Forbidden children

“They did not care whether you were eight months or nine months pregnant, they did not care as long as the baby was not born. There was no humanity.”

Mr Xie Bailing (pictured second from left) father of Ms Xie Wenqui (pictured third from top left) a second child who spent 7 years without a hukou. Photo: Xie Bailing.

Xie Bailing is speaking of the officials who policed the one child policy in China. He was a father of a second child whose family had to go into hiding in order to avoid an abortion and penalties.

The one child policy was a birth restriction plan employed by the Chinese Government to limit couples to one child. This was to reduce the rapidly growing population.

For couples who broke the one-child limit during the one child policy’s duration, penalties came in the form of financial, material and physical loss.

Alongside this, in many cases, illegal children wouldn’t be provided with a household registration called a hukou—the equivalent of an identity.

These children without formal registration were called ‘Heihaizi’.

The cover of a hukou, a form of identity in China. Photo: Tiffany Verga.

In certain circumstances, families could pay fines in order to have their children officially registered.

However, if parents could not afford to pay for a hukou, these forbidden children often had to forego basic needs such as their education, financial aid and medical assistance.

As they transitioned to adulthood they were also unable to register for a family, get married, serve the country or apply for government positions.

Mr Xie said his family didn’t intend to break the policy.

“Every year about four times after our first child, my wife would have to get a check to see if she was pregnant or not,” he said.

“They didn’t detect she was pregnant, so our first child was only one-year-old when our daughter was born. It was an undetected birth.”

Mr Xie said despite the fact it was an accident his family was shown no remorse.

“Although she was six months pregnant and it could harm her they [Department of Birth Control] still wanted to force an abortion on my wife so we started hiding,” he said.

Mr Xie said even after they started hiding, his family didn’t escape punishment.

“They initially asked us for 1000 Chinese yuan. We worked in the farming industry and this was a phenomenal number,” he said. “We did not have the funds so we went to our relatives to hide for six months until our daughter was born.

“The punishments did not stop at financial, as we were unable to pay further, the Office of Birth Control started to take away our only possessions.

“We did not have much more but they took our bicycle and our donkey which was the equivalent to a car. It was our only means of transportation.”

Mr Xie’s daughter, Xie Wenqui, was considered an illegal child.

Ms Xie said she was not registered for the first seven years of her life.

“I wasn’t registered for a long time because my family did not have enough money to pay the fine,” she said.

In farming areas as well possessions such as land would be divided and allocated per person.

“Because I wasn’t registered I couldn’t go to school and because I wasn’t registered I wasn’t allocated anything, so financially our family was at a loss.”

Ms Xie eventually went to school. However, it was costly.

“My father had to take up a high-interest mortgage because in the farming area we were very poor and we needed to contribute to books, stationery and to rebuilding the school,” she said.

Mr Zhou Li, a second child born during the One Child Policy pictured left with his wife and daughter. Photo: Mr Zhou Li.

Mr Zhou Li was another forbidden child born as a second child.

He was born in 1980, at the start of the policy which meant the punishments were often harsher.

“My father was in a manufacturing position but as a result of my birth, he lost his job, a well-paying job,” he said.

He said his father’s future changed because he had to go back to the countryside for farming and the salary was substantially less.

Zhou Li (pictured 2nd from left) pictured when he was younger. Photo: Tiffany Verga.

“If you have a proper job you receive a guaranteed salary but in the farming area they don’t operate with money, country people had a point system,” he said.

“Every day if you work in the farm you get so many points at the end of the year. The farming people in a village would all go to work together to gain points but it was not guaranteed you would get paid the same.

“It is all about how much money can be made from the selling of produce. There is no guaranteed salary so not keeping a proper job was a very risky thing to do.”

In late 2015, according to a statement released by the Xinhua News Agency, when the Chinese Communist Party decided to replace the one child policy with a two-child policy, more than 13 million illegal children were finally registered by the government and provided identities.

