In 1968, Dick van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes starred in a children’s fantasy movie based on a book written by James Bond creator Ian Fleming. While Chitty Chitty Bang Bang celebrates whimsy embodied in a flying (and water-compatible) English racing car, it also features a rather dark storyline: In the faraway land of Vulgaria, children are banned from the country by the baron and baroness, resulting in a sizable subpopulation of illegal minors hiding underground or locked in prison.
When the children are freed by Van Dyke’s crew, they storm the castle and a shocked Baron Bomburst exclaims, “Where are all these children coming from? I thought we passed a law against children!” Eerie, the parallel between fiction and reality.
In 2010, China conducted its latest census, which revealed that the country had 13 million undocumented children. The majority were “over-quota” children born in violation of China’s one-child policy, and who were accordingly denied legal identification or “household registration” known as hukou. Without hukou, a person cannot attend school, receive healthcare or government support, travel by train or plane, or get married.
(Population Research Institute/2013)
According to a March 12 article appearing in The Diplomat, it’s common practice for local police to charge parents a hefty “social compensation fee” if they discover any “illegal” additional children born without government permission. Because the fee is generally calculated by multiplying the average income of a locality by three to ten times, many parents are unable to pay the fee, and the local police withhold hukou – and with it, all the rights available to those who receive that legal identification.
Aside from the children being denied fundamental rights, their parents may also face severe punishment. Horrific signs can be seen in public spaces, warning of the consequences should a couple violate the one-child policy: “If it should be aborted and is not aborted, your house will be destroyed and your cow will be taken.”
Social researcher Stephanie Gordon, who authored the article in The Diplomat, wrote: “Parents report daily harassment by local thugs or local government officials […] Luck, connections, and money effectively play a part in determining when a child can become recognized.”
Last summer, the international media reported a tragic case depicting the devastating impact of the social compensation fee on families. Farmer Wang Guangrong and his wife were already struggling to pay substantial fines on their three additional children, and even had their livestock confiscated, when Wang went to enroll his undocumented children in school. Local officials insisted that he and his wife needed to pay another round of fines before they could allow the children to be admitted.
In a desperate attempt to call attention to this practice of extortion, Wang committed suicide. According to an article published online by the Population Research Institute:
They [Wang and his wife] had nothing left to give the government – except Wang’s life. Public suicides in protest of official wrongdoing have a long history in China. So Wang decided to end his life in the hope that this would shame local government officials into allowing his children to attend school. That way, they would have the chance at a better life that an education would provide them with.
Though local officials did eventually promise Wang’s family compensation and a new house after the media firestorm, its cost came at too dear a price.
One lawyer, Wu Youshi, endeavored to shine a light on the harsh fining system under the one-child policy. After pressing finance bureaus and Health and Family Planning Commissions across China – and with the help of media pressure – Wu learned that about 20 billion yuan ($332 million USD) was collected in 2012, but none of the petitioned authorities responded to inquiries on how the money was spent.
According to Wu, “[A]s local governments can retain at least 80 percent of the funds collected, there is a blatant incentive to enforce the One Child Policy as harshly as possible.”
A study published in Population and Development Review that also examined the census data confirmed that “[n]ot only does the hukou provide the basis of assigning family’s quotations for birth quotas, it is also used as a measure to punish families with children born without official quotas; those children are routinely denied registrations and thus denied access to many government and social services, such as education, health care, and more.” (Emphasis added)
The 2010 census captured the subpopulation of hidden children because it emphasized enumerating everyone regardless of registration. In the census manual, for instance, census-takers were instructed to check all out-of-plan births without hukou.
Parents were encouraged to admit if they had unregistered children during the census with the promise that their information would not be forwarded to local officials who would fine them. Gordon notes, however, that “[i]n previous censuses, similar promises to parents of anonymity were broken. So the true population of hidden children could be significantly higher.”
UNICEF reported that the 12.68 million “hidden” undocumented children were mostly very young – 86 percent were under five years old and 67 percent were under two. Additionally, “nearly 70% of children without registered residence lived in rural areas.”
With 13 million children – about one percent of the population – who lack legal rights, clear evidence of sex-selection abortion against girls in the womb, and about 400 million aborted children overall since its instatement in 1979, it is clear that China’s one-child policy has wrought endless human rights abuses against its citizens and should be abolished.
Genevieve Plaster is a research assistant for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.