China’s unwed couples grapple with restrictions on having babies

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-8 19:23:01

A crowdfunding campaign, which was taken down after 16 hours, has divided China. The money was being raised to help two unmarried people pay a fine imposed on them for having an illegitimate child. Some have said that the parents did not act responsibly, but others have argued that the family planning policy is not considerate enough and takes away people's rights.

Photo: CFP

It has been almost 20 days since Shen Bolun and Wu Xia's baby was born. She doesn't have a name yet, nor a household registration (hukou). And she won't be getting one of these important documents any time soon, because her parents are not married.

Pregnancies outside marriage are not uncommon in China. But it's relatively rare that anyone decides to actually have a baby outside of wedlock, because the baby can't get a hukou - and all the educational, health and housing benefits associated with it - unless its parents pay a hefty fine. This policy was invented to prevent violations of the family planning policy, which states that each married couple can only have one child. But that also means children born out of wedlock frequently fall into the same category as second children.

Shen and Wu started a crowdfunding campaign to pay their fine and in the last few weeks, controversy involving their baby has dominated the Internet in China.

A tough decision

Shen and Wu had dated for around a year when Wu became pregnant with his child.

Shen welcomed the news with open arms, even though they hadn't decided to get married yet.

Since many in China regard having a child out of wedlock as embarrassing or even immoral, Shen's attitude is unusual. This attitude, unsurprisingly, was not accepted by either Shen's or Wu's parents. In fact, when Wu went into labor a few weeks ago, her own mother looked on disapprovingly, according to Shen's blog.

Three months after they found out about the pregnancy, Shen and Wu split up. Naturally, this put even more pressure on the couple.

Wu thought about abortion, and struggled with the decision for a long time. But the baby was already 17 weeks old when they broke up. Her baby was big enough to kick and produce little bumps that popped up on her stomach now and then, and her heart softened.

She decided to keep the child. On June 21, Wu gave birth to a healthy baby girl. 

But the next step was less joyous: getting the child a household registration, or hukou.

It is written in China's Marriage Law that all children, whether born in or outside of wedlock, should have the same rights and nobody should discriminate against them.

But in practice, acquiring a hukou and its benefits depend on each city government's household registration policies. Wu is from Beijing and the local policy states that both parents must present a marriage license among other documents when applying for their newborn's hukou.

If the child is born out of wedlock, the parents can still get a hukou for the baby as long as they present the results of a paternity test to prove that the child belongs to both parents and a certificate showing the parents have paid a "social maintenance fee."

The fee was established as a punitive mechanism in the family planning policy, to punish families that have extra children. The size of the fee varies from city to city, and is linked to the average disposable income of the city's residents that year. 

A crowdfunding campaign

Shen and Wu faced a one-time fee of 43,910 yuan ($7,073). But they also learned from staff at Beijing's Office of family planning that if they were willing to get married, then divorce after the baby obtains a hukou, they won't have to pay the fee.

They didn't want to get married for this reason. Shen explained that he didn't want the baby's hukou to be won through falsehood. Instead, Shen started writing blog posts about his newborn and his dilemma, and asked netizens to donate cash.

"We want the child to obtain an identity in the most dignified way as soon as possible," he wrote in his blog. "We consulted lawyers on our chances of winning (a hukou) by suing, and it's almost zero in Beijing. If that wasn't the case, we wouldn't turn to crowdfunding."

He explained he wanted the blog posts to serve the purpose of creating a public discussion and questioning the existing policy, rather than solely asking for money. As a token of this sentiment, he accepted only 10 yuan from each donor.

"We believe it's not reasonable to bind the right to bear children to marriage," Shen repeatedly said.

But money came flooding in anyway, as did criticism.

When Shen first had the idea, not many websites would host the campaign because it was a sensitive issue, Shen said. He eventually found that would accept the campaign. But it was forced to shut down after 16 hours.

By the time it was shut down, Shen had already received more than 9,000 yuan, which he said he has returned to netizens.