The History of the One Child Policy

The one child policy was China’s most experimental family planning policy which forbade couples from having more than one child and prevented more than 400 million births, according to the Chinese Government.

Initially, the birth restriction policy was introduced as a temporary measure by Chairman Deng Xiaoping in 1979 only applicable to those of Han ethnicity, before it was rolled out nationwide September 25, 1980.

Fudan University English Professor Sun Jian. Photo: Tiffany Verga.

Fudan University English Professor Sun Jian said the one child policy was in contrast to China’s ‘great leap forward’ movement, a campaign to rapidly reform China into a modern state and increase the nation’s defence.

“Chairman Mao said we should have more people, more enthusiasm and energy to build the new homeland,” he said.

During this period according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the population nearly doubled from 540 million in 1949, to 940 million by 1976.

At the same time, China’s food supply depleted alongside untimely droughts leading to the Great Chinese famine from 1959 to 1961.

The Chinese Communist Party, faced with mass starvation and an unsustainable population, decided to implement drastic measures to slow the population growth.

Initially, the CCP launched a less coercive campaign in the 1970’s called the ‘Late, Long and Few’ policy successfully halving the population from 2.8 per cent to 1.6 per cent growth.

The ‘late, long, few’ policy halved the population growth from 2.8 per cent to 1.6 per cent in the 1970’s. Photo: Tiffany Verga.

The voluntary campaign advocated for couples to postpone marriage, increase the age gap between siblings and have fewer children.

Following the passing of Mao in 1976, power was delivered to Deng Xiaoping who envisioned China as a prosperous nation.

He believed in order to align China with its surrounding Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, a more diligent policy needed to be in place.

While the policy was centrally managed by the Family Planning Bureau, it was enforced more directly by local government officials. This is one of the reasons punishments varied between provinces.

According to the Nation Family Planning Commission, the full brunt of the policy was only worn by 36 per cent of the population often residing in urban precincts; while more lenient policy application was enforced in rural areas.

To prevent offenders, hefty fines and permanent methods of contraception were regularly employed while other punishments involved the removal of high-paying government positions and a lack of formal identification for illegal children.

Second children who were born illegally often had no ‘hukou’ or public identity. Photo: Tiffany Verga.

Children who were born illegally as a second child were not allowed a ‘hukou’ or formal registration and were called ‘Heihaizi’ meaning they weren’t formally recognised by the Chinese Government.

By 2013, the Chinese Communist Party announced an easing of the policy and allowed Chinese couples with certain circumstances to apply for exceptions to have a second child.

These circumstances included couples who had a disabled child, those who were both only children themselves, couples whose only child in a farming community was a daughter and those who remarried with only one child total between their previous partners.

In 2015 when the Government announced it would retire the policy for a two-child reform, the commmunist party decided it would provide more than 13 million hukous to illegal children.

This was to aid China’s ongoing issues of an ageing population, shrinking workforce and lonely, male population.

East China Normal University Dean of Social Development Professor Jun Wen. Photo: Tiffany Verga.

East China Normal University dean of social development Professor Jun Wen said despite the policy relaxing, many Chinese families still don’t want another child.

“Raising children is very expensive in China now so people have to think about whether they are financially able to afford it or not,” he said.

Map of the Chinese Population per province. The darker red colouring indicates regions where the One Child Policy was enforced strictly, the lighter pale pink colouring indicates where the policy wasn’t as strict. Photo: Tiffany Verga.

Contraception Trends Among married Women in China. (1982-2001) (source: New England Journal of Medicine)

Enforcing the Policy

Enforced by the National Population and Family Planning Commission and maintained by local government officials in each province, the infamous one child policy was deemed ‘China’s most radical experiment’ according to author of One Child, Mei Fong.

It wasn’t uncommon for the commission to require women to have regular pregnancy check-ups and to promote the use of intrauterine devices or contraceptive procedures to ensure no unwanted pregnancies arose.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, there was a clear preference for permanent contraceptive methods, including sterilisation, as opposed to the use of temporary birth control such as the oral contraceptive pill or condoms.

