A new study by a team led by Melvin Goldstein of the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland says that there is no evidence of forced family planning in Tibet as being alleged by groups monitoring Tibet. The four-person team, which undertook the study, “Fertility and Bold Family Planning in Rural Tibet,” includes two Tibetans from Tibet, Phuntso Tsering and Paljor (Ben Jiao). David Murphy of the Far Eastern Economic Review (December 27-January 3, 2002) reports on the study.

The image of Chinese Communist Party cadres forcing birth control, sterilization and abortion on Tibetan women has contributed to the rage of a generation of human-rights activists in the West.

But according to a new study led by Mel Goldstein, director of the Centre of Research on Tibet, at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, changing socio-economic circumstances and a more active family-planning campaign by authorities are the driving factors behind a desire for smaller families in the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR. These reasons and “not forced abortions and sterilizations” determine family size, he says.

The study, to be published in the China Journal in Australia in January, “highlights the dangers of using refugee reports and anecdotal evidence to interpret highly politicized situations,” say Goldstein and fellow authors Ben Jiao, Cynthia Beall and Phuntsog Tsering. Their view contrasts sharply with reports from some human-rights and Tibet advocacy groups that glean information from among hundreds of Tibetans who flee Chinese rule every year.

Family-planning rules were extended to rural areas in the TAR in 1984, but in the early 1990s the authorities stepped up their campaign. The result was massive human-rights violations, according to some activists. “Tibetan women are often coerced to submit to abortions and sterilization operations. These women are further coerced by PRC [People’s Republic of China] threats to arrest and imprison their husbands if they do not submit to abortion and sterilization procedures,” the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, based in Berkeley, California, said in a report submitted to the United Nations in 1994. The group later changed its name to the Tibet Justice Centre.

Such accounts became a high-profile part of the outside world’s view of the Chinese presence in Tibet. In September, delegates to the World Conference Against Racism were told by a Tibetan exile of a Tibetan town where 300 women were sterilized or forced to have abortions by authorities.

In February 2000, the Tibet Information Network reported that a two-child limit had been imposed on families in Ngamring county. This was backed up by reports from the Dalai Lama’s exiled government of a plan to reduce, “the numbers of children that Tibetan workers and urban residents in the prefecture can have from two to one and from three to two for farmers and herders.”

But Goldstein’s team say they found no evidence of a two-child limit on families in Ngamring or any of the other places that it surveyed as part of a four-year study on the impact of Chinese reforms on rural Tibet.

Though birth-control regulations are increasingly being extended to rural areas, they are either not enforced or fines are low enough that they cannot be described as coercive, he suggests. The study came across no cases of forced contraception. “If there are such examples, the data in this study suggest they are exceptions to the rule,” says Goldstein. “It isn’t a policy.” The authors say their researchers were ethnic Tibetans and were not accompanied by Chinese officials.

The issue seems not even to exist for the rural population of the TAR, according to the report. “No formal or informal discussions with villagers about family planning, birth limits or local problems revealed even a hint of forced abortions, despite open complaints about many other aspects of rural life and government rules,” it says.

Why such a disparity between the information from activist groups and Goldstein’s study? One reason may be that they looked in different places. The Goldstein study focused on rural areas in the TAR. “But,” says John Ackerly, of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, “abuses occur mainly in the cities where there are Chinese populations and work units are trying to enforce family-planning policies.”

Some of the worst incidents are in the large Tibetan areas outside the TAR. The greatest abuses, such as forced sterilization and abortions, are in Qinghai province, especially in counties where Tibetans are a minority, says Ackerly, who agrees abuses are not part of a systematic policy.