Cover Story

Monster by day, mother by night

Abortion | As new clouds rain on President Clinton's parade to the Beijing site where hundreds of Chinese students were massacred, Washington hears a new report about forced abortion and infanticide in the countryside.

Issue: "China’s one-child policy," June 27, 1998

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Maybe, said the prophet Isaiah, but the weight of history is against it. History concurred again June 10. Maternal responsibility triumphed over totalitarianism when Gao Xiao Duan traveled 10,000 miles from her home in China to testify before members of the U.S. Congress. She told a House subcommittee, "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." She was a "planned-birth officer," a Fujian Province local functionary in China's vast communist bureaucracy. But Mrs. Gao, saying she could not live with her "dual life" anymore, made the pilgrimage to Capitol Hill to confess her crimes. She told about overseeing for 14 years a birth-control office in Yonghe that routinely performed abortions on mothers at all stages of pregnancy. Her office sterilized, incarcerated, and intimidated both women and their families in an effort to meet the Communist Party's one-child policy. Mrs. Gao's testimony before the House International Relations Subcommittee on Human Rights, along with the hundreds of documents and videotape footage she smuggled out of China, provided a first-ever accounting to the outside world of the day-to-day workings of China's coercive population-control schemes. That account came just as President Clinton was preparing for an already besmirched trip to China to meet with President Jiang Zemin under a cloud of legislative-branch scrutiny. The scrutiny includes both houses of Congress passing a resolution banning further transfers of satellite technology to China. Congressional panels are investigating whether a technology transfer boosted China's long-range missile capability. They are also looking into another set of allegations: that Chinese officials influenced 1996 elections through contributions to the Democratic Party. The clamor has become bipartisan. Democrat Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader, denounced the president's decision this month to extend China's Most Favored Nation trade status. Democrats also supported a resolution asking the president to delay the summit and to avoid a welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square (see sidebar). The president's former aide, George Stephanopoulos, called Mr. Clinton's attendance "shameful" in light of the crackdown on democracy advocates there nine years ago this month. The news from Yonghe only added another level of shame. The Yonghe Planned Birth Office (PBO) was established in 1984, with Mrs. Gao as its chief administrator until her defection. Beginning with one office in a government building and two employees, it now has a four-story building of its own, an office staff of 16, and 22 full- and part-time agents ("cadres") working in surrounding villages. The Yonghe office has jurisdiction over 22 villages, which together have a population over 60,000. Mrs. Gao says her job was to implement "concrete measures" to carry out the population control goals of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A sign above the entrance to her office building translates as: No permit, No marriage.
No permit, No pregnancy.
No permit, No baby. Inside, her staff tends a far-reaching computer data bank with files on all women of child-bearing age within its jurisdiction. Those records include dates of birth, marriage, pregnancies, abortions, sterilizations, and insertion of IUDs (intra-uterine devices). They also include remarks from "investigators" and "opinions of those in the village of residence." The office issues certificates concerning pregnancy and childbirth. A "birth-allowed certificate" means a woman meets the stipulations for childbirth. This certificate is supposed to be acquired before pregnancy. Without it, a pregnant woman will likely be ordered to have an abortion. "Birth-not-allowed notices" are issued to couples with one or sometimes two children. These notices are made public, and informing on those who do not comply is encouraged. There is even an informants' box attached to the wall outside the planned-birth office. The office also routinely issues notices of "birth-control implementation," usually for sterilization or insertion of an IUD. It sends out notices for IUD and pregnancy examinations in which technicians use ultrasound to make sure a woman is using an IUD and not pregnant. Just as routinely, it imposes fines on those who break the rules. Financial rewards and penalties are an important component of the CCP's incentive plan. Cadres, as well as common villagers, can be rewarded or fined according to how well they achieve overall birth-control goals, with criteria including how low the birth rate is in their districts and how many women receive contraception or are sterilized. Overbearing bureaucracy and wholesale surveillance is just the ground floor. The PBO's second floor contains an operating and examination room, where women are brought for prenatal examinations, abortions, sterilizations, and IUD insertions. In the first half of 1997, according to PBO documents, the Yonghe office performed 101 sterilizations, 228 IUD insertions, and 60 abortions. Thirty-three abortions were performed during the first trimester; 27 were done during the second or third trimester. The documents list 35 sterilizations performed as punishment for failure to meet birth-control standards (five women underwent tubal ligations for failing twice to show up to have their IUDs checked). A jail cell adjoins the facility, further belying Beijing's insistence that its population-control policies are not "coercive." Mrs. Gao testified to filling the cell not only with uncooperative women but also with family members, apprehended in nighttime raids of their homes. If a woman facing a forced abortion or sterilization cannot be found, her family members are held until she is located (they are expected to pay for their food while they are detained.) Mrs. Gao knows the faces from her recent past as well as the statistics. She described for members of the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights two cases she oversaw in which women in their ninth month of pregnancy were forced to have abortions. 