- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

State Department officials and human-rights advocates addressed the issue of the systematic use of coercion by the Chinese government to implement its one-child family-planning policy during a hearing this month of the House International Relations Committee.

Though the 108th Congress is adjourned and the 109th has yet to be sworn in, the hearing was held because of the urgency of a human-rights case, said California Rep. Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Testimony focused on Mao Hengfeng, a Shanghai woman described by Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, as “a victim of forced abortion whose ongoing attempts to receive justice have resulted in her sentencing to 18 months of hard labor, during which she has been tortured, denied vitally needed medicine, and whose life is in danger today.”

Mrs. Mao’s troubles with the Chinese government began in the late 1980s when, pregnant for a second time, she asked her work unit to provide larger housing for her growing family. This was refused on the grounds that she was in violation of China’s one-child policy.

Probably in retaliation for a hunger strike and protests, Mrs. Mao was confined to a psychiatric facility for six days in February 1989, during which she was given drugs intended to induce an abortion, which failed.

On her return to work, she was fired for “missing too many days of work.” She initiated and won a suit for wrongful dismissal, but lost on appeal.

During her legal battle, Mrs. Mao became pregnant a third time. Told by the presiding judge that he would rule in her favor if she terminated the pregnancy, she reluctantly got an abortion in October 1990, but the court rejected her wrongful-dismissal claim.

Mrs. Mao led another protest at the court, which earned a month of involuntary psychiatric confinement, during which she says she was suspended upside down and beaten.

For the next decade, she continued her appeals for additional housing and against her firing.

Early this year, she joined thousands of petitioners seeking the attention of party leaders at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. On her return to Shanghai in April, she was arrested and sentenced to 18 months of “re-education through labor” for “disturbing the peace.”

Recently, family members have reported that Mrs. Mao is jailed among drug offenders who are allowed to abuse her, that camp police have strapped her down to her bed for hours at a time and had pulled her limbs apart for two days to force her to acknowledge wrongdoing, and that she is being force-fed an unidentified medication that turns her mouth black.

Mr. Smith, a leading critic of China’s human-rights record, said he was “very fearful that the torture may lead to her death.”

“The torture of Mao Hengfeng demonstrates that China’s drive to control its population growth at any cost to the Chinese people is as strong and dangerous as ever,” he said.

Sounding an alarm

In 1979, after years of encouraging reproduction, the Chinese government switched to a policy of one child per couple to slow the growth of its population, now at 1.3 billion. China’s leaders thought the country was overpopulated and would be able to achieve economic prosperity only through population control.

People who support the one-child policy say it has reduced China’s population by 250 million. They say it is an effective tool for China to continue to support and feed its large population, that education is expensive and families can concentrate their resources on one child, and that women are able to build careers instead of raising large families.

However, those testifying before the House International Relations Committee sought to sound an alarm.

“The one-child policy is the most pervasive source of human-rights violations in China today,” said Harry Wu, a human-rights activist who spent 19 years in Chinese labor camps. He is executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation, a Washington-based organization aiming to spread public awareness of China’s “laogai” — a system of labor camps like the gulag of the Soviet Union — many of whose inmates are political dissidents.

The one-child policy has led to extensive human-rights violations and sexual discrimination, the speakers said.

Influenced by tradition as well as socioeconomics, Chinese families overwhelmingly want at least one male heir. In China, where there is no insurance system or social welfare for people in rural areas, daughters are perceived as less desirable because they usually join the family of their husbands and care for his parents in old age instead of their own.

Though it is illegal, couples use ultrasound machines to determine the sex of an unborn child for selective abortion. Couples sometimes kill a baby girl at birth, seek other families to adopt her, abandon her or sell her to smugglers.

Myopic policy

The Chinese government is taking a short-term view by implementing the one-child policy and has failed to consider all the long-range effects, speakers warned.

“After 25 years of coercive central family planning, its disastrous effects are beginning to appear,” Mr. Smith said. “The country’s male-female ratio is now dangerously skewed.”

In China’s 2000 census, there were nearly 19 million more boys than girls in the under-15 group. Overall, the present ratio of Chinese males to females is estimated at 120-to-100. This translates to about 900,000 “missing” baby girls every year.

