Thirty years ago, Guan County, Shandong Province launched the “Hundred Childless Days” campaign under the aegis of national family planning, known in the West as the “one-child policy.” The birthplace of the “Boxers” was deemed to have too high a birth rate by the provincial government. County officials sought to correct this by ensuring that not a single baby was born between May 1 and August 10, 1991. As local accounts attest, authorities in the area went to extraordinarily inhumane lengths to be the “best” at reproducing the least.
In what some locals called “the slaughter of the lambs,” women across Guan County were rounded up for forced abortions or induction of labor; one local official claims that these “procedures” were sometimes no more than a kick in the stomach from an out-of-town mercenary. Children who did make it into the world were reportedly strangled, and their bodies tossed into open pits. The families of pregnant women were publicly shamed in reprises of the Cultural Revolution.
Under the one-child policy, local officials in China were responsible for implementing broad guidelines from the central government about family planning quotas, leaving little oversight of how localities reached their target birth rates. In some extreme cases, such as in Guan County, this led to gruesome abuses. While the “one-child policy” was loosened to a two-child policy in 2015, its lingering effects will only be felt more acutely in the coming years. As China’s population ages and may be shrinking, the economic and social repercussions wrought by a generation of curtailed births are only just beginning to sting.
These testimonies were posted by @无逸说 (Wuyishuo) to their WeChat public account on March 15, but have since been censored for “violating regulations.” The provenance of these accounts is unclear, but their details are consistent with information found elsewhere. The Phoenix TV documentary mentioned in the piece below is no longer available online but the transcript is archived. The accounts seem to date back about 20 years, but they were completely new to Wuyishuo, as the post author explained in a brief preface. The post is translated in full below:
“The Hundred Childless Days,” Guan County, Shandong, 1991
My first response to this documentary was that it was all a rumor. But when I started to look for refutations, lo and behold, I found none.
Perhaps, I thought, this was due to relevant departments’ habit of “refutation through deletion.” However, when I came across several audio recordings, a Phoenix TV interview with a family planning official who did not deny it, and Guan County online forum where no one refuted it (and indeed several provided first-hand evidence), I knew I had to set the record straight in the hope of providing future generations a more rigorous understanding of what really happened.
Witness I, Part 1
Banners filled the streets with recycled slogans: “Better to stop the family line and put the Party at ease,” “A rope to hang yourself, a bottle to drug yourself,” “Better to miscarry than to give birth,” “Be resolute in carrying out policy, absolutely no more children.”
Tents lined the thoroughfares of the county seat, and inside every tent were pregnant women about to go into labor. At the time people with a rural hukou were prohibited from having children, regardless of their individual circumstances. If word of the policy reached you late and your child was already born, it still didn’t matter. Hardly any children survived. To the west of the county hospital was a garbage dump with two wells several meters deep, practically overflowing because so many bodies were thrown in every day.
It all started on April 26 of that year during a meeting of the county Party committee. It was only my third day as secretary of my village Party committee. Just as I was about to get off work, Young Zhao, the courier, said to me: “Secretary Zhang, tomorrow morning the county Party committee will convene an all-hands meeting in the guesthouse. All village and town deputy Party secretaries and above have to go.” This was the first time since joining the government I had heard of such a thing, a meeting of every official who held real power. Maybe the new Party head was trying to shake things up a bit? But my first day on the job, the former county Party secretary had been demoted because he hadn’t done enough for the family planning program. It couldn’t be because of this!
At the guesthouse, an official explained how the county’s family planning program was going. In short, our county was in last place out of the entire province and had been put under special management. The county committee had been officially warned that if the situation did not improve, the lot would be forced to resign. The county secretary shouted himself hoarse, he was so furious: “I’ve already given the municipal committee its marching orders. If we do not go from last to first within a year, I’m willing to face the Party discipline committee without complaint. We can’t turn our county around if we keep doing the same old thing. If we are to succeed, we’ll have to make painful decisions. We must take extraordinary measures, put forth extraordinary effort, do extraordinary things, and render extraordinary service. That is to say, I don’t care what you do in your village or town, the birth rate must drop. Today is the swearing-in ceremony for this new effort. I’ll give you five minutes to think about it. You’ll have to give it your all to succeed. If you don’t think you’re up to the task, I call on you to immediately step aside and give way to those comrades who are willing to go the extra mile.”
