What does it mean to be a “pro-life” Chinese person? Recently, many Western media have been calling Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident who fled China by seeking protection at U.S. embassy in Beijing, a pro-life activist. Conservative websites such as Gateway Pundit and LifeSiteNews.com (a non-profit pro-life news service) have described Chen as a pro-life activist whose involvement in anti-abortion efforts has caused him to be abandoned by the “pro-abortion” Obama administration.
This picture of Chen’s ideology is misleading–but it obscures a larger consensus within China that abortion is wrong.
First, the truth about Chen Guangcheng
In reality, the portrayal of Chen as a pro-life activist is misguided. Chen has never protested against abortion on principle. What Chen has spent years fighting against is forced abortion by village officials on local women in rural China, which is actually against Chinese law. During Chen’s two major public appearances since arriving in the U.S., he has not mentioned abortion at all, instead focusing his attention on promoting the “rule of law” in China. His friend, Bob Fu, a Chinese-born Christian who is the head of China Aid (a Texas-based non-profit working towards religious freedom in China), has written that if abortion is not forced, then Chen is “not necessarily against it.”
In fact, the evidence suggests that Chen wants to use Chinese law to protect pregnant women from being forced into abortions by local officials under the pressure of China’s One-Child Policy. Forced abortion and abortion are two entirely different topics—just as people can abhor rape (i.e., forced sex) but not sex, someone like Chen who opposes forced abortion is not necessarily against abortion in all its forms.
What about the rest of China?
So what do people in China actually think of abortions? On the last day of May, an anti-abortion demonstration was organized by Qiu Yu Zhi Fu Church (the Chinese name of the church, 秋雨之福, means “the blessings of autumn rain”), a Christian Church in Chengdu, Sichuan. On May 31, the Church’s pastor, Wang Yi (@王怡的麦克风), published an open letter on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, discussing the demonstration.
Wang criticized the rampant presence of abortion clinics in the city of Chengdu as well as what he called their “irresponsible” advertisements about abortion. According to Wang, these advertisements ignore the harmful impacts of abortion and promote irresponsible sexual behavior among young adults. He called for “all citizens who respect life, morality, and God” to join him on International Children’s Day (which happens on June 1 every year) for a public demonstration against abortion advertisement in cities and performance of abortion on teenagers under 18 without parental consent.
Wang also proposed that Chengdu designate International Children’s Day as “No Abortion Day” every year. He argued that since fetuses are children, they should not be aborted on a day meant to honor them. Wang also proposed to require hospitals and clinics to inform patients of the dangers of abortion and advise them of their alternative choices.
A day after Wang’s open letter, he and members of his church gathered in front of an abortion clinic whose advertisement reads, “Small accident in love, Small painless procedure.” They handed out 1,000 fliers to passers-by while trying to engage them in a conversation about abortion. Meanwhile, netizens were reacting to Wang’s post in diverse and surprising ways.
Netizens broadly agree: Fetus = Life
Very few netizens questioned Wang’s definition that unborn fetuses are “life.” Many seemed to agree with Pastor Wang that abortion is an act of cruelty, and that people who receive abortions are irresponsible. @禾小米 wrote, “Fetuses are people too, they are not just a piece of lifeless meat.” In 30 pages of netizen commentary analyzed by Tea Leaf Nation, people continuously referred to “the baby in the stomach” as “life”, while no one raised the ongoing scientific debate about life and personhood so often discussed in the U.S. Instead, many netizens referred to a fetus as “life,” and urged people to “understand and respect the importance of life.”
Women’s rights take a back seat
Very few netizens argued that a woman has the right to control her own body, another stark contrast to abortion debates in the U.S. Among the comments analyzed, only two users explicitly mentioned a woman’s rights to control her pregnancy, while a few others commented on the practical concerns of women who have children out of wedlock. @offwiththeface was one such exception, writing to Pastor Wang:
“Abortion is a choice that women have with regard to their own body. I hate people like you, who stand on their moral high ground and make noises all day long. Your religion might say that you can’t have an abortion, but if I want to have an abortion performed on me, then it is none of your business. Did your God make you forget that you have to respect other people’s choices and privacy? What a disappointment!”
@五大院居士 also argued that “women should have their own choice in this, independent of pressures from a patriarchal society or the brainwashing of churches.”
However, explicit advocacy for a woman’s right to choose ended there. While many netizens disagreed with Pastor Wang, they focused on the lack of choice facing unmarried mothers in China, not the sovereignty of women’s bodies. @cromah, @Y李先生他哥, and @athanos commented that Chinese culture and economic reality do not easily tolerate single mothers, and it would be next to impossible for the mother to raise a child on her own even if she gave birth to it. Although these netizens are sympathetic towards women who face the difficult decision to get an abortion, they do not explicitly refer to their right to control their own bodies.
The culture war doesn’t translate
Sex and pregnancy out of wedlock is still considered to be harmful, if not immoral, in China. @幸福正在路上溜达呢 condemned the omnipresence of abortion advertisements as “shameless,” while @小郭子-笑容女王 commented, “If you can’t put her in a wedding dress, then you probably shouldn’t take off her underwear.”
But as a topic of political discourse, abortion does not loom as large in China as it does in the U.S. People seem to have a general notion that abortion is wrong (or at least harmful to women, the fetuses, and society in general), but have not developed the specific argumentative fault lines visible in the U.S.
One obvious obstacle to putting an end to abortion is China’s One-Child Policy. Under the Policy, a couple can only have one child; therefore, any subsequent pregnancies must be terminated. Even if one uses birth control, abortion is still the only recourse to avoid breaking the law in the wake of an accidental pregnancy.
In addition, China lacks the religious pro-life groups that are so powerful in the U.S. All religious groups in China (at least those registered with authorities) are state-sanctioned, and these groups lack anything close to the political power enjoyed by their counterparts in the U.S. As a result, they have limited power to shape the abortion debate.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that debate about abortion in China has not reached the level of divisiveness found in the U.S., even if the actions of Pastor Wang and the (erroneous) identification of Cheng Guangcheng as pro-life activist have raised the issue’s recent profile. Importantly, however, netizens seem to perceive abortion as a negative, rather than a neutral, event. As China’s one-child policy eventually sunsets and its population levels off, these opinions could assume new relevance if China ever has its own wrenching debate about the true meaning of “life.”