08.24.11

Biden’s Human-Rights Blunder

The vice president's casual embrace of China's one-child policy has stirred international outrage. Kirsten Powers on why it's worse than it seems.

Joe Biden is known for occasionally clumsy remarks. But his recent error in China is far more serious than a momentary gaffe.

The vice president told an audience at Sichuan University in Chengdu:  “Your policy has been one which I fully understand—I’m not second-guessing—of one child per family.” 

This was an appalling statement coming from an American leader. What’s next? Will he say he isn’t “second-guessing” and “fully understands” that women are stoned for adultery in Iran?

Chai Ling, a two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and former leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Democracy Movement, told me she was “shocked and troubled” by Biden’s statement. Ling founded the organization All Girls Allowed to fight the one-child policy, which affects most couples and is designed to limit growth in China, which at 1.3 billion people is the world’s most populous country.

“On behalf of all the Chinese women and girls,” she says, Biden’s “statements are very hurtful. The one-child policy means the child has to be killed, whether it is forced or coerced through pressure. The women don’t feel like they have a choice. In a culture that is not welcoming to women who get pregnant and keep the baby they will be persecuted, financially and politically by the government.”

When various Republican presidential candidates blasted Biden for the statement, NPR’s blog ran a story titled “Biden’s Comment on China’s One-Child Policy Spurs Anti-Abortion Ire.” This really misses the point. The media predictably frame this issue as “pro-choice vs. pro-life” when in fact it is a major human-rights issue. In particular, it’s a women’s-rights issue, which makes the silence from feminists and liberals about Biden’s comment particularly disturbing.

Reggie Littlejohn, an American attorney who founded Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, told a reporter, “China’s one-child policy causes more violence against women and girls than any other policy on earth, than any official policy in the history of the world.”

The evil ripple effects for girls of China’s gendercide are astonishing. Because of the dearth of wives, Ling says that trafficking of child brides is epidemic. She told Congress in June that “this is the kidnapping and selling of toddler girls to be raised as slaves. Today in China, 200,000 children a year, usually from poor families, are seized or sold as child brides.” Similarly, sex trafficking is exploding to “service” the overwhelming male population. Ling says girls from surrounding countries are kidnapped or lured under false pretenses and forced to work in brothels.

The “one-child” policy is a barbaric practice aimed squarely at women and has had the effect of wiping out generations of girls. If this isn’t a top women’s-rights issue in the world, I don’t know what is. And it’s not just limited to China. When Biden says he isn’t “second-guessing” the one-child policy, he is sending a frightening message to other countries, like India, where sex-selective abortions are epidemic in a country that places little value on girls.

At an American Enterprise Institute event, “A Worldwide War Against Baby Girls: Sex-Selective Abortion Goes Global,” the writer Mara Hvistendahl, who supports abortion rights, told the audience in June that the “total number of missing females in Asia is 160 million…more than the entire female population of the United States.” She says there are “whole generations in which men significantly outnumber women.” 

Hvistendahl is the author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. She told the AEI audience, “There has been an American role in what is happening today in Asia. The first Indian hospital to introduce amniocentesis for sex selection…the department there that introduced these tests had been established by a U.S. Population Council resident and had received millions of dollars in funding from U.S. organizations.”

Way to go, America. Perhaps now is the time for the United States to play a role in stopping gendercide across Asia.

Those who say public pressure makes no difference are wrong. In testimony on the Hill, Ling told the story of Xiao Aiying, a woman who was forced to abort her second child while eight months pregnant. Said Ling: “While detractors may say that China does not respond to outside pressure…shortly after [Xiao’s] forced abortion, she was interviewed by Al Jazeera. Through this exposure, the local government apologized and gave financial compensation and free housing to the couple.”

The “one-child” policy is a barbaric practice aimed squarely at women and has had the effect of wiping out generations of girls.

If a television story can influence the Chinese government, imagine the impact of comments by an American vice president.

Biden has backed away from the remarks. In a statement, his press secretary said: “The Obama administration strongly opposes all aspects of China’s coercive birth limitation policies, including forced abortion and sterilization. The vice president believes such practices are repugnant. He also pointed out, in China, that the policy is, as a practical matter, unsustainable.”

Yes, he argued it was unsustainable because of the economic burden of having too few young people to support an aging population. Why can he confront the Chinese on economic policies but not human-rights violations? Furthermore, a statement from a spokesman (which, incidentally, is diametrically opposed to what he actually said) is not the same thing as a public comment by Biden.  Which one do you think China is listening to?

Chai Ling told me, “Sept. 23 is the 31st anniversary of the start of China’s one-child policy. Vice President Biden should come out on that day and redeem himself by calling on China to end this policy now.”