HONG KONG/BEIJING – Living in Beijing for 23 years, Li Xue has never attended school, not even for a day.
China provides a free, nine-year education to every child but Li was not included. For the past 23 years, she has had no access to any form of social welfare. She has not been allowed to get married, find a job, or open a bank account.
Li was the second child born to her parents. Due to the nation’s one-child policy that ran from around 1978 until 2015 to curtail population growth, she didn’t exist in the Chinese government’s database.
Li said her parents tried to register her at the police station when she was born but staffers there refused and demanded a letter of approval from the local family planning commission.
With no letter approving her birth, Li’s parents were faced with the prospect of paying a hefty fine for breaking the one-child policy to register her but could not afford to do so.
Since then it has been a two-decade battle with officials until China scrapped its one-child policy last year and Li finally received an official paper to prove her existence.
Ending the one-child policy has left people like Li scrambling to make up for lost years, resentful because they fear their recognition may have come too late and are unsure what the government is going to do to help them make up for those years.
Li missed out on an education and struggled to learn everything by herself, using library books borrowed under her elder sister’s name with her family unable to afford a tutor.
“My mother was dismissed from her job because she gave birth to me,” Li said in an interview at her home in Beijing, a shabby house without a private toilet and with a make-shift shower. “All four of us had to live off my father’s meager salary.”
Li’s mother, Bai Xiuling, a former factory worker, said her daughter used to cry when other children set off for school.
“She wanted to study at school, but she can’t. My child has already missed the nine-year compulsory education. No money can buy her time back,” she said.
13 million lives
According to China’s latest population census, conducted in 2010, there were 13 million unregistered citizens like Li, almost 1 percent of the country’s total population.
“Most of them are children born outside the country’s one-child policy,” said Jiantang Ma, the then-head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics who conducted the census.
A 2015 study by the Academy of Macroeconomic Research at the National Development and Reform Commission found nearly half of China’s unregistered citizens were illiterate or lacked formal education.
During the years of the one-child policy, second children would not be registered in the household system unless a hefty fine was paid, with some exceptions to this rule.
Births out of marriage are also considered a violation of China’s strict family planning rules, and unmarried couples had to pay a fine to register their newborn.
China is one of few countries that has a household registration system, known as “hukou” in Chinese, that contains the births, marriages and other information on citizens.
A person without a hukou record in China is denied public services, such as education and health care, and is barred from getting married, finding a job or even opening a bank account.
The link between the one-child policy and hukou is controversial, with Chinese policymakers saying the household registration system is open to all citizens without any conditions. But families affected say the link was clear.
“Although China’s household registration and one-child policy shouldn’t have been bound together, local authorities have been doing so for years because they found it useful to force families to comply with the family planning law,” said Youshui Wu, director at Zhejiang Bi Jian Law Firm.
Wu, who assisted many Chinese couples to register their second child, added there was also an economic incentive as people who had children born without permission were unable to register them unless they paid a hefty fee, which became a lucrative source of local revenue.
Data that Wu obtained from 24 provincial-level governments under the country’s open government information regulations found that in 2012 alone, Chinese authorities collected more than 20 billion yuan ($2.95 billion) in fines from parents.
“None of the governments were able to fully account for how the money was spent,” Wu said.
Wenzhuang Yang, an official at China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, denied that China’s one child policy — and punishments associated with it — have played a role in blocking millions of citizens from being registered.
At a news conference earlier this year, Yang said his department had tried its best to remove hurdles set by local authorities in household registration, and many unregistered citizens have now been included in the hukou system.
Yang could not be reached for further comment despite repeated phone calls.
Unmarried mother Chunyan Liu, a freelance English teacher, said she was unable to pay the fine so she kept her daughter’s birth secret for seven years until April this year, when she finally registered her child.
“The fine in Beijing was really high. I thought about it over and over again, but still I dared not to let the government know that I have a child born without permission,” she said.
Due to a lack of hukou, Liu’s daughter had no access to government-subsidized health care. She was unable to buy train tickets or travel abroad.
“When other parents took their kids to the Hong Kong Disneyland, we couldn’t even think of it,” Liu said.
“My daughter is now 7 years old, and she has never set her foot outside Beijing,” she said, adding that she was still worried that government officials might ask her to pay the fine.
Despite all the concerns, Liu calls herself “lucky.” Last year, she tried but failed to find a place for her daughter to study, due to a lack of hukou.
“Now, my daughter has everything she needs to go to public school,” Liu said.
But others are not so lucky, with researchers from the Academy of Macroeconomic Research at the National Development and Reform Commission saying more than half of China’s unregistered citizens are above 18 years old.
Many of these adults not only lost out on schooling, but also struggled to find a job as they couldn’t provide a hukou record and other legal documents often needed for hiring.
For example, Liu Wei of northern China’s Henan province had no choice but to work in a coal mine.
After the mine was closed, Liu couldn’t find another job and ended up sleeping on the streets for five years, the report said.
The social isolation can also pass from one generation to the next, with the researchers unsure how the end of the one-child policy would impact those people.
“Quite a lot of unregistered children in China have grown up and started their own families, creating the second generation of unregistered children,” the report said.
Wenzheng Huang, a demographer and a former assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the government had tried to address this problem after the 2010 census highlighted 13 million unregistered citizens.
“As far as I know, many unregistered children now have their hukou. … The Chinese central government has begun taking household registration seriously,” Huang said in a phone interview.
“The government has recognized having so many citizens unregistered is a serious problem. It not only takes a toll on social development, but has caused huge pain to many families.”