The secretary finished speaking and the entire hall fell deathly silent. Then a chatter arose. From the podium, you couldn’t tell who was saying what.
After five minutes were up, the 22 local Party secretaries declared where they each stood. The county secretary called roll from front to back. I don’t know if it was because they weren’t prepared or what, but there were two deputy county secretaries who said they wouldn’t be able to complete the task in the time allotted. The reasons they gave were the ideological deficiencies of the masses, the sloppy work ethic of local cadres, poor-quality propaganda, concerns about unresolvable consequences, and so on. The county Party secretary replied with a snicker: “Look at you two genuine cadres, speaking so honestly! Good for you!” He then turned and yelled, “Guards!” Four guards came forth, one to each side of the unfortunate deputy secretaries. “Cuff them and lock them up!” The entire hall was mortified! The two didn’t even know what hit them as they were brought to the holding cells.
“People like them think that just because they’re the big boss back at home they can trade barbs with the county committee! We’re going to detain them for half a month, then let the Party discipline committee and the prosecutor see if they haven’t broken any rules!”
After a lull, the Party secretary continued in a more relaxed tone. “Some say I’m arbitrary, that I do as I please, that I like to play the despot. But if I don’t, how will our work ever get done? I was born to a military family, and I know by heart that “it takes a thousand days to raise an army and only an instant to use it.” Why has the nation invested so much in us cadres? It is because we are here to solve her problems and take on her burdens. What is family planning? It is national policy. What are national policies? They are the most fundamental policies of our country. Our county has utterly failed in carrying out this policy. Otherwise, why would we be sitting here now? If you hide from problems and shirk your duty, what use are you as a Party member and official?”
I thought that this campaign wouldn’t be too difficult, since we had the backing of the county Party committee. But I was in for a surprise. I was the first to start getting my fellow cadres in line, since nothing could get done without them. But when I imitated the county secretary in a meeting by asking who was up for the job, about half of my cadres immediately asked to be transfered! Despite making arrangements with the police, when I called on them to detain two troublemakers among my ranks, they laughed and nervously dragged their feet. I was so angry that I abruptly adjourned the meeting, admonishing everyone to go home and think about whether they could get with the program.
Later, I called the police chief into my office to ask why they hadn’t detained the two troublemakers. But before I could open my mouth, he scurried over and hurriedly explained: “Our work here in the village is different from the county. We’re all locals here, so you can’t really expect us to stir the pot. In fact, arbitrarily detaining this or that person is illegal, so it would be hypocritical for us to break the law we’re sworn to uphold! What you should do is detain only key people. With them out of the way, your work will be a whole lot easier.” This guy was telling me how to do my job, and it was obvious he was trying to intimidate me, the new Party secretary. If I couldn’t even get the police to cooperate, it would only be an uphill battle ahead.
Our county secretary, now there was someone who could sympathize with his subordinates! He knew I was a novice and that I would be vexed by the magnitude of my task. Before I could even report back to him about the mobilization meeting, he already knew the situation in my village like it was his own! The next day, he personally came to reassign the entire panel of local leaders, demoting that arrogant police chief to officer and moving him to another village. Serves him right! Did he really think he could embarrass me and get away with it?
And so with utmost ferver the village set out to address illegal births. Ultimate responsibility rested with me, as it did with the secretary of every village and town. In our village we lead by example: We started with ourselves, our own households, the people around us, our own families. Without exception, anyone who was pregnant had to have an abortion, and all pregnancy permits were annulled.