Some consider that after a decade, about 30 million Chinese will not be able to find wives.

This imbalance is likely to increase violent crime, and already fuels trafficking of women and the sale of unwanted babies, Mr. Smith said.

Another serious consequence of the policy is its effect on women’s health. Forced, late-term abortions carry significant health risks, especially when performed under poor sanitary conditions, according to a 2004 study published by the Laogai Research Foundation titled “Better Ten Graves Than One Extra Birth.”

Mr. Smith also cited the most recent State Department Human Rights Report, according to which one consequence of the policy is that 56 percent of the world’s female suicides occur in China, where about 500 women kill themselves on an average day.

Enforcement tools

However, enforcement remains as strict as ever.

“With few exceptions, only married couples that obtain advance approval, that is, a birth permit, may legally have a child, even if it is their first child,” Mr. Wu said.

According to the foundation’s study, coercion in the family-planning policy is not sporadic, but an essential tool used by the authorities to meet the ambitious targets they set.

Fines are a common means to enforce the policy. The charges are reported to range from half to eight times the average worker’s annual income.

When violators are unable to pay the fine, officials may demolish their homes.

Family-planning cadres also have authority to detain those violating the policy or their relatives. In some cases, people are detained to obtain information about a runaway pregnant woman.

Sterilization also is a common punishment or means of enforcement, Mr. Wu said. According to Chinese law, he added, women must be sterilized if they have a second child or refuse insertion of an intrauterine device (IUD).

T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific, said many people, especially women, have suffered violations of their most fundamental rights as a result of the birth-control policy.

Women frequently are visited by birth-planning workers who use intimidation, harassment and the threat of fines to ensure pregnancy terminations.

“Forced abortion and sterilization are egregious violations of human rights, and should be of concern to the global human-rights community as well as to the Chinese themselves,” said Arthur Dewey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.

Mr. Wu cited a 2003 document from Guangdong province, where Communist Party secretaries and village heads were told their salaries would be halved if, within 35 days, they did not reach the goal of sterilizing 1,369 persons, fitting 818 with IUDs and carrying out 163 abortions.

Officials also can order health care workers to kill nonapproved newborns.

Mr. Smith cited the case of Gao Xiao Duan, a former administrator of China’s Planned Birth Control Office, who testified before the committee.

She said: “Once I found a woman who was nine months pregnant but did not have a birth-allowed certificate. According to the policy, she was forced to undergo an abortion surgery. In the operation room I saw how the aborted child’s lips were sucking, how its limbs were stretching. A physician injected poison into its skull, and the child died, and it was thrown into the trash can.”

Encouraging signs

There have been some modifications of the law. For instance, peasants whose first child is a girl can apply for permission to have a second child. But if that child also is a girl, they are supposed to submit to sterilization.

In 2002, under U.S. pressure, China passed a new Population and Family Planning Law to standardize birth-control policies and reduce coercion and corruption associated with the collection of fines.

Mr. Dewey said there are some encouraging signs that the Chinese government “may be beginning to understand that its coercive birth-planning regime has had extremely negative social, economic and human-rights consequences for the nation.”

In 25 of China’s 31 provinces, legislation has been amended to eliminate the requirement that married couples must obtain birth permits before the woman becomes pregnant.

Beijing also has begun a pilot project to raise the status of baby girls, which, Mr. Dewey said, could be an important step to eliminate discrimination against women and girls.

He said he met with some Chinese officials last month who “emphatically declared the end of any health and education penalties for ‘out of plan’ children, such as higher school tuition fees.”

However, Mr. Dewey added that “China’s birth-planning law and policies retain harshly coercive elements in law and practice.”

In addition to pressing Beijing on human-rights issues, the Bush administration has for the past three years barred U.S. funds formerly allocated to the U.N. Population Fund, saying its support of China’s population-planning program provides cover for coercive policies.

The right to give birth is fundamental and recognized in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said Ma Dongfang, a victim of the one-child policy who was granted asylum in the United States and testified at the hearing.

“I support the idea that women should be involved in their own family planning. I condemn any governmental policy that results in infanticide, physical pain and emotional torture,” she said. “To punish a woman and her family for unplanned pregnancies is an unspeakable cruelty.”

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