Professor giving a lecture to students in old main

Powers researches China's one-child policy


Amy Powers 

Community of Scholars

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - We take a lot of freedoms for granted here in the United States – freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of the press. These are freedoms we enjoy that people in many other countries do not.
Then, there are freedoms that maybe we should take for granted – such as the right to have children, plural.

Amy Powers, one of 19 student research fellows in the Wofford College Community of Scholars program this summer, is researching China’s “one-child policy” as her project. Although she lived in Taiwan as a child, the policy hasn’t affected her first-hand, but she knows people who have experienced it.

“I’m interested in human rights, and I’m interested in China because I’m a Chinese major and I have some Chinese heritage,” says the senior from Spartanburg. “I think the one thing that piqued my interest was reading this article about Chinese lawyer who was blind. He taught himself law to defend human rights in the case of the one-child policy. It was a really compelling story and it got me interested in this topic.

Powers’ Chinese professor and Community of Scholars mentor Dr. Li Qing Kinnison has shared stories about how the policy has affected Kinnison’s family. “Some of my Chinese teaching assistants have told me stories as well. So I have first-hand accounts from people, … not just from family” or other sources.

To discuss human rights, one must first define it. Powers has discovered it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“One thing I didn’t know about going into this project was the difference between the Western and Eastern concepts of human rights,” she notes. “I was under the impression that human rights are human rights, period, but there are different viewpoints on that.”

Case in point – many in the East see America’s desire for individuality as a violation of human rights, or at least the spirit of human rights.

“Our high sense of individuality is seen as a selfish mentality over there,” Powers says. “They think we should do more for the good of society. While we may think of the one-child policy as a government-inflicted abuse of human rights, many Chinese people believe the policy to be the best thing for everyone.

Powers has developed an impression that “human life in general is much less sacred in the Eastern concept of human rights.”

So Powers is going to compromise. “I am going to use the United Nations definition (of human rights).”

Generally speaking, the UN says all human beings are “born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The body’s 30-article Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms” set out in the declaration, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” It goes on: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Research has been a challenge for Powers. “I’ve done interviews and a lot of reading of academic journals and books, but the best source of information I have found has been actual news sources like NPR and BBC. There are several specials I’ve seen and radio shows I’ve listened to about it.

“The Chinese government doesn’t exactly release information about their human rights abuses. A lot of information is censored there to begin with. It’s very frustrating finding out simple things, like who made the decisions to implement the one-child policy and what went into that decision. But it’s especially frustrating getting estimates or numbers of human rights cases,” she says.

Further complicating matters is that the policy varies within China from province to province.

“In some provinces you can have a second child. In other places there are forced abortions,” she notes. “And there are many cases where people can pay off the government. There are financial punishments for those who don’t. I’ve even read where people have furniture confiscated.”

While she rests comfortably on the furniture in her Wofford dorm room this summer, Powers says she gets help from other students in the Community of Scholars program.

“My fellow scholars have been good about suggesting places to look for more information, especially my roommates,” she says. “We all kind of tell each other things we see on TV or read somewhere that might help each other out on our projects.”

Powers’ goal is to try to find out the history of the policy and its modern effects on Chinese society, then shift into higher gear and look deeply into the human rights implications. It’s a project that will help her in her future studies at Wofford and beyond.

“I might do a project on human rights when I’m studying it next semester in Senegal,” she says. “I’ll actually be in China after that. One thing I want to do with this project is use it later for grad school. My main goal is just to get a good grasp and scope of the human rights situation in China, to find as much information as I can, even though it’s not readily available, and to let people know about it.”