Twenty days after giving birth to their second child, 32-year-old Wang Mei and her husband still feel uneasy despite the great joy their little son has brought them. Worries still linger given the possible trouble they face in giving their second child a legal identity.
"There are still some procedures we need to go through in order to get him hukou. We won't feel totally at peace until everything is settled," said Wang, who made headlines of late given the difficulties she faced to get a permit for her baby.
Unlike those who give birth outside the Chinese mainland to circumvent China's family planning policy, or the rich who can afford the expensive fines incurred for violating it, Wang and her husband are allowed two children since they both come from single-child families.
But with a 5-year-old girl already, having a second child was never part of their plan. Everything changed when Wang found herself pregnant unexpectedly last fall. "We still felt very excited, it's like a gift from God, so we decided to bring him into the world," Wang told the Beijing Evening News in April. The Global Times tried to reach the couple for an interview, however, fearing more media exposure might complicate the administrative processes ahead, Wang refused.
In the Beijing Evening News story, Wang remembered the very complicated procedures her whole family had been through in order to get a birth permit for her future son, which she described at length.
They involved long hours of travel back to her hometown to receive dozens of stamps on certain forms, to prove that she had only been married once and had only one child to date with her husband.
"My parents-in-law were asked to show a new version of their marriage certificate issued in the 1970s, as the original issuing place for their marriage certificate no longer exits," said Wang.
A picture she took showed dozens of certificates and forms with a total of more than 30 stamps on them. This recorded Wang and her family's painstaking efforts over the past seven months to demonstrate their legitimate demand for a second child.
It still wasn't enough. Wang later found out that her own decision had evolved into a public affair. "They asked for a group of at least 10 neighbors from my community to discuss whether I could have another baby. The result was then posted up in public in my community for seven days to make sure I wasn't lying," Wang recalled. It only took several minutes for Wang's neighbors to declare the info she had provided was authentic.
Wang felt numb when she was told to get the permit. "This super-complicated procedure has largely diluted the happiness we felt about the coming of our son," said Wang.
Distrust of red tape
Right after the first news report came out, Wang's story went viral as a case study showing the difficulty in having a second child legally.
Some people argue that this case is extreme given Wang's situation - without a Beijing hukou, she had to go back to her hometown for the documents, and according to the family planning policy, she should have applied for the second child's birth permit before getting pregnant.
But the Global Times interviews with similar couples in Beijing found that getting a permit for a second child takes about six months on average.
With his wife and himself both only children, Scott Du was determined to have a second child as soon as his first son was born seven years ago. As there is a four-year required age gap between the births, Du applied for the birth permit for his second child when the eldest one turned 2 and a half.
"There were still many requirements we had to meet to prove we were qualified to have a second child. The whole process involves too much red tape at various levels of government," said the 36-year-old Beijing resident.
Compared with Wang, Du said it was comparatively easier for him to get the permit as he finished every step in Beijing as both his wife and him have Beijing hukou. The most difficult part was to get a new certificate to show his wife was an only child as she had lost her original one.
"It basically shows the family planning authority distrusts people, and looks at every baby beyond the recommended one child per family as a burden to society," said sociologist Li Jianxin from Peking University, and the co-author of Too Many People in China? In Li's view, under the long-held view that the continuously expanding population would strain the country's scarce resources, the family planning policy in China has always been implemented strictly.
Thirty years later, the population situation in China has changed dramatically. Recently published data from the Sixth National Population Census, dating from 2010, shows that the total Chinese population stands at 1.33 billion. Furthermore, the birth rate stands at only 1.18. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, this figure is below 1, much lower than the population replacement level of above 2.1.
"The demographic structure in China is now plagued with a serious aging problem and a gender imbalance. The most critical time is yet to come," said Li. He added that when the generation born in the 1960s, the biggest component of China's current population, grow old in the 2020s, a series of problems will be triggered that could ultimately endanger social stability. "How could the younger generation, as a much smaller group, support a suddenly expanded elderly age group, and how could the country remain innovative?" said Li.
Along with Li, more and more Chinese demographers, sociologists and economists are calling for a change to the family planning policy. Their efforts include an open letter by Zhang Erli, the former director of the planning and statistic department of the National Population and Family Planning Commission in 2004, and a joint proposal by 29 members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in 2007, urging a reform or a complete end to the policy.
In the latest report by the Development Research Center of the State Council published Tuesday, three scholars appealed for an urgent adjustment to the family planning policy. "The demographic bonus in China is disappearing. When combined with a speed-up towards an aging society and the possible labor shortage ahead, it will bring daunting challenges to today's China", reads the report. "The later we react, the more unable we will be to respond."
Difficult to make reform happen
However, despite these influential voices, no real action has been made to bring about change. This April, the Chinese government once again set itself the goal of "stabilizing the low birth-rate" as part of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) for the country's population development.
"Our top decision makers haven't realized the seriousness of the problem," said Li, who was shocked Wang's case could happen in Beijing, rather than in some rural areas where the birth rate remains comparatively high.
At the same time, there are pragmatic considerations that must be taken into account. "There is an army of people who make a living through the family planning policy, and in many places, an effective birth control is still a crucial factor in evaluating the local government's performance," said Yang Zhizhu, a professor with the China Youth University for Political Sciences who is well-known for his sharp criticism of the family planning policy. Yang was suspended from his school post for more than two years until last month for having two children.
In Yang's estimate, over half a million people's jobs depend on the policy.
"To some extent, the expensive fines for extra babies have become a convenient means for local authorities to reap huge profits," said Li.
Few want a second child
However, in the experts' view, compared with the lifting on restrictions on second children, the most important thing that needs to be done is to encourage more young people like Wang and Du to give birth to a second child.
"Few of my friends want to have a second child, as they are worried about mounting pressure concerning education expenses," said Du.
For his second daughter, Yang made a big sacrifice, including paying a penalty of more than 240,000 yuan. But Yang has never regretted it. "All the parents who have more than one child are simply making contributions to our country," said Yang. "The number of families who don't want to have a child or those suffering from infertility is definitely bigger than those parents who want one more child now."
With two boys running around the house every day, Du deals with stress sometimes, but compared with having only one child, Du strongly feels he made the right choice.
"I just feel more secure to see my two kids besides me. It's so dreadful to hear that there are more than a million families in China who have lost their only child," said Du.