Witness I, Part 2
If the Chinese Revolution has taught us anything, it’s that political power—stable political power— grows out of the barrel of a gun. For every grassroot cadre, this principle holds the same, even in times of peace. You have to have a “gun” of your own, and you have to hold it steady in your own hand. The military belongs to the Party, so we couldn’t use it even if we wanted to. But a local Party secretary should have the people’s militias and the local police. To get something done and to get it done right, you have to have the people’s militias and police obey you. If you don’t have force backing you up, you don’t deserve to be Party secretary. You’ll get nothing done.
In accordance with County Secretary Zeng’s order, cadres serving in the police force, family planning office, and village committees were screened to root out anyone who might affect the success of the campaign. The overarching goal for our village remained the same: to not hold the county back by ensuring that no child was born for the hundred days between May 1 and August 10.
In a meeting with the village cadres, I parroted my prepared notes: “To complete the family planning work assigned to us by the county committee, we must ensure that, within the hundred days between May 1 and August 10, not one child is born in our village ….” I had just finished speaking when the entire audience erupted, with a few shocked individuals standing up to blurt out: “So if a child is born, what are we supposed to do?” Never before had I seen such uncouth cadres as these. What could we do? What the hell could I even do? These are county orders, and they dare ask me what can be done. Fortunately, my assistant was able to reply faster than I was: “If a child is born then strangle it to death!” And with those few words the entire hall went silent.
My secretary and I had both been political cadres in the military, so we went over everything thoroughly before presenting it at village meetings. But let’s talk about how I got things done. I ingeniously used Deng’s famous “White Cat, Black Cat” theory to indicate that what makes a good comrade is one who ensures the success of our family planning campaign. Only they would be promoted to positions of power, where they could make full use of their talents. Regardless of background or experience, regardless of whatever unscrupulous things you got up to, if you had talent, you’d get the position. However, I realized this approach simply wouldn’t work for the campaign, because everyone was from the same village—if someone wasn’t a family member, they were at least a relative. They’d be looking out for each other, and then there’d be nothing I could do.
Our great County Secretary Zeng, now there was someone who knew how to get things done. He foresaw the hurdles we would encounter. When faced with a task of major importance, such as demolishing homes or arresting people, he’d seldom use armed force, instead bringing in outsiders from other counties. Outsiders don’t know anybody local and don’t get caught up in nepotism, and so in our case they did their work with brutal efficiency. They had no qualms about kicking you right in the stomach—they were saving you the trouble of that abortion you were so reluctant to get. One fell swoop and the floor would be covered in blood. Ha ha! And that’s how we got things done. There were slim chances to save the baby—and even if we wanted to, if you arrived at the county hospital, they would induce you. Who would dare do a personal favor during such a delicate political campaign as this?
As for my hardworking family planning enforcement team, I did all in my power to make things easier for them. A weapon was needed for this kind of work, so they were given two-meter-long ropes and 1.4-meter-long poles. I even had them wear matching police uniforms, which other villages didn’t even provide. It really struck awe into people when they saw them coming. Salaries were of course pretty good. Each person made ten yuan a day. You may think ten yuan is nothing, but in 1991 ten yuan was like 100 yuan today. A village level Party secretary made 130 yuan a month at most. Informers all received a commission of 5%, meaning they could earn over 100 yuan for every person they informed on. You can’t beat that! As for political reward, I instituted a quota system: if someone did a good job, they would be prioritized for Party membership and promotion to village-level cadre. With these measures in place there wasn’t a single person who wouldn’t work their ass off for me, ha ha!
My job got a lot easier once everything was in place. Unlike other village secretaries, I didn’t have to brave the front lines and appeal directly to the masses. Whenever something came up, I simply said the word, and my cadres got to it! Not only did I avoid the firing line of public anger, but in an instant I became one of the best cadres in the county. In those days I was often entreated by other officials to share my experience and expertise. But in truth what expertise did I have? I was simply implementing the great ideas of our county secretary!
I was talking about it again on Monday on the bus to Guan County. It was the Year of the Sheep, and among the locals the campaign was called “the slaughter of the lambs.” I’m afraid there is no one from Guan County today above the age of 40 who doesn’t know about it!
