National Catholic Register


China’s Forced Abortions Draw Washington Scrutiny

Former 'population-control' official testifies & apologizes

BY Joseph Esposito

June 21-27, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/21/98 at 1:00 PM


WASHINGTON—A woman who for 14 years helped arrange government-forced abortions and sterilizations in China gave gripping and emotional testimony before a subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee June 10. The testimony of Gao Xia Duan, as well as that of a victim of the population-control program and a prominent human rights activist, was the latest in a series of public condemnations of China's human rights policies.

In response to President Bill Clinton's trip to China, scheduled to begin June 25, congressional leaders of both parties have attacked the communist regime's actions in several areas. The most forceful criticism has come regarding the stifling of political dissent, as evidenced by the Tiananmen Square massacre. As the world commemorated the ninth anniversary of the massacre earlier this month, the White House indicated Clinton would be received in a ceremony at Tiananmen Square, where hundreds — possibly thousands — of Chinese were killed.

Congress has also raised questions about China providing nuclear technology to Pakistan, the possible involvement by the People's Liberation Army in the 1996 Democratic election campaigns, and the continued granting of Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status to China. In addition, organizations such as Freedom House and the Cardinal Kung Foundation have criticized China for its religious persecution of people of all faiths, including Catholics (see “Clinton's China Trip Stirs Discord in U.S.,” Register, June 14-20).

This latest hearing, chaired by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) perhaps placed the human rights violations in its most personal context. The witnesses presented a riveting story of a pervasive, unbending program of population control, which relies on strict monitoring of women, paid informants, and even imprisonment for those unwilling to undergo sterilizations or abortions. On the day of the hearing, the White House announced the president will raise the issue of forced abortions with Chinese leaders.

Harry Wu, an activist who was imprisoned for nearly two decades in China, explained to the subcommittee the history and mechanics of the planned birth policy. He criticized the basic premise of the program, that China's economic shortcomings are due to overpopulation.

“Such a point of view is preposterous, and therefore unacceptable,” he argued.

Nevertheless, Wu said China has implemented a “thoroughly barbaric” policy that promotes a one-child policy through forced use of intrauterine devices, sterilizations, and abortions. The entire weight of the government is used to ensure that the dictates of the policy are followed. For instance, in Fujian Province, which is located on China's southeast coast, reprisals are specified by 28 different government departments, and include denying fertilizer and seeds, driver's licenses, and bank loans to violators.

One political subdivision in Fujian Province is Jinjiang City, where nearly 200,000 married women reside. Of those women with no children or one child, 82% have been forced to have intrauterine devices surgically implanted and 10% were sterilized. Among women with two children, 94% were sterilized, and those with more than two children suffered a 99.94% sterilization rate. These figures are from an official 1997 government report.

Yonghe Town, a city of 60,000 within Jinjiang City, issued detailed regulations on population control for its residents in 1996.

For example, every woman with one child must be fitted with an intrauterine device and be examined four times a year; any deviation results in mandatory sterilization. Women with two children or those with one boy are automatically sterilized.

Equally shocking to most Americans are the night-time raids of “planned-birth supervision teams,” composed of officials from various local government offices. Wu said, “Supervision teams conduct raids at lightning speed. They usually set out at night, conducting either routine door-to-door checking or they focus on local suspects.”

“Apprehended women who violate PBP [planned birth policy] are escorted to be incarcerated in detention facilities attached to town planned-birth offices. Should it be impossible to apprehend the women themselves, their family members are taken. They are released only after they clear all monetary penalty payments, undergo device-insertion, sterilization, or abortion surgeries,” he added.

The harshest conditions exist in the countryside, where three-fourths of all Chinese live, but the situation is pervasive throughout the country.

The policy, Wu said, “extends its tentacles into the life of every woman and every family in the nation.” In so doing, he added, “The determination of the Chinese communist authorities to alter human nature, like that of any totalitarian regime, is impervious to reason, even frenzied.”

The implementation of this policy was eloquently and emotionally described by Gao Xiao Duan, who left her position as administrator of the Planned Birth Office (PBO) in Yonghe Town earlier this year. Since 1984 she worked at a comprehensive population control center that stores data on local women, performs sterilizations and other gynecological procedures, and jails women who resist. The center was documented in a video she smuggled out of China, and which was shown at the hearing and on ABC's Nightline program the previous evening.

Breaking down several times during her testimony, Gao said, “All of those 14 years, I was a monster in the daytime, injuring others by the Chinese communist authorities' barbaric planned-birth policy, but in the evening, I was like all other women and mothers, enjoying my life with my children.

“I could not live such a dual life anymore. Here, to all those injured women, to all those children who were killed, I want to repent and say sincerely that I'm sorry,” she said.

