Ma Jian (马建) is quite the dissident. The Dark Roadopens with a riot. Family planning officials are arresting women and dragging them to be sterilised. Pregnant mothers who do not have a state-issued birth permit are criminals and hunted down for a double punishment – a violent coercion into abortion and sterilisation. In a bid to enforce the One Child policy, even women who are beyond their second trimester are forced to terminate their pregnancies, illegal by international standards.
Neighbours are rewarded for tip-offs, properties are confiscated, rape is prevalent and often goes unreported, and families who cannot pay up fines have their houses demolished. An atmosphere of fear and death has hung over the village.
The central character in the novel is Meili and her husband, Kongzi. The couple already have a daughter but Kong wants a son to carry on the family line. With Meili’s baby bump almost visible now, they leave their village and become family planning fugitives, etching out a floating existence -literally- down the Yangtze River. After Meili loses her 8-month old unborn child in a crackdown, Kongzi is desperate to get her pregnant again (and again and again with each unsuccessful birth) so he can fulfil his filial duty of producing a male heir for the family.
But children born outside the One Child policy also face another set of problems. The child joins the ranks of ‘black children‘ and has no access to medical benefits, free education, a residence permit or subsidised housing. In short, he is stripped of his right to live, condemned to a life as an outcast.