A victim of China's one-child policy, one father has considered selling his own life to pay a stiff fine and to sustain his family.
Yang Zhizhu, 34, was levied a $37,000 "social upbringing fee" and dismissed from his job as a law professor after his wife gave birth to their second daughter in December 2009. The punishment was handed to Yang under China’s one-child restrictions, which came into effect in 1980 and set a quota on the number of children a couple is allowed to have, the way the government does to the goods manufactured on an assembly line.
Yang was a law professor at Beijing's China Youth University for Political Sciences before he was laid off. The dismissal came as an executive punishment in April 2010, following his refusal to pay the penalty, which equals nine times the region’s annual average per-capita income.
“There is never an expression of ‘illegal birth’ in Chinese laws,” Yang said. “It’s apparently unfair to fine me.”
Yet as one who taught civil law for more than 10 years, Yang was well aware that by not paying the fine, his younger daughter, Yang Ruonan, would live as a “black child.” It is Chinese parlance referring to those who live without Hukou, or household registration papers, and therefore denied access to public education, healthcare and housing allowance.
Yang’s eldest daughter, Yang Ruoyi, 5, was a collateral victim. No longer a single child, she has been deprived of benefits that China exclusively grants to children who have no siblings. Among the benefits are priority in school enrollment and a monthly stipend of $9.
Yang decided to put himself on sale last September with a no-bargain price of $100,000. He vowed to devote himself to his master “until death.”
Once the deal was sealed, Yang planned to use the money to pay off the fine and compensate his family with the rest.
Yang’s predicament reflected a heated debate inside China about whether to invalidate the most unpopular policy in the last 30 years. The policy was first contemplated in 1978 when China’s reform and opening-up policies were launched. Coping with a burgeoning population, members of the State Council hoped to reduce China’s net population growth to zero by 2000, a goal that demographers often referred to as a product of “no real demographic calculations.”
In 2010, a census by China’s Statistics Bureau found that the country’s net annual population growth averaged 0.57 percent in the past decade, half a percentage point lower than that of the 1990s. Desirable as it seems, a closer look at the report revealed contradictory facts and a trend toward a shrinking labor population.
As of Nov. 1, 2010, there were 222 million people, from newborns to those of age 14, or 16.6 percent of the entire population. Ten years ago, that group was 30 percent larger and its share of the total population was nearly 23 percent.
Nonetheless, authorities insisted that the number of children a Chinese woman averaged in her lifetime still lingered at 1.8. Had the claim been true, the number of teenagers in society wouldn't have decreased significantly, said Li Jianxin, a sociology professor at Peking University.
“It’s a lie of statistics,” he said, holding the belief that China’s total fertility rate had been manipulated in the past 20 years to justify the one-child restrictions.
Among those who share Li’s opinion, Liang Zhongtang, a demographer at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, is probably the most vocal. Liang, 63, witnessed the emergence of the one-child policy and its execution ever since, argued that China’s real childbearing rate should be 1.3-1.5, already “a dangerously low level” for a labor-intensive economy.
Starting from 1992, authorities ceased to publish the national childbearing rate in China's Population Statistics Yearbook, which, Liang said he thought, stems from authorities' worries about the repercussion of reporting the real numbers. China has long been regarded as the world’s manufacturing floor and been known for its cheap, productive labor. Liang pondered what would happen if the public found out that China’s most vibrant workforce, ages 15 to 29, had plummeted to 247 million in 2010, from 326 million in 1995?
The world's second largest economy faces the prospect of a graying population before its economy really takes off, experts say. People over 65 comprise 8.9 percent of China’s population, a 33 percent jump from that of 1995. By 2040, that proportion could reach 22 percent, equaling a total of 320 million and posing a challenge for both working-age people and the nation’s still incomplete social security net.
Another concern of Chinese scholars was the gender imbalance primarily caused by the one-child policy. Thousands of female fetuses are aborted every year, to save their parents the opportunity to have a boy.
More than 30 years into the policy, China witnesses 118 male births for every 100 females, according to the most recent census. That totals 1.2 males more than in 2000. In some provinces, there are 130 male births to 100 females.
By 2020, the discrepancy in the junior group will evolve into high demand for wives in the marriage market. About 30 million men will have difficulty finding spouses, said a government analysis of China’s population strategy. The over-demand, the report said, could pose “a serious threat” to social stability.
A previously little noticed county in the coal-rich Shanxi province caught people’s attention when Yang’s sad story was made public. Yicheng, a county of 320,000 residents, silently has been carrying out a two-child policy for 26 years and it has a lower-than-average population growth and a more-balanced gender ratio.
As the policy dictates, citizens in Yicheng are allowed to have a second child but only after a six-year birth space and women who have given birth to two children must be sterilized.
Huang Denggao, 66, the former head of a 600-person village in Yicheng, said the pilot policy had relieved the state-society tension in his village, Huangjiapu. Villagers, liberated from the one-child restrictions and feeling “privileged,” voluntarily undergo sterilization after using up their quota, including those whose babies were both female.
Today, two-thirds of families in Huangjiapu village have two children. Parents in the other families, giving up the right that people in other parts of China covet, decided to have only one child.
“The fertility rate will naturally go down with a better economy and a greater passion for education,” Liang said. Local residents also refer to the inflated prices as a cause for fewer births.
Asked whether the success of Yicheng could be replicated, Liang slightly raised his voice, “That is what this pilot project was designed for.” He said the interest conflicts and power grabs within the Cabinet made no policy-making easy.
Some experts view the drag of policy-making from another perspective. Cold, hard statistics, they said, rather than public opinion, are often what China’s technocrat government counts on. The dominance of technocrats might change after the power shift in 2012, in which Xi Jinping, the president-in-waiting and a Marxism major, and Li Keqiang, possibly the next prime minister and a graduate in law and economics, are likely to step up and effect charge.
Will there be a policy shift then?
“No policy change will be seen unless the Chinese Communist Party undergoes a complete transformation,” said Yang, citing the policy that the government sees controlling the population as the basis of preventing social chaos.
In a lawsuit he filed last December against the local government in the hope of revoking the punishment, Yang lost his second trial. And there has been no serious taker of his offer so far. Yet, he hasn’t given up. He said he must fight for his family and many others.