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 a surgical abortion. In the operation room, I saw how the aborted child's lips were sucking, how its limbs were stretching." The baby was given a deadly injection through the mother's stomach; such injections, Mrs. Gao testified, often do not end a baby's life in the late-term abortions. When the child was delivered alive, she said, "A physician injected poison into its skull, and the child died, and it was thrown into the trashcan." Chen Li-May, another mother in her ninth month, was also brought to the Yonghe facility for forced abortion in the absence of a "birth-allowed certificate." Mrs. Gao told lawmakers, "Chen cried, struggled, and begged, but to no avail. Like a pig she was tied up on the operation table." In this case, too, the unborn child received a lethal injection through Mrs. Chen's stomach, but the child was born alive, so he received another in the head. Mrs. Gao said his cries abruptly stopped and so did his breathing. "To help a tyrant do evils was not what I wanted," she testified. "I could not bear seeing all those mothers grief-stricken by induced delivery and sterilization.... I, too, after all, am a mother." U.S. officials have heard abortion-related horror stories from China before. Author Steven Mosher has documented the practice. But Mrs. Gao's testimony helped lawmakers see that China's population-control program employs networks of paid informants, that sterilization is used for punishment as well as for contraception, and that Gestapo-style raids and recordkeeping are among its perennial features. Mrs. Gao's own story conveys nearly as much about China's reproductive terrorism as the reams of evidence smuggled out along with her. She is married to a garment factory boss in Yonghe. The same year she began her job as a birth-planning officer, she gave birth to a daughter, Zhang Wei Ling. The policy she was charged with implementing prevented her from having more children, even though, she admits, "we both love children very much." Two relatives, an elder sister and a sister-in-law, she said, underwent sterilizations that were botched, ruining their health and "making it impossible for them to ever live or work normally." Like many parents in China's now-diminished families, Mrs. Gao and her husband longed for a son. In 1993 the couple adopted a boy from northeast China, in Harbin. The adoption was illegal. If someone else had been Yonghe's director of birth planning, Mrs. Gao could have found herself in the detention cell just down from her office. She lived with the risk, frequently leaving her son at a friend's house to avoid suspicion and forbidding him to call her "mama" in public. But she could not live with her conscience. In April she acquired a visa allowing her to travel to the Philippines. Far from a rash move, Mrs. Gao's first flight to freedom was the climax to months of planning. She methodically copied reports, regulations, state orders, surveillance forms, and certificates used by her office. Someone helped her put together a video showing the planned-birth facility, complete with the jail cell, surgical areas, and recordkeeping offices. The paper trail she amassed was smuggled out prior to her own leavetaking with the help of go-betweens for Harry Wu, the former Chinese political prisoner who is now a human-rights activist in the United States. Mr. Wu told WORLD he has been gathering information on forced abortions for several years, and when he found a willing witness in Mrs. Gao, he went to work to get her and her portfolio of documentation out of China. That effort was partially funded through a grant from the Family Research Council. The Washington lobbying group and its director, Gary Bauer, have been outspoken opponents of U.S. trade policy toward China in the face of its human-rights abuses. Mrs. Gao's family remained in China, and once in Manila, Mrs. Gao herself met unexpected obstacles from the free world. She was denied entrance visas to the United States by U.S. consular officials in both Guangzhou and Manila. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who chairs the committee that heard her testimony, intervened. He petitioned immigration officials to grant Mrs. Gao a "public-interest parole" so that she could testify before Congress. Her immigration status at this point is unclear. "The State Department wanted her to go right back to China," Mr. Smith told WORLD. The State Department endorsed a January decision by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to resume formal assistance to China's population-control program. Announcement of a 4-year, $20 million pledge from UNFPA said, "China is keen to move away from its administrative approach to family planning to an integrated, client-centered reproductive health approach, based on the principles of free and voluntary choice." In 1993 Mr. Clinton reversed the long-standing policy of the Reagan and Bush administrations to withhold taxpayer funding from UNFPA. At that time, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Brian Atwood, said UNFPA should not be held responsible for China's coercive policies unless it "knowingly and intentionally provides direct funding or other support for those abuses." In 1994, Mr. Atwood promised, "The United States will not support a renewal of UNFPA's program in China unless there are significant improvements in reproductive freedom there." Rep. Smith says the UNFPA program is crucial to the system Mrs. Gao describes because much of the UN money has gone toward computer systems and ultrasound equipment similar to those used as surveillance tools in Yonghe. He wants to pass legislation guaranteeing that the UN agency "will not get its $25 million unless it gets out of China." Officials of the State Department's human-rights bureau, the Department's China desk, and the U.S. Agency for International Development did not return phone calls from WORLD asking about the program's future. The White House responded quickly, if not adeptly, to Mrs. Gao's revelations. Striking a tone nearly identical to Beijing's People's Daily, spokesman Mike McCurry said, "The government of China officially prohibits ... the use of force to compel people to submit to abortion and sterilization." He did not dismiss evidence from Yonghe, but he downplayed its significance, attributing the practices to "poor supervision of local officials." Mr. Wu concedes that the data gathered by Mrs. Gao and him pertain directly to only Yonghe town and Fujian province. He says he believes population-control policies in larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing are implemented in a different, "more civilized way." He insists that they do not have to be representative in order to be reprehensible, however, and that all of China's population-control measures represent "a wall constructed between human beings.... Twenty-two percent of the population of the world is subject to this policy." For Mrs. Gao, the freedom to speak up far away from Yonghe has put very little distance between her and the system she renounces. The very day she sat before lawmakers on Capitol Hill, her home in Yonghe was searched by communist cadres. Now she worries most about what will happen to her own children.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…