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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 Artemisia Ng/ Contributor / August 16, 2010

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.

Taylor Weidman/Staff

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Falls Church, Va.

Twenty-one years ago, Chai Ling was a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration, speaking out against China's oppressive regime.

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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.

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.

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