Oh, Joe: One Child Policy Is No Gaffe-ing Matter

There’s been more than one earthquake to hit the Eastern Seaboard this week. Another one came by way of China with a special delivery from the U.S. Vice President, Mr. Joe “I Love A Good Gaffe” Biden. Always a straight-shooter, Mr. Biden’s known for his quips, and before the end of this Administration, “Bidenism” may just make it into the Oxford English Dictionary as an official entry along with latest-entry jeggings. (Yes, apparently it’s a word. Obviously I don’t shop enough.) Occasionally Bidenisms are awkward and out of place; other times they are full of self-deprecating humor. But never has going off of his talking points gotten the Veep into as much trouble as it did this week when he abandoned the script during a Q & A with students in China.

The Vice President’s off-the-cuff speaking style is actually a quality that I’ve admired about him for years; he has a unique ability to speak fluidly, knowledgeably and eloquently in a manner that is both authoritative and compassionate. Not easy to come by. Perhaps his gift of being able to empathize comes from his own life being touched by tragedy.

A week before Christmas and just five weeks after his upset victory in November 1972, Biden was in Washington looking for office space. His wife, Neilia, took their three children to find a Christmas tree in Delaware. He would never see her again. After losing his wife and young daughter in a car accident, Biden devoted himself to raising his two sons who were critically injured but survived the crash. He was just 29 years old. He was already a widower, a single father and a senator-elect from Delaware. He considered resigning before taking the oath of office. His son Beau recalled his father saying, “Delaware can get another senator, but my boys can’t get another father.” Biden went on to dedicate his life to his family and to public service.

And then there’s that side of him that says what many of us are thinking but never hear our politicians say aloud. (Cue: Roll Tape from March 2010) At the health care bill signing, he was caught on an open mic congratulating President Barack Obama, saying, “This is a big f*%&ing deal!”

Free speech is a wonderful thing.

Which brings me to his latest remarks in China — where there is no free speech — and their aftershocks. In a wide ranging address on U.S.-China relations at Sichuan University in Chengdu on Sunday, Biden concluded his speech by addressing the United States’ interest in advocating for human rights, urging China to consider an economic approach that allows personal freedom and political openness: “History has shown…that in the long run, greater openness is a source of stability and a sign of strength, that prosperity peaks when governments foster both free enterprise and free exchange of ideas, that liberty unlocks a people’s full potential. And in its absence, unrest festers.”

He encouraged a model for civil society that he believed China could follow, concluding that “Openness, free exchange of ideas, free enterprise and liberty are among the reasons why the United States, is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world … there is no reason why China cannot tap into the same source of strength.”

I was impressed by his approach to the subject of human rights and greater personal freedoms because he related it to China’s desire for prosperity and reaching their potential both as individuals and as a powerful nation in a global context. I thought maybe that storyline — that liberty could be a source of strength rather than scorn for China — might have resonance with the student audience.

But then it happened. Ever the smiling crowd-pleaser, he just couldn’t help himself from taking questions from the audience. The first was from a medical student who asked about Chinese held U.S.-Treasury bonds and what the Vice President was going to do to reduce those deficits. As the economy was a major topic not only of his speech but the main political dialogue in the U.S. extensively in the last few weeks, I’d have thought that the Vice President would have a few talking points to go on.

Or not.

In his answer (38:00 in the video above), Biden referenced entitlement programs such as Medicare and the social safety net for people over 65. He then went on to say: “Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family. The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people. Not sustainable. So hopefully we can act in a way on a problem that’s much less severe than yours, and maybe we can learn together from how we can do that.”


It is not possible to crack this line up to a “Oh, that’s just the Veep shooting from the hip again.”


Because how can he “fully understand” this policy AND “not second guess” it? This is coming from the man who says that his proudest professional accomplishment is the passage of the Violence Against Women Act: “What I’m most proud of in my entire career is the Violence Against Women Act. There are many more laws and attitudes that need changing so women are treated with equal opportunities at work, in the classroom, and in our health care system.”

