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Chinese families still at officials’ mercy despite one child policy easing

by Simon Denyer

The Washington Post

When 36-year-old Lois heard the news that China was relaxing its one child policy, she was delighted and relieved.

The Beijing mother had just discovered she was five weeks pregnant with her second child, a baby who would be illegal under existing law, and the alternatives were bleak. She had ruled out an abortion, but faced the prospect of keeping the infant in hiding, and not being able to send the child to school. If caught, she could face a fine of more than $50,000.

“When the policy change came out, my friends said it had happened just for me, just like a story you read in a novel,” she said in an interview, while her 6-year-daughter skipped and played with friends under an imposing statue of Mao Zedong in a park in Beijing.

But on Wednesday, five days after the announcement, the reality of Chinese family planning policy hit home. Lois read a newspaper article in which officials said the law would not take effect immediately, and that babies born before a yet-to-be-determined cutoff date would still be illegal.

“If my baby is born just one day early, it is illegitimate,” she said. “It is ridiculous and unbelievable. I feel the unfairness of it, I feel desperation, I feel anger. I feel humiliated.”

The relaxation of the controversial one child policy, which dates to 1980, is part of a sweeping package of economic and social reforms announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Unveiled amid mounting concern about an aging population and a potential labor shortage, the new family planning policy states that if either member of a couple is an only child, they may have two children. In the past, urban couples could have a second child if both of them were only children; rural couples could have a second if their first child was a girl.

The change will affect around 15 to 20 million couples, and push up the birth rate by around 1 million births a year, according to officials and experts. But China’s overall population levels will not be much affected and will still peak below 1.5 billion around 2033, from around 1.3 billion now, officials said.

Lois asked to be identified by her English name rather than her Chinese name, to avoid drawing the authorities’ attention. A magazine writer, she is an only child, but her husband, a software engineer, is not. That means they could only have one child under the existing rules.

Her daughter paused from her play to say how excited she was about getting a younger brother or sister. Lois said the little girl had played a very active part in a discussion about baby names a few days ago, while her young friends had been thrilled to feel the mother’s tummy at the park on Tuesday. Now, all the worries have come flooding back.

“My husband is very worried that the neighborhood committee would report us,” Lois said.

Penalties on parents who break the one child laws are severe.

Yang Zhizhu, a former law professor at the China Youth University for Political Sciences, lost his job in 2010 and was fined $40,000 when his wife had a second daughter. Last year, he was finally allowed back, but only to do research work on a paltry salary of less than $1,000 a month. He is still not allowed to lecture.

He has spent years researching the one child policy. Like many experts, he says it has often been brutally enforced by officials through forced sterilization and abortions; that its benefits have been vastly overstated by the Chinese government; and that the latest relaxation would have little effect on solving demographic problems.

“It is like carrying a bundle of sticks to put out a fire,” he said.

The rules are so rigid that even those who comply with the official policies have to negotiate a bureaucratic maze run by officials with broad discretionary powers.

Even if the law changes in time, for example, Lois said she would have to return to her home province in Sichuan, as well as meet officials in Beijing, to verify that she was an only child. Her parents would be investigated to ensure they had not been divorced and had more children: She said she would probably need to get around 20 official stamps to complete the process.

Provinces will be able to implement the new rules in their own time. In some places, where population growth is high, local officials could decide to favor older couples and delay permission for younger couples to have a second child, Vice Minister of the National Health and Family Planning Commission Wang Peian told reporters last week. Critics say this arrangement would leave considerable discretionary power in the hands of local officials, leading to more corruption and abuse.

Mao Qunan, the commission’s spokesman, countered such concerns, saying in an interview that officials would “eliminate problems of corruption and brutal law enforcement.”

Even after the policy is relaxed, not everyone affected will be rushing to have another child, especially given the rising costs of housing and schooling.

A survey on the Sina Weibo microblogging service last week found that nearly 60 percent of participants would choose to have a second child, but nearly 30 percent would not. Another poll, by the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, found 66 percent of people wanted two children, 9 percent wanted more than two, and 21 percent wanted just one — mainly for financial reasons.

Among those reluctant to take the plunge are 28-year-old Xu Minhua and his wife, 33-year-old Miranda Yao, who met while working for a German pharmaceutical company and had their first child last year. “Mostly it’s economic pressure,” Yao said.

With the couple’s parents living in the provinces, and no day care facilities available locally, they have had to hire a nanny to help look after their daughter, and they are also facing heavy mortgage payments. “If we had plenty of money, we might have another child,” Xu said, “but right now, we only have two rooms.”

Across the city, 42-year-old Zhang Yufei and his wife, Ma Yanyan, 30, have decided they can afford a second child, and were very happy with the change in policy. Zhang has a younger brother, but his wife is an only child.

“If we have a second child, it will increase our family’s ability to sustain risk,” said Ma, sitting with her young son in her arms. “We have heard a lot of stories of parents who have lost their only children.”

The couple also want a companion for their 13-month-old son. Nevertheless, they may wait a while.

“My son is breathing in more and more polluted air,” said Zhang. “The (Communist) Party told us the air will be better in five years, so maybe we will wait until then. Let’s trust them.”

But when asked how he felt living under rules that gave officials so much power over his family arrangements, Zhang had a simple answer: “It’s absurd.”