Framing fundamental moral issues as political

On August 21, Vice President Joe Biden was giving remarks on U.S. China relations to people gathered at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China. Here’s a portion of what he said:

But as I was talking to some of your leaders, you share a similar concern here in China. You have no safety net. Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family. The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people. Not sustainable.

So hopefully we can act in a way on a problem that’s much less severe than yours, and maybe we can learn together from how we can do that.

That the Vice President of the United States wouldn’t second-guess a policy whereby families can’t have more than one child and are forced to abort their children is pretty shocking. Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, you probably know that this policy is notoriously brutal, and one of the most legendary human rights violations ever implemented under a dictatorship. Women are routinely forced to abort their children and undergo sterilizations. They are given huge fines for pregnancies. As many as 35,000 abortions take place in China each day. The human suffering we’re talking about is staggering.

Gaffes happen all the time with Washington players and they don’t just happen in one administration or one party, but this is certainly a sad one. Or, if you prefer, a noteworthy one.

But what I find interesting is that the media didn’t pick up on this story until pro-lifers started noticing it a day or so later. Presumably the Vice President of the United States had media following him around China that day, right?

The New York Times still hasn’t noticed it. At least in the paper — a blog covered it. This article about Biden’s trip, however, didn’t mention it.

And then when the media did notice it, they covered it kind of bizarrely. An NPR blog didn’t report on the words so much as defend the Vice President (and this is the only mention of the remarks I see on the site, for what it’s worth). It’s rather odd treatment:

While in China, Vice President Biden inadvertently stepped into the U.S. culture wars with a seemingly off-hand comment about China’s one-child policy that has caused American abortion opponents to rebuke him. …

Then, in what appeared to be an attempt at striking a sympathetic chord with his Chinese audience, Biden alluded to the looming demographic disasters faced by both China and the U.S — ever fewer workers paying to support ever more retirees …

Those who want to give Biden the benefit of the doubt will see this comment, culturally relativistic as it sounds, as his way of doing nothing that would add to the tensions in U.S.-Chinese relations.

After a week in which Chinese and U.S. officials got into a shoving match at the Great Hall of the People and American and Chinese athletes got into an actual brawl, the vice president’s solicitude, if not choice of words, makes a certain amount of sense.

But not everyone wanted to give Biden the benefit of the doubt.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, said in a statement to the Washington Post’s Right Turn blog:

China’s one-child policy is gruesome and barbaric. Vice President Biden’s acquiescence to such a policy should shock the conscience of every American. Instead of condoning the policy, Vice President Biden should have condemned it in the strongest possible terms. There can be no defense of a government that engages in compulsory sterilization and forced abortions in the name of population control.”

I don’t know why I bothered italicizing any of that since it’s all kind of odd. I mean, I know that NPR is federally funded and all that, but I think the VP has his own media operation.

Other sites did better but focused on the political angle. See, Vice President Biden is a Democrat. And there’ll be a presidential election in 15 months. Which means we’ve hit the part of journalists’ liturgical calendar where all stories are about politics. And since some Republican presidential contenders knocked him for this, that’s where the stories focused.

I get that politics is important. But they’re not every thing. It’s pretty easy to knock Joe Biden for saying he has no beef with a one-child policy and I’m sure candidates took their swipes. But can’t we talk about this in a way that’s more than political? China’s policy is presumably something that most Americans want to fight. To make this a story about Biden failing to defend Republican values — rather than American values — is inappropriate, isn’t it? And yet that’s what most of the coverage did. Democrat Biden supports one-child policy while Republican candidates bash him for it. This story is much more complex than that and much more important than the Republican horserace. It’s not a story that should be ignored, excused or painted as a partisan battle. And even those political stories — so otherwise obsessed with politicians’ religious views — don’t do a great job of mentioning Biden’s Catholicism.

The White House did release a statement that they oppose the policy and that Biden believes the practices associated with the policy are “repugnant.”

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  • Dale


    I’ve spent a few years in China, so I think I can clarify some issues about the one child policy.

