In China, a Daring Few Challenge One-child Limit

China familySeven months pregnant, Wu Weiping sneaked out
early in the morning carrying a shoulder bag with some clothes, her
laptop and a knife.

Pictured: In
this Monday, Oct. 17, 2011 photo, Wu Weiping, 35, plays with her
daughter Wang Yile, 4, and her son Wu Yixiao, 8, near their home in
Zhuji, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province.
(AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)


“It’s good for me I
wasn’t caught, but it’s lucky for them too,” said Wu, 35, who feared
that family planning officials were going to drag her to the hospital
for a forced abortion. “I was going to fight to the death if they found
me.”

With her escape, Wu joined an
increasingly defiant community of parents in China who have risked their
jobs, savings and physical safety to have a forbidden second child.

Though
their numbers are small, they represent changing ideas about individual
rights. While violators in the past tended to be rural families who
skirted the birth limits in relative obscurity, many today are urbanites
like Wu who frame their defiance in overtly political terms, arguing
that the government has no right to dictate how many children they have.

Using
Internet chat rooms and blogs, a few have begun airing their demands
for a more liberal family planning policy and are hoping others will
follow their lead. Several have gotten their stories into the tightly
controlled media, an indication that their perspectives have resonance
with the public.

After finding out his wife
was expecting a second child, Liu Lianwen set up an online discussion
group called “Free Birth” to swap information about the one-child policy
and how to get around it. In less than six months, it has attracted
nearly 200 members.

“We are idealists,” said
the 37-year-old engineer from central China, whose daughter was born
Oct. 18. “We want to change the attitudes of people around us by
changing ourselves.”

Freed of the social
controls imposed during the doctrinaire era of communist rule, Chinese
today are free to choose where they live and work and whom they marry.
But when it comes to having kids, the state says the majority must stop
at one. Hefty fines for violators and rising economic pressures have
helped compel most to abide by the limit. Many provinces claim near
perfect compliance.

It’s impossible to know
how many children have been born in violation of the one-child policy,
but Zhai Zhenwu, director of Renmin University’s School of Sociology and
Population in Beijing, estimates that less than one percent of the 16
million babies born each year are “out of plan.”

Liu
thinks his fellow citizens have been brainwashed. “They all feel it’s
glorious to have a small family,” he said. “Thirty years of family
planning propaganda have changed the way the majority of Chinese think
about having children.”

The reluctance to
procreate is also an issue of growing concern for demographers, who
worry that the policy combined with a rising cost of living has brought
the fertility rate down too sharply and too fast. Though still the
world’s largest nation with 1.3 billion people, China’s population
growth has slowed considerably.

“The worry for
China is not population growth – it’s rapid population aging and young
people not wanting to have children,” said Wang Feng, director of the
Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, a joint U.S.-China academic
research center in Beijing.

Wang sees a
looming disaster as the baby boom generation of the 1960s heads into
retirement and old age. China’s labor force, sharply reduced by the
one-child policy, will struggle to support them.

He
argues that the government should allow everyone at least two children.
He thinks many Chinese would still stop at one because of concerns
about being able to afford to raise more than that.

Penalties
for violators are harsh. Those caught must pay a “social compensation
fee,” which can be four to nine times a family’s annual income,
depending on the province and the whim of the local family planning
bureau. Parents with government jobs can also lose their posts or get
demoted, and their “out of plan” children are denied education and
health benefits.

Those without government
posts have less to worry about. If they can afford the steep fee and
don’t mind losing benefits, there’s little to stop them from having
another child. There’s popular anger over this favoring of the wealthy
but not much that ordinary people can do about it, since the policy is
set behind closed doors by the communist leadership in Beijing.

In
2007, officials in coastal Zhejiang province threatened to start naming
and shaming well-off families who had extra kids, but the campaign
never got off the ground, possibly because it threatened to tarnish the
reputations of too many well-connected people.

Hardest
hit by the rules are urban middle class parents with Communist Party
posts, teaching positions or jobs at state-run industries.

Li
Yongan was ordered to pay 240,000 yuan ($37,500) after his son was born
in 2007 as he already had a 13-year-old daughter. After refusing to pay
the fee, Li was denied a household registration permit for his son,
forcing him to pay three times more for kindergarten.

He
was also barred from his job teaching physics at a state-run university
in Beijing. “I never regret my second child, but I have been living
with depression and anger for years,” said Li, who struggles to make
ends meet as a freelance chess teacher.