Offenders of the policy not only risked heavy fines, the loss of jobs and no formal identification for their children, but mothers were also subjected to the forced removal of a foetus according to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

Beijing Civil Aviation General Hospital nurse Sheng Juan Ji said she fell pregnant in 1981 despite frequent monthly checks.

“Every woman after having a baby was forced to put in an IUD to protect from contraception but for some reason accidentally I was two months pregnant,” she said.

Ms Sheng said if she was found to be pregnant she would have not only lost her job but her actions would also have affected the rest of the hospital.

Sheng Juan Ji, a nurse from Beijing Civil Aviation General Hospital who had an abortion in secret. Photo: Tiffany Verga.

“It all had to be very hush because if anyone else found out then the whole company would lose their bonus for the year. This bonus was another five Chinese yuan which doesn’t seem like a lot but at the time we only go paid 100 Chinese yuan a month,” she said.

Alternatively, families who respected the policy were looked upon fondly, receiving stipends such as pension and child welfare benefits as well as being prioritised when it came to government job applications.

In some provinces a formal identification could be purchased for illegal children, however, this varied depending on whether the area was rural or urban.

This ruling varied province to province as while the policy was maintained centrally it was carried out by local government.

Fudan University English Professor Sun Jian said it was common to see a slackening of the policy in rural areas.

“In the countryside and villages a lot of people violated the regulation,” he said.

“They would get fines but because they were farmers they didn’t have state-owned jobs, they had a freedom in a way, they couldn’t be punished like we [urban residents] could.”

Professor Sun said aside from fines and abortions, propaganda was used to deter parents by painting a bright future for China.

“They portrayed it to us like a cake. If you want to share the cake with more people your portion will be very small, the fewer the people you will have a larger share,” he said.

“The government painted murals. We believed it of course. If the government wanted to carry out the policy they made people believe it was practical.”

Photo of Li Yan Wei, a women’s officer at the Birth Control Department Office between 2000-2018. Photo: Li Yan Wei.

In order to uphold the policy, the Family Planning Commission introduced womens’ officers who would regulate the number of births, provide contraceptive measures and ensure there were no excess births.

Zaozhuang Quanxing Mining Co womens’ officer Li Yan Wei said her role was to make sure there were no illegal pregnancies.

“If there was a single illegal birth detected within the mining company, then every worker lost a bonus incentive for the year, so my role was to maintain zero excess births,” she said.

Mrs Li Yan said she believed the policy was beneficial which led her to provide contraceptive measures for women.

“The one-child policy would benefit some of the people in society because it improved people’s quality of life, health and education and they could concentrate on bringing up their children with more opportunities,” she said.

She said, however, the enforcement of the policy led to a lot of women feeling disappointed in themselves.

“There was a lot of pressure on women, especially if their first child was a girl. It was an old country tradition to have a boy to carry the name. There was sometimes a lot of pressure from the husband’s parents to have a boy.”

Zhang Haiyan, was allowed another child because her first child had congenital spinal issues. Photo: Tiffany Verga.

There were, however, exceptions to the policy which allowed people to have a second child.

Zhang Haiyan said she was allowed an exception because her first child had a disability.

Her son was born with a congenital spine disorder called Spina Bifida, which is where the spinal cord and membrane are exposed.

“The government allowed us to apply for another child four years later after he was born,” she said.

Zhang Qinling was allowed a second child when the ages of him and his wife combined equaled 70. Photo: Tiffany Verga.

Zhang Qinling from the Hebei Province also explained he was allowed leniency in a peculiar way.

“My wife and I were eligible to have a second child once our combined ages made 70, this meant if we were both 35, we could have another child,” he said.

“It was an allowed exception in the rural community and we had to wait 12 years until we were allowed another child.”

Other exceptions to the policy included: parents with daughters in rural areas, parents who worked in high-risk jobs and remarried couples who combined only had one child.


This story was produced as part of the Curtin Journalism 2018 Shanghai Study Tour which was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.

Categories: General, Health, Politics, Shanghai