As there is currently no legislation outlawing domestic violence in China, which is still considered a family matter, China could take a few cues from Joe Biden in the area of protecting women’s health.

A Chinese government billboard promotes the One Child Policy. Photo courtesy of the Laogai Research Foundation.

Introduced in 1978 by the Chinese government to address overpopulation, the One Child Policy promotes one child families and forbids couples from having more than one child in urban areas. For three decades, the government’s policy has led to forced abortions and sterilizations, female infanticide, and under reporting of female births.

In addition, there are huge societal impacts as a result of the 30 year old policy including the fact that there are an estimated 37 million more males than females living in China today which creates a severe gender imbalance and a driving force behind human trafficking and sexual slavery from nations surrounding China. The World Health Organization also reports that China has the highest female suicide rate of any country in the world. Approximately 500 Chinese women kill themselves each day.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly criticized the coercive enforcement of the One-Child Policy during the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, in 1995 when she was First Lady.

According to the United States Department of State China Human Rights Report released on February 25, 2009 by Secretary Clinton, there was evidence that the practice of infanticide continues: “Female infanticide, sex-selective abortions, and the abandonment and neglect of baby girls remained problems due to the traditional preference for sons and the coercive birth limitation policy. Female babies also suffered from a higher mortality rate than male babies, contrary to the worldwide norm.”

Two months later on April 22, 2009, during a Congressional Hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she stated that these practices which impose government policy on women against their will are “absolutely unacceptable” and “an egregious interference with women’s rights.”


Forcing women to have abortions or be sterilized is not a choice that women get to make for themselves. They have no say over their reproductive health. In China, women’s bodies are property of the State.

Biden’s remarks are in direct violation of the Obama Administration’s position on the issue and there is some serious back peddling going on in Washington to clear the rubble this week. AFP reported earlier today that “Biden’s office has said that he firmly opposes “repugnant” Chinese population control practices and referenced a statement by e-mail.

I contacted the Vice President’s Press Secretary, Kendra Barkoff, to ask her if the Vice President has revised his remarks or if the Obama Administration has a clarification to make on its One Child Policy position. She said that her on the record statement was as follows:

“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. He was arguing against the One Child Policy to a Chinese audience.”


If Biden, as the second highest ranking U.S. official, says that he “understands” and “doesn’t second guess” it, it seems to me that it’s OK with him.

I do not pretend to understand what the Vice President was thinking when he said it, but I will second guess his judgement in saying it.

What I won’t do is jump on the bandwagon of some inside the Beltway who are lining up for a fight with their hysterical posturing. This is, though, an opportunity to discuss the horrible personal and societal impacts that the One Child Policy has and what the Administration can do to improve women’s health and put pressure on China to eliminate this form of torture without delay.

Biden’s remarks — and the Administration’s statement that it opposes “forced abortion and forced sterilization” — brings us to a new conversation, one in which the consequences of this policy can be addressed more openly.

I just got off the phone with Reggie Littlejohn, President of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, an international coalition that opposes forced abortion and sexual slavery in China. She says that by making these statements, “the Obama administration has now publicly admitted it knows that forced abortion and forced sterilization are ‘policies of China’s coercive birth limitation’ program. Significantly, they acknowledge that forced abortion and forced sterilization are not random acts carried out by over-zealous officials, as contended by the Chinese Communist Party. Rather, they are official policies of the CCP.”

Reggie Littlejohn speaks at the Capitol Hill Press Conference on Chinese Human Rights on January 18, 2011. Also pictured (from the right) are Congressman Chris Smith, Geng He, wife of missing human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and Bob Fu, President of China Aid. Photo courtesy Women's Rights Without Frontiers.

