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. However, with no ID 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 turned 20 last week.
Her parents’ refusal to pay for breaching China’s strict birth control rules has left their second child without documentation and therefore without access to basic services and opportunities.
The “one child” policy — which actually allows a third of couples to have another baby — 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 like 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 (李建新), 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.
While forced abortions and sterilizations 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 (譚競嫦), executive director of Human Rights in China.
Many people buy themselves out of trouble; one family paid a record 1.3 million yuan (US$43.500) fine last year. Others make hefty “donations” to obtain school places for undocumented children.
Li’s parents should have been allowed a second child, because both are disabled.
However, Li’s mother fell pregnant unexpectedly and officials imposed a 5,000-yuan fine for their failure to get advance approval.
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.
Many suspect that fines — known as social compensation fees, recognizing 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.
However, critics say the birth rate had fallen steeply before the “one child” rule was introduced. Even those who agree 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 (元鑫), 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.
The country is now aging at a staggering rate, with a shrinking workforce supporting a rocketing number of dependants.
Pilot schemes suggest that relaxing controls will not lead to a massive increase in births. Fertility rates are low across east Asia; Taiwan’s is far below China’s.