WASHINGTON — At the crux of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng’s activism is his country’s one-child policy that, with few exceptions, controls family planning in the country, imposing fines and forcing women into unwanted abortions or sterilizations.
Abortion has been a hot-button issue in American politics for decades, giving pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion activists political clout that often eclipses their numbers. And Chen’s stance in China has galvanized anti-abortion forces in the United States, which have adopted him as a hero and pressured U.S. officials to act to protect him.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., held a dramatic hearing Thursday during which Chen phoned him from a heavily guarded hospital bed in Beijing. Smith is a leading abortion foe in Congress; his bill to ban all taxpayer-funded abortions in the United States has 227 co-sponsors, almost all of them fellow Republicans.
“Family planning officials down to the village level and neighborhood level maintain an extreme vigilance to exterminate ‘out of plan’ children,” Smith said of China’s policies.
In China, where the blind legal activist has filed lawsuits on behalf of women compelled to end their pregnancies, Chen is a hated figure among China’s Communist Party leaders, because his cause strikes at a pillar of the Asian power’s success.
For the past three decades, Chinese leaders have imposed their "one-child family" policy to slow population growth and accelerate economic growth. The policy’s aim was to boost the economy by producing fewer mouths to feed.
The Chen saga is readymade for U.S. lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham. The case combines the South Carolina Republican’s strong opposition to abortion with his criticism of Beijing’s currency manipulation, which he and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York have targeted with punitive legislation for a practice they say gives China unfair trade advantages.
“I want a constructive economic and political relationship with China, but the United States must speak out against the Chinese government, which tramples over individual freedom and basic human rights,” Graham said. “The case of Mr. Chen is fast becoming a defining moment in U.S.-China relations.”
Kenneth Pomeranz, a Chinese history professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the communist government in Beijing in recent years has allowed more public debate on issues – but only if they don’t involve central policies it sets.
“If Chen Guangcheng had gotten into a big dustup with local officials over corruption, his activism would have been acceptable,” Pomeranz said. “But when he attacks something that comes out of the one-child policy, which Beijing really cares about, it’s much harder for the central government to ignore him. When something is designated a key policy in China, it means public debate is supposed to stop. And the one-child policy has been a key policy.”
In a speech at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, in August, Vice President Joe Biden infuriated anti-abortion partisans back home by saying, “Your policy has been one which I fully understand – I’m not second-guessing – of one child per family.”
Biden’s spokeswoman responded to criticism about the speech last summer by saying that Biden and the Obama administration oppose China’s policy.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said President Barack Obama reversed a ban by his predecessor, President George W. Bush, on funding the United Nations Population Fund. Johnson and other anti-abortion leaders say the U.N. agency, which got $50 million from the United States last year, backs China’s one-child policy, a claim the agency denies.
“People are obviously responding to the Chen case,” Johnson said. “There is interest from our affiliates all around the country.”
The Chinese government says there are about 12 million abortions a year under the one-child policy, or one per every 113 people in the nation of almost 1.4 billion. That rate is more than twice the rate in the United States, where the number of abortions has fallen slightly in recent years to fewer than 1.3 million annual abortions, or one per every 243 people.
Mark Lagon, a Georgetown University international relations professor who served in the State Department under Bush, cited signs that the Chinese government is rethinking its one-child policy – not because of pressure over human rights, but because of budget strains.
The forced birthrate reduction over the past 30 years from levels in previous generations has produced a smaller workforce that must support more elderly Chinese.
“The one-child policy has been part of the economic success in the past in China, but people are now saying there is going to be an aging society with fewer workers and lots of pensioners,” Lagon said. “Economists feel that’s one thing that may slow the Chinese boom in the next 10 or 20 years.”
Pomeranz, of UC-Irvine, said that while Chen’s case has aroused anti-abortion activists in the United States, the issue plays out differently in the two countries.
He called it ironic that many Americans speaking out against the Chinese government’s ability to require women to have abortions are pushing measures at home that would let the government tell women they can’t have abortions.
“The people who are most passionate about fighting compulsory abortions in China are not making the individual-liberty argument in the American context,” Pomeranz said.