The story she presented did, indeed, portray a monstrous situation. A computer data bank stored detailed information on more than 10,000 women in the city. This information includes virtually every bit of information on a woman's reproductive history and capability, including recording menstrual cycles.

The government issues “birth-allowed certificates” or “birth-not-allowed certificates” according to various criteria. A woman who becomes pregnant and does not have a certificate allowing her to do so, is immediately made to undergo an abortion. Those violating specific policy might find their house dismantled. To better police the system, informants are used. And to further ensure compliance, “go-to-the-countryside cadres” are sent to villages to inspect and ensure that local officials have not become lax.

When such measures fail and women became pregnant without approval, the situation could become horrendous. Gao spoke with regret about one incident in which she played a lead role.

“I vividly remember how I once led my subordinates to Yinglin Town Hospital to check on births,” she said. “I found that two women in Zhoukeng Town had ‘extra-plan’ births.

“In a move approved by the town head,” she continued, “I led a planned-birth supervision team composed of a dozen cadres and public security agents. Sledge hammers and heavy crowbars in hand, we went to Zhoukeng Town, and dismantled their houses. Unable to apprehend the women in the case, we took their mothers in lieu of them, and detained them in the PBO's detention facility.

“It was not until a month-and-a-half later that the women surrendered themselves to the PBO, where they were sterilized and monetary penalties were imposed. I myself did so many brutal things, but I thought I was conscientiously implementing the policy of our ‘dear Party,’ and that I was an exemplary citizen, a good cadre,” she said.

Perhaps the most moving part of her testimony was when she described a partial-birth abortion being done on a pregnant woman, in her ninth month, who did not hold a birth-allowed certificate. Gao wept as she described the gruesome procedure she witnessed.

“To help a tyrant do evils was not what I wanted,” she said. “I could not bear seeing all those mothers grief-stricken by induced delivery and sterilization. I could not live with this on my conscience. I, too, after all, am a mother.”

The third panel member wanted to be a mother, but government policy prevented her from doing so. Zhou Shiu Yon, who fled from Fujian Province in 1993, is a victim who resisted an abortion, but miscarried her child after escaping. She described how thugs raided her house and then handcuffed and jailed her after it was discovered she became pregnant without having a birth-allowed certificate.

She jumped out a window, escaped China by ship, and then was forced to deal with an unsympathetic U.S. State Department that thwarted her efforts to secure political asylum because she was considered a lawbreaker: she violated the Chinese government's population-control policy. Congressmen Smith and Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) succeeded in reversing Clinton Administration policy by passing an amendment in 1996 in which being pressured to undergo an abortion or sterilization is grounds for political asylum.

Smith roundly criticized the coercive “one-child-per-couple” policy that was discussed at the hearing.

“The testimony revealed today includes details about the depravity of the People's Republic of China's program that not even the harshest critics of the program ever suspected.”

His comments were reinforced by several other committee members: Hyde, who called forced abortion “a double insult to humanity,” and Reps. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.).

“We have completely put our head in the sand regarding human rights in China,” Smith told the Register after the hearing.

Smith, a Catholic and leading pro-life congressman, is not deterred though. Just as he believes pressure was, and still can be, exerted on Peru because of its forced sterilization program, Smith says there are several measures the United States government can take regarding China.

These measures include to “totally cease funding” the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, which has failed to see wrongdoing in China's population program; to aggressively apply asylum policy to allow victims to find freedom; to raise the abortion and sterilization issue at the United Nations Convention on Human Rights; and to link continuation of MFN status for China with progress on human rights.

In a separate interview, Wu said that the United States needs to “put some teeth in its policy” toward China. Rather than being so enamored with trade possibilities, the United States should evaluate a broad range of issues when dealing with China.

“What is our American policy? Engage. But,” he queried, “engage on human rights, religious persecution, forced abortion, freedom of press, or only engage with commercial investment?”

Gary Bauer, president of American Renewal and the Family Research Council, Washington-based public policy organizations, attended the hearing but did not testify. American Renewal helped support the work of the Laogai Research Foundation, which Wu heads, and which has been looking into these family planning abuses.

Bauer agreed with comments made by Wu and Smith when he said, “We need a policy toward China that accurately reflects the values of the American people. A one-dimensional policy based solely on commerce is not worthy of the greatest democracy in the world.”

In the time before the president's trip, public criticism of China's human rights policies will continue. While some may tend to place the issue in abstract terms of freedom and repression, activists like Harry Wu and now, perhaps, a converted Gao Xiao Duan, will put a human face of hope and sorrow on many of these actions of the Chinese government.

The right to life is likely to be one of those ongoing concerns. Wu may have best articulated this issue when he testified, “To give birth is a basic human right. No government, organization, or individual can deprive a person of his or her right to reproduction for political, social, economical, cultural, ethnical, or any other reasons.”

Joseph Esposito writes from Springfield, Virginia.