(Corrects to say Xinyi in paragraph 6)
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng says he expects Beijing to drop its much criticised one-child policy in the near future and expressed hope of an end to forced abortions and sterilisations he says are still inflicted on many Chinese women.
The blind human rights defender, who taught himself law, made international headlines last year when he escaped 19 months of house arrest and took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. He was eventually allowed to go to New York to study.
Chen attracted widespread attention in 2005 when he accused officials in his home province, Shandong, of forcing pregnant women to undergo late-term abortions in a drive to enforce Chinese rules that restrict most couples to one child in cities and two children in the countryside.
Chen told Thomson Reuters Foundation the practice continued.
"Yesterday morning, I heard that in Junan County (in Shangdong), a woman who was nine months pregnant was sent for a forced abortion. This is the latest incident," Chen said.
"And a few days ago, in Xinyi, Jiangsu Province, local thugs beat up a woman who had more than one child because she couldn't afford the social maintenance fees," he added, referring to the penalty women had to pay for having more than one child.
"These things are still happening."
Chen said typically in these cases, pregnant women were seized by the National Health and Family Planning Commission officials and taken away.
"They would go to your home, drag you from your bed - you wouldn't be allowed to put on your clothes - put you in the car, drive you to hospital and you would be operated on. They would abort your baby whatever the conditions were - so long as you hadn't given birth to the child."
Chen said local officials would be under pressure to use all means possible to ensure the one-child policy.
"Not only women, but many men were forcibly sterilised. Both men and women were victims," he said.
The one-child policy was introduced in the late 1970s to prevent population growth spiralling out of control. It has long been opposed by human rights and religious groups.
Although it was meant to last only 30 years and there are now numerous exceptions to it, the policy still applies to about 63 percent of the population.
But there have been signs China may loosen the policy.
Former leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao both dropped the phrase "maintain a low birth rate" in their work reports to the party Congress in November - the first time in a decade that major speeches by top leaders had omitted such a reference.
In March, Beijing merged the Family Planning Commission with the health ministry and shifted population policymaking to its powerful economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission - for the first time putting demographics at the heart of economic policy-making.
"I don't know how long it will take (to drop the policy) but it won't take as much as 20, 50 years. It all depends on our efforts," Chen said.
"This policy has brought China many problems such as the growing ageing population," he said.
Many commentators have raised concerns about the burden of an ageing population on generations of only children who will have to support several family members.
Rights campaigners have also denounced the policy for China's skewed gender ratio - the result of its traditional bias for sons. With many Chinese families aborting female foetuses, there are 118 boys for every 100 girls in China, compared with the global average of 103 to 107.
Reports abound of women trafficked into forced marriages with Chinese men from across the border in Myanmar and Vietnam.
"Women's rights are like any other rights. Facing abuses, we need to defend our rights with resolve. We shouldn't keep silent about rights violations," Chen said.
"For such a long time, the notion that a human life is of greater value than everything else has been neglected."
Chen, who was awarded the Asian equivalent of the Nobel prize in 2007, was speaking after the launch of Amnesty International's annual report in London.
Click here, for the video interview with Chen
(Writing by Katie Nguyen)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.