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When two is too much

ANANTH KRISHNAN
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In China, tens of thousands of people face fines and lose their jobs every year for breaking family planning rules. This Beijing couple, chose to have a second child and challenge the “One-Child Policy”…. ANANTH KRISHNAN

Taking a stand: Yang Zhizhu. Photo: Ananth Krishnan
Taking a stand: Yang Zhizhu. Photo: Ananth Krishnan

O n a summer's evening in 2009, Yang Zhizhu's wife broke the news to him. She spoke softly, in hushed tones that barely disturbed the heavy silence that filled their small Beijing home. The occasion, she felt, demanded secrecy. She was pregnant, she told her husband, speaking hesitantly and quietly, unsure of how he would respond. His first reaction, Yang instantly recalls, was instinctual – he was delighted, just like any father-in-waiting would be. But then, as he slowly processed the news, emotion gave way to the coldness of the new reality he faced: Yang knew his family would soon have a painful decision to make.

Yang's emotional seesaw is one that thousands of young parents across China go through every year. It has, in fact, become a part of life in this country over the past three decades, during which tightly-enforced family planning laws have routinely presented families, like Yang's, with unimaginably difficult choices. In China, having a second child incurs a heavy fine, one that few families can afford. It could also mean losing your job, if you work for the government; or, in some extreme cases, increasingly rare but still prevalent, even having your child forcibly aborted.

Without a job

Yang, 44, teaches Constitutional Law at the China Youth University for Political Sciences. It has, however, been almost half a year since he gave his last lecture: he was suspended from his teaching position last April, four months after he became a father for the second time. Yang's second daughter was born on December 21, 2009. But even before then, he had already been given three stern warnings from his university, and summoned to meetings with the local family planning bureau after they had learned of his wife's pregnancy. At his third meeting with the authorities, a few weeks before his daughter was born, officials from the household registration department gave him one last chance. They placed before him a statement declaring that his wife would have the baby aborted, asking him to sign it. He refused. “God gave us a child,” Yang tells me, explaining his decision, when we meet in his Beijing home, which sits in a leafy community in the city's northwestern university district. “My wife and I had never planned for our second daughter. But when she was given to us, we asked ourselves, who are we to question God's will?” Having her, they knew, would mean an uncertain future – facing heavy penalties, even losing their jobs. “We still decided we couldn't lose her,” Yang says. “She was already two months old, living, breathing and alive. How could I do something like that to my own daughter?”

Divided opinion

China's family planning rules, the government estimates, have prevented an additional 300 million births since they came into force in 1979. The rules are commonly known as the “One-Child Policy”, although, in effect, they are a far more complicated set of measures. In rural areas, for instance, families can have two children if their first-born is a girl, while in cities, couples who are both only children can have a second child. Critics of the policy, however, are far from convinced about its merits: they say the jury is still out, pointing to a fast-widening gender imbalance three decades on, and increasing fears about a rapidly aging society and shrinking workforce. The 1980s and 1990s have also seen innumerable violations of people's rights on the policy's account, from forced abortions to mass sterilisation campaigns. These are rarer now, but still do take place; a prominent blot on China's recent attempts to build the rule of law. (Only a few months ago, the case of a woman in Xiamen, a city in Fujian province, who had her eight-month-old foetus forcibly aborted by local officials, whose careers are often judged on meeting family planning targets, caused outrage among Chinese rights activists.)

It was against this backdrop of increasing debate that Yang Zhizhu decided to take a stand. A few months into his wife's pregnancy, Yang was called in to a meeting with the university's Communist Party representative and its family planning bureau – every institution and State-run company has a family planning department that counsels, reports on and penalises employees. The bureau had been informed by one of his neighbours that his wife had become pregnant for the second time; every community has a “tip-off box” that encourages residents to report on any possible family planning violators. (Yang makes it a point to show me the box. Another undesirable legacy of the policy, he says wryly: “a community where everyone watches each other.”) After losing his job, Yang was made to pay 240,000 yuan (around $37,000) for his second daughter's household registration certificate; without this, she can neither attend school, nor, for that matter, get a marriage license. Families are fined anywhere between three and 10 times the average income in their city. Yang's fine was nine times the average income in Beijing, which is 26,000 yuan. “They knew I cannot afford to pay it,” he said. “They wanted to make an example.” Yang, with nothing to lose, decided to take a stand; he refused to pay the fine, and took the government to court, saying the policy, and the fine, was a violation of rights guaranteed under the constitution.

Stirring debate

Yang's case, which began in February in a local court in Beijing, has stirred debate. His story has also received wide media coverage in China. Yang doesn't expect his case to go very far. “What I want to do is to get more people to question this policy, as well as their fundamental rights,” he said.

China's “One-child policy”, since its introduction 30 years ago, has been a demographic experiment never before seen in history. Scholars say it is far too early to judge its outcome. Even if it spared China a tremendous burden, it has now been seen as leading to a gender imbalance as well as a shrinking workforce. Its critics are growing. In March, ahead of the annual session of the Chinese National People's Congress, Ji Baocheng, a delegate who is also the Dean of Beijing's Renmin University, said he would put forward a proposal to ease the rules, and for China to move towards a “two-child policy.” Rumours of rules being eased have intensified over the past couple of years, although there has been no real change in policy. This year, too, Ji's proposal seemed to sink without a trace. The government has also moved to clamp down on the debate; this month, the party's propaganda department issued a directive to all media to immediately refrain from discussing changes to the policy. Yang's case, too, has been deemed off limits.

“More and more, it's becoming clear that this policy has done more harm than good,” Yang tells me. “What the government doesn't tell us is that even without the policy, the birth rate would have naturally declined. This has been the case in all industrialising societies. Look at Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Even after they eased the policy in some countries, people are choosing to have fewer children. So why force them?” Yang, and his family, face an uncertain future. He is still without a job, with two children at home. He has overdue fines and worries about how, a year from now, his daughter can find a school. Does he have any regrets? “None at all,” he says, with a smile. “If this policy is scrapped by the time by daughter grows up, I will feel like I have made some contribution.” He looks to his wife who sits quietly by his side, with their young daughter safely in her hands.

"WE never planned for our second daughter. But when she was given to us, we asked ourselves, who are we to question God's will?”

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