London — In 2009, the Chinese author Ma Jian was traveling through China’s poverty-stricken countryside when he saw the body of a newborn girl floating bloated and abandoned down a river. The corpse inspired his new novel “The Dark Road.”
“I imagined the spirit of this murdered child looking down at us and felt as though we were all somehow implicated in the crime. Everyone’s hands were dirtied by such a death,” says Mr. Ma. He is speaking via his British wife and translator, Flora Drew, in a crowded London bar near where the couple lives.
The dead baby girl was a victim of China’s brutal one-child policy, which came into effect in 1979, as well as some parents’ preference for boys. In his new novel, Mr. Ma wanted to give China’s millions of missing children, “a voice that has been denied to them.”
In “The Dark Road,” this voice comes literally in the form of an infant spirit. The spirit starts its journey snug in the belly of its mother, Meili. From the start, the baby’s very existence is illegal, since Meili and her husband already have one daughter.
In one savage scene, family planning officials kidnap Meili and force her to have an abortion by attempting to induce a still birth. When the baby, a boy, is born alive, the doctor strangles it. They send the mother on her way, blood pouring between her legs and the dead baby in a plastic bag. Through this injustice, and many more in the book, the disembodied voice of the infant spirit looks on. The novel begins: “The infant spirit sees Mother sitting on the edge of her bed, her hands clutching her swollen belly, her legs trembling in fear…” Later there is more suffering: “The infant spirit watches Father, in the darkness before dawn four years ago, drive through narrow lanes… Mother is sitting beside him groaning with pain. As her temperature soars, she unbuttons her shirt, while in her womb, which is hotter still, the fetus writhes.”
“The Dark Road” may have surreal moments. But Mr. Ma was careful to base his novel on gritty reality. More than 330 million abortions and 190 million sterilizations have been carried out in China over the four decades since Beijing introduced strict family planning restrictions. Mr. Ma wanted to give a face to the victims of these laws: not just the aborted and abandoned children, but also the women he claims are no longer in control of their own wombs.
To this end, the author traveled to the more remote regions of the country in 2009. There, floating in barges along the polluted waterways of southwestern China, he lived among “family-planning fugitives,” the men and women who have multiple children and are on the run from the authorities.
Despite police intimidation, he also visited abortion clinics and talked to women who had suffered a similar fate as his character Meili. “Some had been dragged away from their homes while pregnant, some had been arrested on the street and their husbands were powerless to rescue them,” recalls the author. “It always seemed to be a similar experience: they would be injected with something, lose consciousness, and then by the time the baby was extracted it was usually dead.”
For these women, the trauma resulting from China’s one-child policy went well beyond the operating table. Many of their relationships with their husbands broke down. Some were blamed or rejected by their families for failing to produce a coveted second or third child. Others suffered from medical issues as a result of botched or rudimentary operations. “Their lives were broken,” says Mr. Ma.
As an outspoken critic of Chinese policies, Mr. Ma lives in London now, and has a British passport as well as four children. He was denied entry into his birth country even as his mother was dying from a terminal illness. Many of the author’s past books, which deal with issues ranging from Tibet (“Stick Out Your Tongue”) to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre (“Beijing Coma”), are banned in China. His newest work, which deals with everything from toxic pollution to labor camps, continues to be a vehicle for his political beliefs.
Over coffee Mr. Ma simmers with quiet outrage at the abuses laid on his countrymen. He says that the one-child policy is “no longer about controlling birth,” pointing out that birth rates have officially fallen to 1.8.
“The one-child policy is continued for two reasons: power and money,” says Mr. Ma emphatically. “It is a money making enterprise that earns huge revenues from fines. It is able to employ hordes of bureaucrats. It is also a means of a state asserting its power and strengthening its control on individuals.”
Figures back this up. According to the demographer He Yafu, the government has received an estimated two trillion yuan ($327 billion) in fines, which are typically three to 10 times a household’s annual income, from family planning policies.
In “The Dark Road,” Meili says that her womb is a “state-owned gate.” Or, as a rural saying quoted by Mr. Ma puts it, “In the cities, the officials live of the sale of the land. In the countryside, the officials live off pregnant bellies.”
Photograph by Konrad Shrek