The Ghosts of China’s One-Child Policy

Dec 19, 2013 at 11:33 AM ET

Lu served as a geology teacher in Beijing for 15 years before learning English to gain better-paying work as a private tutor. Lu is now 46. She never married, though she does have a 4-year-old daughter, Sofi. As an illegitimate child in a country notorious for its draconian laws regarding children, Sofi is an especially complicated case. In China she is known as heihaizi, meaning “black child.” Like children born second, third and beyond, she will live the rest of her days carrying a criminal-like status, with few if any rights.

Sofi, like all children born outside the parameters of China’s one-child-per-family law, never received birth permission from the government officials who oversee the policy. As such she will never be issued hukou—an identifying document, similar in some ways to the American social security card and birth certificate, without which people in China can be denied jobs, permission to travel and even housing. Public schooling is also impossible for those without hukou, and hospitals (because they are government-run) refuse to treat undocumented children.

Recent changes to the one-child law that in some cases allow for a second child fail to address the millions of heihaizi living outside the system already.

Lu recently welcomed me into the small one-bedroom apartment handed down to her by her father, set among a row of brick buildings in western Beijing. Inside, the walls are adorned with handmade English-language alphabet charts, letters matched to pictures cut from magazines. We sat at the table where she tutors neighborhood children each day. Sofi hid shyly behind Lu, tangled in her mother’s wide skirt, practically invisible.

Sofi (both her and her mother’s names have been changed) is among the more than 10 million heihaizi condemned to a lifetime of abuse and neglect because of the one-child policy. The consequences can be horrific on all fronts: Forced sterilization and mandated abortions for pre-term mothers, and birth police abductions in which illegitimate children are given to childless families, sold or placed in institutions to be adopted. These transgressions get the most attention, but millions like Sofi are the ghost-like victims.

Penalties can sometimes be paid to register heihaizi—in the countryside, for example, where the policy is less stringent—but fees are often several times one’s annual salary and can introduce a capricious and confusing bureaucratic nightmare.

“Before she was born, I called the government office—I knew not to go there,” Lu says, fear etched onto her face. “If they knew I was pregnant, they would force me to kill the baby. They said I must pay the punishment, a fine [of about $1,600].” Lu says she saved and borrowed from family. “When the baby was born, I tried to get it registered and they said, ‘No, you must find the father.’”

The father was never part of the family. “My ex-boyfriend didn’t want a baby,” Lu says. “When he found out I was pregnant, he said we had to kill it. I decided to have it by myself.”

Officials required documentation from Sofi’s father to ensure he didn’t have other children. “I haven’t seen him for years,” she laments. “I’ve tried to track him down—on the Internet, with ads in papers and notices,” she says. “What can I do?”

Lu tutors independently, earning a small salary and living hand-to-mouth with no car. As heihaizi, Sofi isn’t allowed to attend public kindergarten, so she stays home with her mother during the day. She doesn’t play outside or visit neighborhood families. There have been instances of undocumented children being abducted by birth police, and Lu fears the worst.

“All the time she wants to go outside, visit the homes of her friends,” Lu says. “But I keep her here with me. She doesn’t understand, and I can’t explain to her why she is different.”

Enacted in the 1970s after Chairman Mao’s ill-fated vision of strength through numbers, the world’s most rigid population control policy has until recently limited most Chinese to a single child. The policy put a stop to the rapid growth in this nation of 1.3 billion people. However, an unintended consequence was that it produced a vast, often ruthless bureaucracy of bullying officials who regulate not only how many children a family could have, but also one that intrudes on every aspect of a woman’s life, from marriage to menstruation.

Responding to growing public pressure—and warnings from both economic and social experts about a rapidly aging population and a drastic future shortage of workers—China last month made its first moderation in the policy in decades. Previously, if both parents were from one-child families, they might be allowed a second child, but only if the first was female or disabled. Now, if either parent is an only child, they might be eligible to have two.

While women’s advocates generally cheer the change, most note that the rules are unevenly applied. They also worry about corruption and massive fines that victimize millions of women—to say nothing of the millions of illegal children like Sofi that the policy change ignores completely.

“Perhaps it’s a step,” says Lu. “I hope so. But we need bigger steps.”

Lu has used contacts to visit officials and check on the price of bribes and having a child outside the system. A private kindergarten, for example, would cost Lu around $5,000 a year—nearly as much she earns over the same amount of time.

The issue as a whole may be coming to a head. Maya Wang, a one-child policy expert with Human Rights Watch, notes that local birth officials are under tremendous pressure to maintain population quotas. New networks of advocates and support groups of victimized women are growing increasingly organized and vocal as public outrage over the archaic population policy increases.

Another unwed mother, Ping (who agreed to speak with Vocativ on the grounds that her real name not be published), recently filed a lawsuit against local officials alleging that the government denied her son basic human rights. Ping contends that China’s Child Protection Act grants the same rights to all children, regardless of whether birth officials consider them legitimate or illegitimate. The case was heard in early December in a Beijing court, but no ruling has yet been issued.

Ping’s lawyer, Huang Yie Zhi, tells Vocativ that although it is a landmark case—in fact the first lawsuit of its kind—few expect anything positive. Huang works with a network of female lawyers who mounted public action this year, and she believes the numbers are on their side for the future.

“Government statistics say 13 million people in China are without hukou—and most of them are children,” Huang says. Many watchdogs believe the number is likely two to three times higher. “In the countryside, the situation is much worse,” she notes. “In the city you have media and monitors. No one reports on what is happening in the countryside.”

Others are driven to more desperate measures. In July a 16-year-old girl in the Sichuan province attempted suicide after a university denied her entry because she was heihaizi, sparking outrage in the countryside area. There have been parental casualties as well. Last week, Ai Guangdong, a farmer in the northern Heibei province, killed himself in protest when officials confiscated his entire harvest of corn because he had five children—four of them heihaizi because of the law. He drank poison at the home of the local party chief, after going there to plead his case.

Wang, of Human Rights Watch, says the entire repressive policy needs a rethink.

“In many parts of China, you are forced to have an IUD inserted, and sometimes they check three or four times a year to ensure it’s still there and you aren’t pregnant,” she says. “There are so many concerns, not only coercion and forced sterilizations, but also medical, safety and ethics issues.”

There are also problems with corruption and sexual imbalances. Chinese generally crave a male heir, resulting in widespread abortion and abandonment of female babies. In 2012, 117 boys were born for every 100 females. Millions of Chinese men cannot find spouses. Wife-buying and trafficking is already endemic, as side effects of China’s birth policy spill over into poorer neighboring nations.

Many expect the Chinese government, currently undergoing incremental modernizations, to continue relaxing birthing restrictions, especially as its economy struggles to find workers. Yet the lucrative fines—and bribes—provide an incentive to do just the opposite. Wu Youshui, a lawyer in Zhejiang Province, recently revealed that $2.7 billion in birth fines were collected only last year among 19 of China’s 23 provincial governments.

Wang believes change will continue slowly. Certainly too slowly for mothers like Lu.

“I keep talking to officials,” Lu says. “They say to wait. I keep waiting. But I’m exhausted. I feel I have no way forward for my child.”

In desperation, she says, “I can only talk and hope.”