As China ends one-child policy, illegally born kids ask: 'What about us?'

China has at least 13 million 'nonpersons,' second or third children born illegally in the past 40 years, who have no papers and no rights.

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
Li Xue, whose birth violated China's one-child-policy, studies some documents charting her long legal battle for official recognition that she exists, in Beijing on Nov. 4, 2015.
Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Guan Junze and his grandparents take a souvenir picture in front of the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on Monday. The ruling Communist Party said last week that Beijing would loosen its decades-old one-child policy. The plan for the change must be approved by the rubber-stamp parliament during its annual session in March.

China’s ruling Communist party may have just ended its notorious one-child policy, but the change has come too late for Yan Fengyin.

Like millions of other mothers who broke the decades-long rule in China allowing only one child, she has found that her illegal daughter is a nonperson, denied official recognition, and stripped of all her rights.

Only if she and her peasant farmer husband pay a fine of $63,000 – an unimaginably large sum for them – can they put things right, family planning officials have told them. Otherwise five year old Guo Zishan will grow up “non-existent in the eyes of the law,” sighs Ms. Yan. “She won’t be able to see a doctor or get married or anything. It’s very cruel.”

There were 13 million children like little Zishan in 2010, according to that year’s census, though the real figure could be twice that, some demographers say.

Moreover, second or third children, born to parents who could not or would not pay the hefty fine, have no “hukou,” the household registration booklet that lies at the heart of every Chinese citizen’s identity and determines their rights. 

They are, in local parlance, Heihaizi, meaning "black child."

Denying millions of children a normal future unless their parents pay up is "legally unreasonable and morally wrong," says Wu Youshui, a lawyer who has championed victims of the family planning agency. “It is inhumane, but officials do it because it makes it easier for them to raise money.”

Where did the money go?

The fines are officially known as "social maintenance fees" and their size varies from place to place and from case to case. Authorities generally set them at between three times and 10 times the average annual salary in the local area.

Mr. Wu estimates that local family planning agency branches collect nearly $8 billion a year. When he asked provincial governments for details in 2013 under China’s Government Information Publicity Regulations, he says he got very incomplete answers. None would say where the collected fines had gone. 

Those funds are meant to help pay for the social resources that extra children require. But that does not often appear to be the case.

"Who knows where the money goes?" wonders Stephanie Gordon, a researcher at Leicester University in England who has studied the matter. "Partly it goes to maintain the family planning system, but a lot of it just goes."

Central government guidelines issued in 1988 do not allow local authorities to withhold a child’s hukou until its parents have paid the social maintenance fee. Gradually, some provinces are falling into line. But China’s regions enjoy considerable latitude in many areas, and hold-out provinces have felt no pressure from Beijing, Ms. Gordon says.

Some parents of "black kids" hope that the new relaxation of the family planning rules, allowing every married Chinese couple to have two children for the first time in nearly 40 years, might be applied retroactively, letting them off the hook.

But the last time the rules were loosened in 2014, only a few provinces applied the new regulations retroactively, Gordon points out. “I don’t think that will happen in many places this time,” she says. “Local governments want to collect the funds.”

A life of legal battles

If the government shows no leniency “I don’t know what I’ll do,” says Yan Fengyin, the farmer’s wife who sees no possibility of ever raising what amounts to nearly 20 years of her husband’s wages to secure a hukou for her little girl.

She faces the prospect of growing up like Li Xue, now a determined 22-year-old Beijinger who has spent most of her young life fighting legal battles with the police and the family planning commission for a hukou.

Her parents, both disabled, were told by a community family planning apparatchik in 1992 that because of their handicaps they were allowed a second child. After Li Xue was born, more senior officials overruled that and demanded a 5,000 yuan ($870) fine that her parents could not afford on an annual income of $145.

“My biggest regret is that I couldn’t go to school,” Ms. Li says. Denied a place for lack of a hukou, she taught herself at home, borrowing books from neighbors’ children and copying her elder sister’s lessons. Today, with the help of some students who learned of her plight, she slips into law lectures at a Beijing university, learning how to file lawsuits against the government.

“I sit in the corner where the teacher doesn’t notice me,” she explains. She could not attend university as a normal student: you need an ID card to take the entrance exam.

Li Xue’s mother worries about her marriage prospects, which without a hukou are nil. Li says she is too busy pursuing her legal struggles to think about boys, and that anyway “I am too tied up with my hukou issue – no guy would be interested in me. So I just don’t think about it.”

She does, however, resent the fact that without an ID she can board neither trains nor planes, nor can she go to a hospital, borrow a library book, or collect a parcel from the post office, let alone enjoy social security benefits such as health insurance or a pension. Nor can she get anything other than a menial job.

In the ultimate irony, because she had no ID she was recently denied entry to the courthouse where a judge was hearing the case she had filed against the police, demanding they provide her with the hukou she needs to get an ID card.

Li’s mother could simply pay the 5,000 yuan fine. But she refuses to do so as a matter of principle, insisting that the family planning agency acted wrongly. Li shares that attitude. “I will not buy my citizen’s rights,” she says bluntly.

Yan Fengyin has no such scruples, but she has no money either. “If my husband and I had any means to solve this problem we would,” she says, shrugging in resignation. “But we don’t.”

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