Littlejohn’s organization aims to help end the suffering of girls like Jin Yani, whose story appeared in the South China Morning Post in October 2008. Jin, a 20-year-old woman, whose water had already broken when six family planning police smashed the lock to her front door in northern China’s Hebei province and dragged her out of her house in her nightclothes, screaming and terrified. Her crime: getting pregnant without a birth permit. Her punishment: forced abortion, even though she was nine months pregnant, and this was her first child. When her husband, Yang, returned from his business trip, he rushed to the hospital to find Jin Yani purple and near death from blood loss. She spent 44 days in the hospital because of severe hemorrhaging. Now, she is infertile.

There are thousands of stories like those of Jin. Littlejohn states that “China’s One Child Policy causes more violence against women and girls than any other official policy on earth.”

One Child Policy victim Jin Yani and her husband Yang Zhongchen in Hebei Province in 2007.

One point of discussion will certainly be the contradictory policy of the United Nations which aids China’s implementation of the One Child Policy through United Nations Population Fund (UHFPA) which operations within China. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically addresses the right to marry and start a family in Article 16: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” Forced abortion is in violation of this, not to mention that it also goes against the very premise of the Declaration of Human Rights which states that no person “shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”


But violation the spirit of human rights is exactly what is happening with the UHFPA’s practice on the ground in China if it supports coerced abortion and sterilization. Charged with a mission of promoting the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity, the organization came under fire in 2001 after an investigation, headed by then–Secretary of State Colin Powell which found that UNFPA was complicit in the coercive implementation of China’s one-child policy. The U.S. withdrew funds from the organization under President Bush but President Obama resumed funding in 2009.

It’s a tricky situation because it is a lump sum funding request that doesn’t allow for the U.S. or other countries to choose from a menu of which countries it would like to offer family planning and reproductive health services. So, how can a government continue to support the reproductive rights of women around the world when the application of these methods is China is anything but humane? They can by ensuring that the funding goes to family planning and women’s health programs that are voluntary and aimed to improve women’s health, rather than control it. They can also urge the UN to change its policies to neither fund nor engage in practices that have detrimental effects on women’s physical, mental or psychological health. The whole concept of family planning is that the family — not the government — should be the one who is doing the planning.

Can the United States work within the international community and the UN to ensure that its funds are only used to provide reproductive health services that are desired and voluntary and not used to force anyone to have a procedure against their will? I hope they will make every effort to live up to the ideals that the Vice President outlined in his speech before he got derailed.

As we near the 31st anniversary of the implementation of this policy on September 25, I commit to covering this policy and its implications more in-depth. Women’s health is a human rights issue always, and not just on the eve of an election year. I’m sure that as a lifelong advocate for women’s rights, the Vice President will have a few things to say about this topic in the months ahead. I welcome his comments in whatever form they come.

Post-script: In what can only be called irony, I have to mention that the second, and last question, that the Vice President took on Sunday was actually about how he had struggled with public speaking and used to stutter:

Q: Thank you, very much, Your Excellency Vice President.  I see you not just as the Vice President but a veteran and accomplished public speaker.

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Do I look that old?  (Laughter.)

Q: I mean being serious — so as is known to all, public speaking, and English public speaking, in particular, is getting all the more popular in China.  So my question is twofold:  First of all, what role has public speaking played in your life?  Because we say that public speaking is the language of leadership.  And secondly, what role do you think public speaking will play among our youth of the two countries and to our bilateral relations?  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  That’s a very good question.  Let me order my thoughts here to make this as brief as I can.  The commodity that is worth a lot more than public speaking is sincerity when one speaks.  I mean this sincerely now. (Laughter.)  There are great orators that have come along in the world history who have been charlatans.  So the most important thing to look to in a leader’s speech is not the elegance or the rhetorical flourish of his or her comments, but the judgment of whether or not you believe they are sincere in what they’re saying.

You can read the rest of his answer, including how he overcame a serious stutter, and what he hopes for the next generation of communicators here or watch the end of the video starting at 41:20 at the top of this story.

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