Lack of Clear Policy Direction on Two-Child Rule Leaves Nation Guessing

Regional family-planning officials say the lack of clarity on when the new two-child rule will come into effect has put them in legal limbo, unable to issue birth permits to couples who conceive a second child before the new policy kicks in, leading to “illegal births” even after the policy shift.

The ruling Communist Party decided to abolish the controversial one-child rule in late October, but has failed to give a clear signal on when the two-child rule will come into effect.

“For any family planning official who still has a conscience, it would be extremely painful for them to continue to enforce the one-child policy,” Han Shengxue, a family planning official from Huaihua in central Hunan province, said.

Only one in seven women of child-bearing age in his city had applied for a government certificate pledging to have only one child, in return for a monthly cash reward, he said, and most of the others have already had a second child.

The number of children born in violation of the one-child policy has been on the rise in recent years, with 10,600 such cases identified in Huaihua alone as of the end of November, Han said, and to avoid heavy fines most parents do not register these births.

Some 13 million undocumented Chinese, or one percent of the country’s total population, have long been denied access to public schools and healthcare facilities because they do not have a household registration document, academics said.



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On December 9, the Party announced plans to allow all unregistered citizens to apply for household registration, or hukou as it is locally known.

Although the controversial family-planning rule, which restricted most couples to only one offspring, has been scrapped it is still not clear whether children already born in violation of this policy will have to pay fines before obtaining their household registration, Han said.

Mixed Signals

Immediately after the Party announced its decision to drop the one-child rule in October, family-planning authorities in Hunan said couples who have already had a second child before the two-child policy comes into effect would not be punished with fines. But later they were thrown into a legal limbo, when the National Health and Family Planning Commission said regional governments did not have the authority to change any practices until legislators amend the country’s family-planning law.

Local officials cannot say for sure that couples no longer face fines for having a second child, said Han, but in practice they are likely to stop imposing fines.

A group of lawyers and academics presented several proposals to the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislature, on December 3 on how to fine-tune the 2001 Population and Family Planning Law. The previous day, The State Council (or cabinet) said it had approved a draft revision to the same law to be presented to the legislature for deliberation. This draft has not been made public.

Academics are urging authorities to drop the social maintenance fee used to punish those who have violated the one-child rule. The fine, which takes into account a family’s average monthly salary and any other extra earnings, could soar to hundreds of thousands of yuan for ordinary couples. Award-wining director Zhang Yimou was fined 7.5 million yuan (U.S. $1.2 million) for having three children in violation of the family planning policy.



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There are no official statistics tracking how much in social maintenance fees has been collected nationwide and no details about how these proceeds have been spent. But authorities could easily collect up to 5 million yuan in fines each year in a rural town, Han said, and the municipal government in Huaihua earns around 100 million in social maintenance fees annually.

Family-planning officials often used coercive methods such as forced abortions to deter couples from having children, and those who worked in the public sector faced the threat of losing their jobs.

All these practices have to stop, academics say, and the country needs to reward couples to have more children to help the country grapple with another problem: an aging population.

They point out that the government’s earlier attempts to allow couples in which either parent is an only child to have a second infant got only a lukewarm response. Soaring living costs and fierce competition in the job market have stopped many young urban families from having a second child, experts say.

Couples from rural areas do not seem to be too excited about having more children either, Yang Zishi, a family planning official from northeastern Jilin province, said. Many of them work as migrant workers and have to leave their children in villages because they cannot find schools in cities, he said.

“Rural couples are certainly less optimistic about their future and having more children,” Yang said.

Out of Balance

Yang is among some one million family planning officials to enforce the one-child policy since the early 1980s. Now that the state has dropped the policy, some have started sharing their firsthand observations on how the policy pushed the sex ratio among newborns out of balance to an alarming degree.

Yang says he began to have doubts about the family-planning rules after he talked a woman into having an abortion in 2004, which prompted some soul-searching.

“If the woman had refused to have an abortion, she could have had a baby girl to make her family a perfect one as extolled by Chinese tradition,” Yang said at a recent forum on family planning in Beijing. “I was really depressed after I realized that by forcing her to have an abortion, I was responsible for not only her personal loss, but a baby girl could have helped address the imbalanced sex ratio in the country,” he said.



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Citing statistics from a rural town in Jilin province, Yang said 162 boys were born in the area for every 100 girls due to sex-selective abortions from 2000 and 2004. The United Nations says the norm around the world is about 107 boys for every 100 girls.

“When I asked the officials in charge if we should inform higher authorities about these alarming figures, they told me that we had to alter the numbers,” Yang said, “otherwise we’ll be all in trouble.”

The trend remains unchanged a decade later, he said. China had 33 million more males than females, academics said, warning that this could lead to social instability.

Han, the official from Hunan province, said there are about 100,000 bachelors in the city of 5.25 million people as a result of the one-child rule.

Families, particularly those in rural areas who are keen to have a boy child, turned to underground facilities after public hospitals stopped providing sex-screening services and continue to abort female fetuses, Han said.