about the quota number, without checking with other counties to see if the number made sense, or he was simply mistaken. The first possibility suggests lack of judgment, the second was correctable, but wasn't corrected.

In conclusion (FINALLY!!! I hear you cry!), I find it difficult to rely on Mosher as a researcher. I'd say as narrative the article is very much worth reading. It includes in one place just about every horrible thing I've heard of family-planning officers in China doing to enforce the one child policy. But I don't want anyone to think that my linking to it constitutes an endorsement of any conclusions reached! (There, that's very stuffy and lawyerly, isn't it?!). Take it all with the proverbial grain of salt.


Wendy said...

I have to agree that his research is in question. SASW was my minor and I can say without question that he went way over the line and violeted ethical standards--I am with Stanford that they should have expelled him regardless of whether his claims were true.

I cannot comment on what he saw, I wasn't there, but I agree that is sounds like more sensationalism than accurate reporting and more involvement than observartion.

*On a personal note, I think he is way off base about overpopulation--it exists and is something our global world has to take more seriously.

Anonymous said...

Mosher was the darling of the pro-life movement for awhile because of what he wrote about China--that much I do know. The hardcore anti-contraception people liked the portrait of birth control, abortion, and infanticide being part of one ugly picture. I suspect there's more than a kernal of truth in this book but that it may not be accurate in all ways.