The actual name of that brutal, heartless campaign was the “Hundred Childless Days.” I was in middle school at the time, and from the way my politics teacher described it, it was horrifying.
1991 was the Year of the Sheep, of the lamb, and I had just started elementary school. I can remember seeing a lot of peasants who had had a birth in the family being paraded around on tractors. They were tied up and had signs hanging around their necks. Though I was little at the time and didn’t really read the signs, the tractors had speakers broadcasting the family planning policies, and it sounded so severe.
During the “Hundred Childless Days,” it didn’t matter if your pregnancy was planned or not, if it was your first child or not, or if you had only just been able to have a child after struggling with infertility. Women were rounded up and forced to have an abortion. After being detained by the family planning unit they were sent to an abortion center, and I heard that if anyone gave birth on the way (I suspect those pregnant with their first child), the child would simply be strangled to death ….
I also heard that there were quite a few shacks built along Spring Road in Guanyi to detain women and abort their pregnancies or induce labor. Many were sent to hospitals in neighboring counties, as our county hospital couldn’t handle all of the operations. Some said that children born in those shacks were strangled to death. The county dug massive holes to bury them. All those innocent little lives didn’t get to enjoy even one day of happiness. They were just discarded in those wretched holes.
What a tragedy. A lot of people who were carrying their first child were left barren.
It was the Year of the Lamb, and yet in Guan County the children were so few! If you try to find people who were born in Guan County in 1991, there are hardly any compared to other years!
The old folks say that the campaign took place when the corn was growing. With nowhere else to run, some women hid in the corn to give birth. Then they’d move to a shack and never come out, and only just escape capture! The county secretary, Zeng Zhaoqi, was quickly promoted, trampling on countless lonely infant spirits on his way to the top.
In 1991, Guan and Xin counties launched the “Hundred Childless Days” campaign. Guan County Secretary Zeng Zhaoqi issued the order that no children were to be born between May 1 and August 10. Because it was the Year of the Sheep, locals referred to the campaign as the “slaughter of the lambs.” Family planning was national policy, and we all had to abide by it. But the “Hundred Childless Days” campaign flew in the face of national policy! It was horrendous!
The first time I saw a trending post about Guan County, my old home, was when the internet cafes there were forced to close [in 2009] as punishment for some issues with the family planning program. When I returned this November to visit family, I almost couldn’t recognize my hometown. It’s changed beyond belief. Guan County today is still strict about family planning. I suppose this is how the local government is doing “good deeds” for the country. As I think back on what happened over ten years ago, it was a very Leftist operation. I think it was called the “year without children.” I was studying outside the province and so didn’t see the campaign unfold with my own eyes. But in summer … no, probably in winter, when I returned home for vacation, every one of my friends and relatives was talking about the campaign. No matter how many months pregnant you were, as long as you hadn’t yet given birth, you were induced. The cruelty with which this national policy was executed in my hometown was simply unprecedented.
I heard from relatives that several pregnant women in our village were sent to shacks built by the side of the county hospital. They described one woman who was very pregnant who went screaming and crying. There was also a college student in Xinji Village who didn’t accept what was happening and had a breakdown, cursing the program. She was strung up on an electricity pole for all the village to see (according to my relatives in Xinji). A lot of families that were about to have a child fled. But, as they say, the monk can’t outrun the monastery. Their homes were destroyed and their relatives captured in retaliation. I know for a fact that my wife’s sister-in-law ran away and hid with a relative. Then her entire family went into hiding. Her uncle was captured and paraded around town. It almost felt like they wanted to wipe out her entire family.
That campaign is one for the history books. Like the Great Leap Forward, it spawned a series of enduring institutions and practices: for example, the rule that once a family gives birth to a male son then they can’t have another child. Or if the first born is a female, you’re allowed to have a second child, but then you can’t give birth ever again, regardless of the sex. At the time, extreme measures were explained by social exigency. But so many years later, we’re still taking extreme measures. [Chinese]
Translation by Hamish.