(Warning: This article contains a graphic image.)
Photographs change history. Images of the screaming Vietnamese girl, burned naked by napalm, the emaciated Muslim man caged behind Serbian barbed wire, and the burqa-clad women shot in the head in an Afghan stadium by the Taliban burned graphic and indelible images in the public conscience. Soon after they were taken, American support for the Vietnam War collapsed, the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia began, and the American public, already enraged by Taliban support for al Qaida, firmed its support of the Afghanistan invasion.
China now has its picture that could change its history: the image of a grieving mother in a hospital bed, her dead infant lying by her side. It is already one the most downloaded items on the Chinese Internet.
This photograph crushes the carefully cultivated image of a benign and wise Chinese state, offering its people jobs, rising living standards, and eventual happiness. Instead, it offers a rare glimpse of the naked power that the Chinese communist state stands prepared to use against its own citizens. We have heard of Chinese state infanticide for years, but we have never seen it before. Now we have.
The story: A young provincial couple was unable to pay the $6,500 fine to permit it to have a second child. The seven-month pregnant wife was dragged off to a hospital, where she was given an injection of poison to kill her baby and induce an abortion.
The outcry over this photograph has caused Chinese authorities to discipline the local officials who carried out the forced abortion. Without the outrage caused by the photo, they would have simply been doing their duty. After all, the interests of the state as defined by the party trump the interests of the individual. If the officials had not waited until the seventh month or had confiscated the photograph, this public relations mess could have been avoided.
Apologists will argue that this was just one incident, perhaps a little more extreme than thousands of others. But the picture gives us a rare glimpse behind China’s gleaming façade of superhighways, high-speed trains, and new cities, revealing the fearsome power and potential cruelty of the Chinese one-party state. There is no way suave and sophisticated Chinese spokespersons clad in impeccable Western garb can spin this sad and haunting image. After viewing this photograph, few Americans will think of China in the same way as they did before.
The saddest part of the story is that the bereaved mother suffered from a policy that is in the process of being abandoned. The party’s one-child policy has transformed China from a young country to an old country within one generation. The Chinese are beginning to realize that China needs more babies, especially girls.
The lone young man standing in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square did not change Chinese history. Perhaps the haunting image of the mother in the hospital bed with her dead infant will.
Paul Gregory, a Hoover Institution research fellow, holds an endowed professorship in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, Texas, is a research professor at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, and is Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Kiev School of Economics. He blogs on national and international economic topics at Forbes and at his personal blog.