Of
course, there are surreptitious, though not foolproof, ways to evade
punishment: paying a bribe or falsifying documents so that, for
instance, a second child is registered as the twin of an older sibling.
Or, sometimes second babies are registered to childless relatives or
rural families that are allowed to have a second child but haven’t done
so.

Wu, the woman who made the early morning
escape, said she never intended to flout the one-child rule. She had
resorted to fertility treatments to conceive her first child – a
daughter nicknamed Le Le, or Happy – so she was stunned when a doctor
told her she was expecting again in August, 2008.

The
news triggered a monthlong “cold war” with her husband, Wu said. Silent
dinners, cold shoulders. She wanted to keep the baby. He didn’t. After a
few weeks, he came around, she explained with a satisfied smile.

But family planning officials insisted on an abortion. The principal at her school also pressured her to end the pregnancy.

Desperate, she went online for answers – and was led astray.

At
her home on the outskirts of Zhuji, a textile hub a few hours south of
Shanghai, the energetic former high school teacher recounted how she
divorced her husband, then married her cousin the next day, all in an
attempt to evade the rules.

The
soap-opera-like subterfuge was meant to take advantage of a loophole
that allows divorced parents to have a second child if their new spouse
is a first-time parent.

Wu had helped raise
her cousin, who is 25 and 10 years younger than her, and when she asked
if he would marry her to help save the baby, he agreed.

The
divorce, on Sept. 27, 2008 involved signing a document and posing for a
photo. It was over in just a few minutes. The next day’s marriage was
similarly swift.

“I remember I was very happy
that day,” Wu said holding the marriage certificate with a glued-on
snapshot of the cousins. “Because I thought I’d figured out a way to
save my baby.”

But her problem wasn’t over.
When the newlyweds applied for a birth permit, officials informed them
conception had to take place after marriage. They were told to abort the
baby, then try again. Wu was back to square one.

A
popular option that was out of reach for Wu economically is to have the
baby elsewhere, where the limits don’t apply. Some better-off Chinese
go to Hong Kong, where private agencies charge mainland mothers hundreds
of thousands of yuan (tens of thousands of dollars) for transport,
lodging, and medical costs.

The number giving
birth in Hong Kong reached 40,000 last year, prompting the territory to
cap the number of beds in public hospitals they are allowed from 2012.
However, parents of kids born abroad face the bureaucratic hurdles of
foreigners, having to pay premiums for school and other services.

In
the end, Wu also fled, but not as far as Hong Kong. Three months from
her due date, she kissed her baby daughter goodbye, telling her she was
going on vacation, and hopped an early morning train to nearby Hangzhou.
There she switched to another train bound for Shanghai, hoping the
roundabout route would throw off anyone trying to tail her.

In
Shanghai, Wu used a friend’s ID to rent a one-room apartment with
shared bathroom and kitchen. It was tiny and not cheap for her, 700 yuan
a month (US$107), but it was across from a hospital that allowed her to
register without a government-issued birth permission slip and it had
an Internet connection.

Wu had never used
email, so her husband – the real one – set up a password-protected
online journal that he titled “yixiaobb,” or ‘one tiny baby.’ She posted
to the journal up to nine times a day, describing where she was living
without ever revealing her exact location. She prefaced every entry with
a capital M for mother, and added a number to mark how many messages
she wrote in a day. Using the same journal, her husband wrote to her,
coding his messages with an F.

It felt like an
invisible tether linking Wu to her husband. He didn’t know where she
was, but knew she was OK. Shortly before her due date, she asked him to
come to Shanghai, and he was present for the birth of their son.

More
than two years later, she and her former husband, the father to both
her children, have yet to remarry – hoping it will legally shield him
from any future punishment.

The marriage with
her cousin was easily dissolved after they discovered it was never
valid, because marriages between first cousins is illegal in China.

Wu
was fired from her job as a public school teacher because of the baby
and her ex-husband, who is also a teacher, was demoted to a freelance
position at his school. Though told she has been assessed a 120,740 yuan
($18,575) social compensation fee, Wu has refused to pay.

Enforcers
of the family planning limits showed up at their house in July, and
again in November, threatening legal action. Wu is afraid their property
might be confiscated or that she or husband might end up in detention,
but she doesn’t want to pay the fine because she doesn’t believe she’s
done anything wrong.

“I don’t think I’ve
committed any crime,” she said. “A crime is something that hurts other
people or society or that infringes on other people’s rights. I don’t
think having a baby is any kind of crime.”

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