Out of the Shadows 

Millions of “hidden” children in southern China can now register with their government. Is this the beginning of the end for the one-child policy?

Two sisters play on their parents’ electric scooter in Beijing on July 10, 2015. China’s one-child policy has been in place for more than three decades, but facing the consequences of a dwindling workforce and a rapidly ageing population, Beijing has been loosening the rules in recent years to encourage more births.

Photo by Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

This post originally appeared in Caixin.

Parents of newborn babies in southern China’s Guangdong province will no longer have to prove they obediently limited, through any means including forced abortion, the size of their nuclear families. In the latest example of a gradual easing of the controversial one-child policy, police officers at the province’s Public Security Bureau recently stopped demanding to see family-planning compliance certificates before registering “hukou,” or household registration, for babies.

After the policy change was publicly announced in July, noncertified parents who had disobeyed the old rule but failed to register their babies flocked to apply for hukous. Some even waited in hourslong lines.

Some parents said they hurried to register out of fear that the policy easing might be temporary, even though authorities had insisted it was permanent. Many recalled that Guangdong birth control rules were temporarily waived during nationwide census counts in 2000 and 2010. Parents who had babies in those years could apply for hukous without impunity.

A father in the province’s largest city, Guangzhou, said he was so worried that the latest easing might be temporary that he quickly applied for a hukou for his second son, who is now more than 3 years old.

Other noncertified parents, though, said they would wait to register for a hukou in hopes authorities would further relax the rules. Many feared registering a child without a certificate, even under the latest adjustment, could eventually lead to fines equal to as much as six times a family’s annual income.

A father in the city of Qingyuan said he would not register for a hukou this time but would “hide” his second child, who was apparently born in violation of one-child regulations, for another year. He said he wanted to wait because “maybe the fine will be totally waived in the future.”

Eventually, the father with the “hidden” child will likely have to act: A hukou is a requirement for anyone in China who wants vital government services, including health care and education.

About half of the 13 million people without a hukou in 2010—the year of the most recent nationwide census—were born in violation of the one-child policy, census officials said. As a result, they were ineligible for schooling and not covered by the social welfare system. A person without a hukou cannot even board a train.

The family-planning certificates that police demanded until recently from parents are issued by the Guangdong Health and Family Planning Commission. Before issuing a certificate, commission officials must confirm that the applying parents did not break any birthing rules, and if they did, they paid all mandatory fines.

Population controls were written into the constitution in 1978 and implemented in 1980. The idea was to cap the population at “1.2 billion by the end of 20th century,” according to government documents. Violators could lose their jobs or even be forced to have abortions.

A 1984 revision designed to boost the farm labor pool let rural parents have two children if the firstborn was a girl. A later change allowed a second child if both parents were from single-child families. In 2013, the rule was relaxed further to allow a second child if either father or mother was a single child. Local governments started implementing the policy last year.

The central government has for years been hinting at much more dramatic policy easing, noting that the nation’s labor pool is rapidly aging. And some governments, at national and local levels, have for years officially prohibited the practice of denying hukous to babies whose parents violated the one-child policy.

Yang Wenzhuang, head of the family planning department at the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said at a July 2014 press conference that it’s inconsistent from a legal standpoint to link obeying birth control rules with access to basic public services through the hukou system.

Yet for decades, the promises and prohibitions have not stopped most government agencies around the country from using the hukou registration process as a weapon for enforcing birth control policies.

Authorities in the provinces of Shandong and Hubei and the regional government in Ningxia have issued directives since late 2013 to prohibit linking hukou registration with family planning certificates. Guangdong’s action—approved in May and implemented two months later—followed.

Many demographers say parents will have more freedom of choice in communities where governments have cut the decades-old ties between family-planning rule compliance and hukou registration. They also see it as another softening of the hard-line one-child policy.

What’s happened this year in Guangdong “will tear a hole in the family planning policy” to the advantage of parents, said the head of a nongovernmental organization in Guangzhou that focuses on population control. He asked not to be named.

Even rule enforcers have welcomed the policy change in Guangdong. A police officer in Guangzhou said it’s been “a great relief for us” since officers no longer have to confront angry parents. Police frequently found themselves challenged by parents who had violated family-planning rules yet still demanded hukous.

These confrontations “embarrassed us” because there was “no legal support for refusing” a hukou to such parents, said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous.

Now, the officer said, parents can register for a child’s hukou with merely a hospital birth certificate and their own identification documents. However, he noted, police still share hukou registration information with the family planning agency for the latter to track families’ obedience to population rules.

How are family planning officials reacting? On Aug. 5, Guangdong Family Planning Commission officials said they would ask a court to order parents who break the rules— including parents who now register babies for hukous—to pay all the necessary fines, which are around 200,000 yuan—about $30,000—per child born against the rules.

Some experts say the commission’s case will fall flat. A legal source at a Guangdong court said the family planning commission may be forced to pursue fines against parents on its own, without any judicial support. The reason, he said, is tied to the fact that the country’s courts are in the midst of a reform campaign that’s reducing court involvement in law enforcement.

A family planning official who also asked not to be named admitted that population controls are weakening now that the rules have been changed in Guangdong and elsewhere.

The central government is also moving toward relaxing the powerful grip that family planning agencies have been exercising over parents for the past 35 years. One argument for scrapping the one-child policy is that recent adjustments giving more parents permission to have a second child have not led to as many births as hoped.

In fact, a 2012 report by the China Development Research Foundation, an agency under the State Council’s Development Research Center, said the country should further liberalize the one-child policy this year and abandon it by 2020.