    That the Vice President of the United States wouldn’t second-guess a policy whereby families can’t have more than one child and are forced to abort their children

    The official policy from Beijing is a goal of only one child per family, and certain economic incentives are used to promote the policy. Forced abortions are not part of the policy, but a result of it. Local politicians and workplace supervisors face economic penalties if those under their authority have more than one child. In a one party state, where the local official often has little or no opposition, local officials take matters into their own hands and force recalcitrant women to have abortions. Forced abortions and sterilizations are illegal in China, but when the local official who enforces the law is the one breaking it, the law affords little protection.

    Here’s an article from Time that, from my experience, accurately describes how the one-child policy results in forced abortions and sterilizations. I think it’s important to report this accurately, because otherwise central government officials can dismiss criticism about forced abortions and sterilization as factually inaccurate and unfair.

  • Bill

    Does the VP believe that China’s policy would be OK if they weren’t facing actuarial insolvency when too many Chinese are too old to work?

    The Biden story has echoes of the NYT story Mollie posted a few days ago about culling multiple births, often done for the convenience of the parents.

    If we believe the greater good is convenience or economic benefit, wouldn’t it be more sensible to follow Chesterton’s modest proposal? Let all the babies be born, then kill the ones we don’t like.

    I don’t remember when exactly or who decided that Human Resources was a better term than Personnel. When do we start calling babies Commodity Futures?

    Question: How would the press have covered this, say, 50 years ago.

  • Mike

    Could it be that the vice president puts his foot in his mouth so often that it ceases being news?

  • Ed Mechmann

    It’s too bad that the religion angle is barely touched in these stories. Also too bad that no reporter asks the Administration, “if you find the policy to be ‘repugnant’, then why do you still give funds to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, which supports China’s policies?”

  • Hector_St_Clare

    It’s sad that anyone nowadays is defending the one-child policy. The experience of many, many developing countries over the last two decades indicates that you can achieve small families and replacement-level fertility (or below) without coercive means. Neither Thailand, nor Cuba, nor Iran, nor Venezuela, nor Brazil, nor Argentina needed forced abortions to get to the low fertility rates they have now (in fact abortion is mostly illegal in the last four cited). China’s forced abortion policy was not only tragic and immoral, it was also totally unnecessary.

  • Jerry

    That the Vice President of the United States wouldn’t second-guess a policy whereby families can’t have more than one child and are forced to abort their children is pretty shocking.

    Mollie, you’ll never be a diplomat. Sometimes to even mention something is to comment on it. You clearly prefer directly hammering on a topic rather than bringing it up in an oblique manner, but that’s not how diplomacy is usually done, either between nations or sometimes even in an corporate environment. Even my wife sometimes says “do you think you’d possibly enjoy…” when she means “I want to” but I guess you don’t talk in the manner my wife does.

    And, of course, you judged him negatively by implicitly and explicitly criticizing him.

    The clauses you italicized were critically important because they were all about how various people would or would not react to his statement while at the same time not judging his motives in a news story. As such, I find them appropriate and not blameworthy.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Do we HAVE to be reminded that he is (technically) a “Catholic? I wish not… is so hard to explain this in RCIA.

  • Elijah

    Well, I think Mike has a good point; Biden is, after all, a gaffe-machine. Is his latest balls-up really newsworthy?

    Deacon Jim: I hear ya. As if between Nancy Pelosi and Martin O’Malley and others there isn’t enough ‘splainin to do. But I think the reality of Joe Biden is that he cannot – cannot – stop himself from indulging in gasbaggery whenever an opportunity presents itself. This is not Joe Biden the moral man, or the Roman Catholic, but Joe Biden the compulsive windbag who doesn’t stop to consider that in his attempt to flatter his hosts and ingratiate himself with them, he’s said something inexcusably ignorant or stupid or just plain evil.

    I just don’t think he ever stops to think about what he says; do a quick search on Biden gaffes and there’s no shortage of press on the subject.

  • MJBubba

    I think both Biden’s remarks and NPR’s defense of Biden are indicators of the viewpoint that there are no absolute moral values on which America could ground a policy in regard to China’s human rights abuses. “not second guessing” “culturally relativistic” “benefit of the doubt” “sympathetic chord” “solicitude”