Mrs. Obama Urged to Speak Out Against Chinese Rights Abuses, As Her Predecessors Did

U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, her
daughters Sasha and Malia, and
Michelle’s mother Marian Robinson arrive
at Capital International Airport in Beijing,
China, Thursday, March 20, 2014.
(AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan, Pool)

By Patrick Goodenough

( – Nearly two decades after then-First Lady Hillary Clinton condemned forced abortion in a speech in Beijing, human rights campaigners say First Lady Michelle Obama should do the same.

The chances that Mrs. Obama will raise forced abortion – or any other human rights concern – during her week-long visit to China that began Thursday appear slim, however.

“We don’t think that the First Lady should make this a focus at all of her trip,” deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters earlier this week, responding to a question about differences with China over human rights and other issues.
The purpose of the visit, according to Rhodes and other White House officials, is to promote education and build “people-to-people connections.” The trip includes visits to the Great Wall, the ancient terracotta warrior sculptures at Xian, and a panda preserve.

On the day Mrs. Obama arrived in Bejing with her daughters and mother, a column in Global Times, a Communist Party-affiliated paper, said the first lady was expected to “shun political statements and engage in soft diplomacy, which may alleviate some conundrums in current bilateral relations.”

The official Xinhua news agency in a commentary noted with satisfaction the administration’s stated intention that Mrs. Obama would steer clear of human rights and other contentious areas.

“That approach is right,” it said. “The uniqueness of the role of first ladies is its soft touch and freedom from the knottiness and even ugliness of hard politics.”

The Population Research Institute (PRI), which has campaigned against China’s population policies for more than two decades, commented Thursday that the first lady “will be the envy of Chinese women. She has what almost none of them have. Not only does she have two children—most urban Chinese are limited to one—but she has two daughters.”

“During her seven-day visit in China, population control officials will oversee abortions on some 250,000 women, many under threat of heavy fines or physical duress,” PRI said. “Chinese women also continue to be coercively sterilized.”

Then-First Lady Hillary Clinton
addresses the U.N. Fourth World
 Conference on Women, in Beijing
on September 5, 1995.
(UN Photo/Milton Grant)

“China’s ‘population control’ program is simply state-sanctioned forced abortion and forced sterilization,” said PRI president Steven Mosher. “Michelle Obama should not remain silent in the face of this century’s greatest human rights violation.”

“In 1995, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton condemned forced abortion in China. Michelle Obama needs to do the same.”

Mosher was the first U.S. social scientist to document China’s controversial “one-child policy” in 1979, the year it was first introduced.

The Chinese policy has been enforced through coerced abortions and sterilizations, and punitive fines and other penalties for violators. In a society that favors boys for cultural and economic reasons but where family sizes are severely restricted, sex-selective abortions and even infanticide of unwanted girls are reported to be commonplace.

The government says it outlawed sex-selective abortions almost a decade ago, but researchers say the increasingly unbalanced ratio of boys to girls in Chinese society is evidence that the practice remains widespread.

In 1995 Mrs. Clinton delivered a speech at a U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing where – without mentioning China by name – she spoke out against the abuses.

“It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned, or suffocated, or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls,” she said.

“It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families, and that includes being forced to have abortions or being sterilized against their will.”

Women’s Rights Without Frontiers president Reggie Littlejohn, who campaigns against China’s birth-limitation policies, expressed disappointment that the first lady “will deliberately ignore egregious women’s rights abuses while she is in China, with three generations of women in her family.”

“Mrs. Obama has positioned herself as an international women’s leader,” Littejohn said early Friday. “She could do so much good if she were willing to use her position to advance women’s rights in a nation that tramples them.”

“Previous first ladies have used their positions of influence to speak out for human rights in this totalitarian regime. Instead, Mrs. Obama has chosen to ignore the intense suffering of hundreds of millions of women who have been victims of forced abortion, involuntary sterilization, gendercide and sexual slavery. This choice seriously undermines any pretense that she is a champion of women’s rights.”

Don’t ‘neglect freedom fighters’

China Aid Association president Bob Fu said Friday that the ties Mrs. Obama hopes to build during her visit “can only by broadened meaningfully when the voice of the many millions of Chinese young netizens and women can be heard by the American younger generation like the two first daughters.”

Fu said he hoped Mrs. Obama would not “neglect freedom fighters like the brave human rights heroine Ms. Cao Shunli who was vanished as recently as a week ago.”

Cao died in detention. Supporters charge that the authorities denied her medical treatment for several serious illnesses.

Fu noted that the administration had expressed deep concern over Cao’s death, and said “it will be disheartening to see Mrs. Obama leave China without convening that same message to her Chinese hosts.”

Fu, a Chinese house-church pastor who faced harassment and detention before he and his wife moved as refugees to the U.S. in 1996, noted that Mrs. Obama’s two most recent predecessors did speak out on human rights while first ladies.

Then-First Lady Laura Bush and 
daughter Barbara visit a camp
housing at least 39,000 Burmese
refugees, in Thailand on August 7,
2008. (Photo: White House/Shealah

“She should at least take notes from the steps of her predecessors such as Mrs. Hillary Clinton who spoke boldly for the oppressed Chinese women during her visit to Beijing in 1990s and Mrs. Laura Bush’s push for the freedom of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma,” he said.

In her last year at the White House Mrs. Bush also made headlines for comments on China.

Mrs. Bush accompanied President Bush on an Asia trip in August 2008, and while in Thailand a day before arriving in Beijing she traveled separately to a camp for Burmese refugees on the Thai-Burma border.

While there she implicitly criticized China for its support for the Burmese junta, and for its conduct in the U.N. Security Council, where China and Russia the previous month had vetoed a U.S.-drafted resolution on rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

“We urge the Chinese to do what other countries have done, to sanction, to put a financial squeeze on the Burmese generals so that they will reach out to the people in the country of Burma,” she told reporters at the camp.

“As President Bush has told you many, many times, he constantly speaks to the Chinese about a lot of issues – not just Burma but other human rights issues,” Mrs. Bush said. “We try to work with them on the U.N. Security Council so that they won’t be the ones, for instance, to veto the resolution on Zimbabwe that they just vetoed a few weeks ago.”

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