His goal of educating the public and creating a discussion seems to have worked, since many people commented that they had no idea about these policies existed. Some looked up social maintenance fees online and expressed their surprise that the child of a single mother cannot have a Beijing hukou, and that single women in China can't even receive artificial insemination. Many questioned whether this is legal.

But there has also been criticism. Some say that using crowdfunding to pay one's fines isn't a responsible thing to do, especially for a new dad. Some said the policy has been established for a long time, and is based on how complex the issue is, and Shen shouldn't challenge it.

Regardless of which side is right and what Shen's intentions may be, his situation is shared by many in China, who can't find an easy way out. 

Bound to marriage

Many couples who conceive before wedlock usually choose either abortion or marriage, to avoid finding themselves in the same situation as Shen and Wu.

The same problem appeared in the life of Liu Lin (pseudonym) seven years ago, when the woman from Hunan Province and her boyfriend accidentally got pregnant not long after they started dating. She immediately consulted her friends about what to do.

"Some people opposed me marrying him, saying he's not good enough for me. But what other choice did I have?" she asked.

Liu didn't want to choose abortion because she worried that it would damage her health. The only option seemed to be getting married.

But the shotgun wedding didn't give her all she wanted. She had a brief, happy period when she was pregnant, but when her daughter was born, she started seeing less and less of her husband.

Just after her daughter reached elementary school age this year, Liu's husband filed for divorce, saying that they don't share many interests. The court has yet to reach a decision, but Liu hopes she can win custody of their daughter.

A great number of people in this situation choose abortion. According to media reports, approximately 13 million abortions are conducted in China every year. Wu Shangchun, a researcher at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, told CCTV News he estimates 30 percent of abortions are conducted on unmarried women. 

Finding faults

Some oppose the policy, saying it doesn't consider people's individual rights in the first place.

Fang Gang, a renowned sexologist from Beijing Forestry University, said because monogamy dominates the world, some people see the rights to have sex and children as necessarily existing within the context of marriage.

"Children belong to a married couple in some people's minds. They don't accept that children can simply belong to a man or a woman," he said. "They don't even accept that children can belong to a gay or lesbian couple."

But society's views are as hard to change as a government's attitude. Right now, the dominant view in China is still putting pressure on many young people.

Several of the young people interviewed for this article said they receive pressure from their family members not to get pregnant, because it would be embarrassing for the family. Some don't even dare talk to their parents about this issue, afraid they'll be suspected of "doing wrong."

Shen believes there are loopholes in this policy that show it is unfair.

During his trips to the local family planning commission, he found out there are more barriers than just the fine preventing unmarried people from having children. For example, if a single woman chooses to give birth alone, or if the father goes missing and can't complete the paternity test, then the baby cannot obtain a hukou.

Wu Youshui, a lawyer from Zhejiang Province, strongly opposes the policy, saying it amounts to discrimination against unmarried people and that it is actually illegal.

"It's not in any law that children born out of wedlock can't get a hukou and that parents have to pay a fine. The law only says that second children are in this category," he said. "The local governments made individual policies."

He has also investigated social maintenance fees, asking governments to make information about these fees public. In 1994, he had to pay a social maintenance fee because his child was born before he applied for a birth permit. He didn't give it much thought at that time, but after he became a lawyer he started investigating the matter in 2013.

Media reports on social maintenance fees are rather vague, saying the money is compensation for the government's investment in public affairs. The official policy doesn't include any details either.

Wu sent letters to 31 provincial-level financial offices and family planning commissions, asking how much they collected in the past year and what the money is spent on.

As of the end of 2014, he has received responses from 24 provincial-level regions on the social maintenance fees they collected in 2012, coming to a total of 20 billion yuan, but no information has been provided on spending.

Despite these questions being asked about the policy, for the time being the only thing Shen can do is pay the fine. It is unlikely the Beijing government will bend the policy for him.

The policy has started to relax in some areas. In 2013, Hubei declared all babies born in the province can receive medical certificates, and a marriage licence is not required to register a baby.

But for people in many other cities, they still need to follow the rules, otherwise they would be stuck in hukou limbo.

Newspaper headline: Out of wedlock woes

Posted in: In-Depth

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