It might seem impossible that 13 million children could escape the notice of the central Chinese government, but this is exactly what was revealed in the 2010 census. A population the size of a small country has been denied birth registration and the corresponding proof of identity known as the hukou (household registration) by local Chinese governments. This document is usually necessary for children to access education.
Most of these children were born to parents that had broken the “one-child policy,” a policy enforcing birthing restriction for all Chinese citizens. Defiance of the policy, in itself, will not necessary lead to a child being undocumented. Usually, children denied birth registrations are those whose parents have yet pay a “social compensation fee” – a fine for having their child without permission. Although this is an illegal action by local police bureaus, not only is denial of birth registration prevalent, many state officials see it as a key component of enforcing restrictions on reproduction.
The fines parents receive depend on the disposition of their local officers and the parent’s income. Localities show considerable variations in how its calculate fines. Some charge fines parents are unable to afford. Parents unable to pay their fines may face the risk of repeated short-term detention, while others are taken to court or have their assets seized. Parents report daily harassment by local thugs or local government officials. In other locations, parents might receive sympathy from their local cadre, or pull in favours to reduce their fines. Luck, connections and money effectively play a part in determining when a child can become recognized.
Only when the 2010 census was conducted did the scale of the problem emerge. The central Chinese government makes it a priority to collect accurate demographic data, so around the time of the census parents are encouraged to admit if their children were undocumented. Parents were promised that the information would not be shared with the local police bureau or the population and family planning department. Consequently, it was revealed that 13 million children were undocumented.
Of course, not all parents would have confessed the existence of their illicit children. Assurances notwithstanding, some would have worried that it would lead to demands for money from their local government. In previous censuses similar promises to parents of anonymity were broken. So the true population of hidden children could be significantly larger.
Five years on from that 2010 census and things are slowly changing. The one-child policy was significantly modified in 2013, and couples now can have two children if one parent is an only child. So, in theory, the number of undocumented children should decline as more parents than ever before can legally have two children.
But the political landscape of childbirth is not as transformed as one might imagine. By law, prior to 2013 rural citizens were already able to have a second child if their first was a girl; so most rural couples are under the same regulations as before. Besides, restrictions on childbirth are still in place for third children and beyond, and single women are still not permitted to have a child outside of wedlock.
Moreover, the relaxation allowing second children is rarely retrospectively applied by local governments, so parents who breached the policy prior to 2013 still face fines. The result has been that many parents who should be allowed second children under current law are still fighting to register their child’s birth.
Being an undocumented child implies facing daily difficulties. Take Ms. Li*, for example, a Beijing resident interviewed last September. Her son is already 8 years old, and has no birth registration and thus no legal documentation. He has been denied the hukou because not only is he a second child born without permission; he was also born outside wedlock. Consequently Li has been fined particularly harshly – $50,300. Until this is paid, her son will continue to live without documentation.
Given that Li earns $300 a month she has little hope of her ever paying the fine. For now, her child attends an illegal private school, but there are no secondary schools he can attend without legal documentation.
Li is not alone: Countless other parents are in similar circumstances, while stories continue to surface in the media. Last year, the story of a father of four from Guizhou province, Mr. Wang made it into Western media. Wang committed suicide when his children were denied the hukou and education until he paid a fine of $3,500. As an improvised farmer he could not afford the amount. Only upon his death did the local government register the births of his children, and now they can have an education.
Given that the hukou is vital for a child’s survival, parents of unregistered children must quickly find the money to ensure their children can gain an identity. Most try to ensure they can do so before the child’s sixth birthday, the age at which children enter school. Some parents take out loans from loan sharks or borrow from family and friends. Others sell off assets to raise cash.
Those who cannot pay their fine can attempt to fight back. Li, for example, tried to sue her local government several times. With the help of a grassroots NGO she found legal representation. But in a state with no independent judiciary, her case was dismissed.
The case of China’s missing children says something revealing about the Chinese state. It seems counterintuitive for so many children to be denied legal documentation: China’s civil documentation system – the hukou system – is a cornerstone of Chinese governance. When a birth is registered, a child is put onto a family or work unit’s hukou booklet and onto a digital database. This registration gives a person access to an ID card, which is necessary for all facets of modern life, such as employment, travel, marriage, and state welfare. The hukou is also needed for children to access state education. Within the hukou system a person’s life is documented. So all citizens should be – and indeed, want to be – registered in the system because they need civil documentation.
The hukou system has also allowed the Chinese government to control migration; because citizens are allowed only to work and access education and welfare in the location they are registered. The documents citizens hold dictate their citizenship rights. In some circumstances citizens can temporarily register their residence in another location, or even move their registration to another city. But the central and provincial governments attempt to control that process. Of course, there is some illegal migration, but this does not allow citizens any rights in the cities they reside. Consequently, the central government places great emphasize on maintaining the hukou system.
So denial of the hukou, despite its importance for central government, points to deeper cracks within the Chinese state. Local governments hold children’s identity documents to ransom until the fines are paid for the parent’s transgression, even though that undermines the central government’s system of migratory control.
Local governments do this because they continue to benefit from the revenue gained from the childbirth policies, and they have no need to declare how this revenue is allocated. The central government can do little but turn a blind eye to this if they want their policies enforced. But in the long run, the central government knows that a complete civil documentation system is essential to becoming a developed country, as is a system of governance whereby local, provincial and the central government work in unison.
Stephanie Gordon is a social researcher across the Chinese legal, political and anthropological fields, with a focus on human rights.
*Her name has been changed to protect her identity.