Difference Maker

Protecting women and girls in China, where one child per family is the rule – and a boy the preference.

Chai Ling was a leader of the 1989 student uprising at Tiananmen Square. Now she wants to help women and girls in her native China.

By , / Contributor

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    Chai Ling became the second-most-wanted person in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. She escaped to Hong Kong, then made her way to the US in 1990. Today she’s a businesswoman as well as a wife and mother of three. Her English-language memoir will be published soon.
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Twenty-one years ago, Chai Ling was a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration, speaking out against China's oppressive regime.

Lauded as their "commander in chief" by the democratic activists protesting at the vast Beijing public square, Ms. Chai was later denounced by the Chinese government as the second-most-wanted "culprit" of the political upheaval and forced to flee her native land. Hiding in a boat, she first reached Hong Kong and later settled in the United States in 1990.

Today Chai is a savvy businesswoman living near Boston and a mother of three, after marriage to an American citizen.

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On June 3, the eve of the 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen bloodshed, she spoke at a church in Falls Church, Va. "[The] Tiananmen massacre is still happening every day!" she said as tears streamed down her face and her agitated hands whipped the balmy night air.

Chai was referring to China's one-child policy, in which officials force pregnant women to abort their babies. In place since 1979, the "one child" rule has prompted many Chinese to practice sex selection, using ultrasound screenings to determine whether the fetus is a boy or girl and then aborting females or abandoning them after birth to orphanages. More than 35,000 forced abortions were performed in China each day in 2009, Chai says – a death toll that far exceeds the estimated thousands of protesters who died in the 1989 massacre.

Chai now has begun a new humanitarian venture, a nonprofit group called All Girls Allowed (www.allgirlsallowed.org), which aims to provide legal aid, counseling, and other assistance to victims of forced abortions and sterilizations in China. She also plans to launch a campaign to change minds in China about the preference for male offspring and build orphanages.

Carl Minzner, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, says China's one-child policy is a "breeding ground of bad abuses" as local officials are pressured to meet targets for the number of births. China will need to use a wide range of incentives to address its widening gender imbalance, he says, which has created a large surplus of boys, who may not be able to find wives when they grow up.

The gender imbalance may make the country more prone to social instability, studies have suggested.

With China's population aging under the one-child rule, "we see some discussions and flexibility with the policy, but more needs to be done," Professor Minzner says. A policy in Shanghai, for example, allows a couple to have a second child if both parents are themselves single children.

Decades of infanticide has skewed China's population: China's boy to girl ratio, 110 to 100 in 2000, shot up to 118 to 100 in 2005, according to official figures.

Chai's audience in the Virginia church looked on in horror as she screened a slide show filled with photos taken in secret at China's squalid abortion clinics and detention centers, where disheveled pregnant women sobbed.

Chai said the idea of the charity project stemmed from her assignment last fall as an interpreter at a congressional hearing on China's one-child policy, where an abused Chinese woman testified.

Shrouding her face with a black veil (for fear of retribution), a soft-spoken woman with the pseudonym Jian Wu recounted how she was tortured by officials in her town. Ms. Wu, carrying her second child, came out from hiding after her father was severely beaten by authorities. She was dragged to an abortion clinic.

"Her [Wu's] only crime was being a mother," Chai says.

Now herself a mother of three girls, ages 5, 7, and 9, Chai is using seed money from the Jenzabar Foundation, the charitable arm of her fledging software business, to drive her human rights endeavor. She is partnering with and funding local women's rights groups in China. One day, she hopes to change the minds of China's birth control officials.

Xingdou Hu, a professor of economics and China issues at the Beijing Institute of Technology, says Chai's efforts are admirable, but she faces an uphill battle.

"[The] Chinese government is very cautious of any foreign entity trying to mess with its domestic affairs [such as the one-child policy], especially one with [a] religious tone," he explains.

What the country needs to do is provide pensions and basic insurance to its poor rural population, he says. Then they wouldn't have to rely on "having male offspring to care for them when they grow old," he says.

Chai converted to Christianity in April, a process that she says renewed her life.

"I thought I found a solution to China's problems by studying the democratic model of Taiwan," says Chai of the research she did in earning a master's degree in international relations at Princeton University in New Jersey.

But the US consultancy firms and banks with business ties in China that hired her after graduation weren't interested in causing trouble with the Chinese government.

"It turns out God gave me a new calling instead – to help China's women and girls," Chai now says.

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