WASHINGTON – Even before he sat in his seat at the Heritage Foundation Thursday, Chen Guangcheng received cheers from the audience. With the help of his wife, the blind, 42-year-old Chinese dissident had shuffled up three steps onto the stage of the auditorium. After releasing his wife’s left arm, Chen strolled to an empty wooden chair. Audience members recognized the man in the grey suit and striped blue tie, and seven or eight of them clapped. Chen smiled, jutted out his right arm, and waved his right hand.
To human-rights and pro-life leaders, Chen is a saint and icon, the public face of a campaign to pressure China to drop its notorious one-child policy. In one ad for a congressional event, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Reggie Littlejohn of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers stood astride a large poster that bore Chen’s face. Both Smith and Littlejohn were shown wearing black rectangular glasses, similar to the spectacles Chen wears.
“Jail. Beatings. Torture,” Smith told the audience of the afflictions Chen has endured. “I know of no other person on Earth who has personally suffered so much for attempting to stop this cruelty to women. He is a hero.”
Chen’s story became famous outside his native China two years ago. A “barefoot lawyer,” the self-taught Chen filed class-action lawsuits on behalf of peasants, including women who had been forced to abort their pregnancies. Chinese officials threw Chen in prison for four years and placed him under house arrest for 19 months. The actor Christian Bale brought a CNN camera crew to China in a futile attempt to free Chen. Chen escaped his captors in 2012. After climbing over a wall at night and breaking his ankle, Chen fled his village to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He asked for and received asylum to the United States.
In his 15-minute speech, Chen described China’s one-child policy in poetic terms. He said the policy reflected the wishes of a “power elite” within the country’s Communist Party that rules through violence. “It used to be in China that your home was your castle. But under the Communist Party they even put their hands into your womb and they kill your baby in your face,” Chen said.
Smith said China’s one-child policy was a tool for both genocide and terrorism. “Abortion is a weapon of mass destruction. Hundreds of millions of lives have been eliminated. Women don’t have the legal right to protect themselves from this totalitarian government,” Smith said, departing from his prepared remarks.
Littlejohn’s speech emphasized the emotional and spiritual pain women suffer under the policy. The president and founder of the Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, Littlejohn showed a video on two 55-inch LCD televisions at the auditorium that her nonprofit made. She told the story of a woman pregnant at seven months who had violated the policy and said she could not pay the fine to dispose of her baby’s body. One well-known image showed the woman lying on a hospital bed with her dead fetus crumpled beside her feet. “These are the biggest human rights issues, the biggest women’s issues in the world today,” Littlejohn said.
Some human-rights advocates, however, say China’s one-child policy has become less oppressive. Women can pay a $6,300 fine to the government if they wish to bear a second child. China’s government announced that parents who grew up as an only child can have more than one baby. The policy is more strictly enforced in urban than in rural areas, according to a story in The National Interest.
Littlejohn rebutted the idea that China has relaxed its policy. She said 10 million women of child-bearing age grew up as single children, a small fraction of the eligible population.
But activists struggled to answer a question a reporter posed at the event: If the policy was implemented 34 years ago, why are they protesting now?
Smith bolted from his seat in the front row and charged up the steps of the stage to reach the podium. “Liberals tried to pooh-pooh this issue for years. I wrote and worked on this issue in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s. I held one hearing in 1984 or ’85, and Democrats brought in foreign-service officers who said (this policy) can’t be happening,” he said. Smith referred to comments Vice-President Joseph Biden made in China in 2012 in which he said he would not question the policy. Although Biden disavowed the comment later, Smith said, leading Democrats such as Hillary Rodham Clinton have failed to pressure the Chinese to drop the policy.
Smith described the Congress as reluctant to punish the Chinese for their policy. He said he and the late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) sponsored an amendment to deny visas to foreign nationals who had set up or enforced a policy of forced population control. “Henry Hyde and I had to sneak it through Congress,” he said of the amendment in 1999. After the audience laughed at the bold statement, Smith smiled and altered his words. “It wasn’t snuck through. We put it in,” he insisted.
Smith’s explanations belied his influence on the United States’ response to the policy. Littlejohn told the audience that “Chen Guangchen would not have been here if not for Congressman Chris Smith.” Smith nodded.
In addition, last fall Smith agreed to co-sponsor legislation that gives the State Department and United States Agency of International Development the power to encourage foreign countries and non-government actors to create birth certificates for girls. In July, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.