/ 17 August 2013

China’s ‘second-borns’ live in the shadows

China's 'transitional policy' sees many Chinese babies undocumented.
China's 'transitional policy' sees many Chinese babies undocumented. (Reuters)

To all intents and purposes, Li Xue does not exist. True, she is standing in her parents' one-room home in Beijing, in a Spongebob Squarepants T-shirt and cropped trousers. But with no identity card or household registration, there is no official acknowledgement of her life – apart from a hospital form recording her birth and the fine hanging over her family.

"I have never been to school. I can't buy a train ticket. I can't even buy certain cold medicines, which require an identity card. I don't have medical insurance. It's impossible to get a job," said Li, who recently turned 20. Her parents' refusal to pay for breaching China's strict birth control rules has left their second child without documentation andwithout access to basic services and opportunities.

The "one child" policy was supposed to be a transitional measure to curb the country's bulging population. More than 30 years later it endures, despite warnings of its punitive effects on China's development and families such as Li's. Repeated attempts to overturn the policy have led to marginal changes. Fresh speculation last week, suggesting a uniform two-child rule might be adopted from 2015, ended in a less dramatic announcement: authorities were considering allowing couples a second birth if one parent was an only child.

"This issue has been discussed for more than 20 years," said Li Jianxin, a population professor at Peking University. "Many good opportunities have already been missed. The policy should have been adjusted a long time ago." Instead, it has been enforced at massive human cost: forced late-term abortions; the worsening of the gender gap; increased trauma and economic stress for parents who lose their only child; and punitive fines for families such as Li's.

Targeting the poor

While forced abortions and sterilisations are illegal, and much less common than they were, they are encouraged by family planning targets and perpetuated by the lack of effective checks against local abuses, said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.

Many people buy themselves out of trouble; one family paid a record 1.3-million yuan fine last year. Others make hefty "donations" to obtain school places for undocumented children. Hom said disadvantaged individuals tend to be targeted, while celebrities and wealthy families "can either afford to pay the heavy fines and/or use their government connections for immunity", exacerbating resentments.

Li's parents Li Hongyu and Bai Xuling should have been allowed a second child because both are disabled. But Bai fell pregnant unexpectedly and officials imposed a 5 000 yuan fine for their failure to get advanced approval. The couple earned only 140 yuan a month. Then Bai's state-run employer fired her for breaching the rules. They have spent years pleading with officials and trying to overturn the fine through the courts, only to be told it is too late for a reconsideration.

They insist they should not have to pay and no one has told them how much it would cost to gain a hukou (household registration) for Li now. Fines are cumulative, said Hom, and because they are heavy to begin with – often several times a household's annual income – many families either cannot afford them or fall into debt borrowing money to pay them off.

Li's parents now live on less than 2 000 yuan monthly, which supports their daughter as well as themselves. Many suspect that fines – known as social compensation fees, recognising the extra cost to society – give local officials a powerful incentive to resist reforms. Family planning also employs huge numbers of officials. And, perhaps most powerfully, authorities fear a sudden slew of births if the rules were eased. Officials say the birth controls have been vital to China's development and reduced the strain on the environment, preventing 400-million extra births in a country which, even so, has a population of over 1.3-billion.

China's growing population

But critics say the birth rate had fallen steeply before the "one child" rule was introduced. Even those who agree that it was necessary say it is no longer needed. China's population is expected to peak in around a decade at 1.45-billion, and the working age population shrank last year. Officially the fertility rate stands at 1.7 births per couple – well below the 2.1 required to maintain a stable population – and other estimates put it closer to 1.5.

Yuan Xin, of Nankai University's Institute of Population and Development Research, said the policy had contributed to China's economic growth, but created unexpected problems because the population shift happened too fast. It took the UK and France 75 years to move from six-to-two-child families, he said, while China made the transition in 20 years.

Li said: "I never think about marriage and children," she said. "If I don't have a household registration, how can I get married, and how can I give my child a registration?"

The Guardian could not reach the Beijing family planning authorities for comment despite repeated attempts.

© Guardian News and Media 2013