Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is citing Chen’s work in its critique of President Obama’s record on human rights. Particularly, Romney campaign officials argue that Obama has been weak on the one-child rule, the much-publicized population-control measure that has been criticized as an under-recognized human rights abuse.
The political posturing highlights the minefield that awaits Chen, who has remained largely out of the public eye since arriving in the United States this month. China agreed to Chen’s departure after tense, month-long negotiations between the countries.
Allies of the self-educated lawyer, who also championed the environment, the rights of the disabled and other causes, say Chen defies American political categories. As groups including antiabortion advocates have begun reaching out to Chen, his supporters fear he could be used as a political football by those hoping to capitalize on his dramatic story.
“My message is, don’t ruin this man with American politics,” said Bob Fu, a Texas pastor and friend of Chen who was instrumental in drawing attention to his situation.
Supporters have advised Chen that abortion is a perennial and bitterly divisive issue in the United States, especially during election years. “In the end, though, he’ll have to decide what he’ll want to say,” said Jerome A. Cohen, a law professor at New York University and another friend who is advising Chen. “This man is fearless, and he’ll speak out what he thinks. We’re not trying to shackle him.”
For now, Fu and Cohen said, Chen is focused on his physical and emotional recovery and the safety of family members in China. Still, he has shown a desire to speak publicly. He granted interviews to CNN and Reuters and is scheduled this week to address the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also expected to detail his story at a congressional hearing.
Chen’s plight has been closely watched in this country, including by antiabortion activists who have long abhorred China’s one-child rule. Abortion, they say, forced or otherwise, is a large component of how the policy is enforced.
Officially, the use of force to lead a woman to end her pregnancy is not permitted in China. Most couples who become pregnant with a second child without permission are subject to fines. Despite the law, forced abortions occur in areas where local officials are trying to meet population quotas.
“I see [Chen] being a, if not the, game-changer for the Chinese [one-child] policy, which is the cruelest on the face of Earth,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), a leading antiabortion and human rights voice in Congress.
The Obama administration also opposes China’s one-child policy and was instrumental in bringing Chen to the United States. But that has not shielded the president from criticism.
Romney was among the first to condemn Obama’s handling of Chen, whose fate was in question for days after he escaped house arrest and sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Some criticized Romney for prematurely accusing the president of bungling the operation, because a little later the administration successfully negotiated Chen’s release.
But Romney has not let up in his criticism. In particular, he has accused the Obama administration of having a permissive attitude toward the one-child rule. Alex Wong, a foreign policy adviser to Romney, singled out Vice President Biden for telling an audience in China last year that the one-child policy was one that “I fully understand.”
“When you have the vice president going to China and saying he understands why the Chinese government has the one-child policy, that does a lot of damage,” Wong said. The administration “has not exhibited that it gets the brutality of that policy.”
Biden, who also called the policy “unsustainable” in his remarks, clarified that he opposes China’s birth-limitation policies.
Chen’s story also has renewed calls by antiabortion activists to end U.S. funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which promotes family planning efforts. But groups say they want to be careful not to exploit his situation.
“We do plan to reach out to him and help him in the way he wants to be helped,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, who said she is unsure of Chen’s general views on abortion. “What we will not do is take his suffering and his family’s suffering and use it for a cause he doesn’t believe in.”