What to do with a growing unregistered population?
7/3/07 - 7/4/07
On Tuesday Stacy suggested I might enjoy attending her class. The topic was family law in China, taught by Professor Warren Binford http://www.willamette.edu/wucl/faculty/binford.htm
from Willamette University. Stacy promised it would be interesting and I was not disappointed.
Over the years I have picked up bits and pieces about China’s One Child Policy (OCP), but until this week really didn't know much about it. While there are still many unknowns, Professor Binfords classes opened a window into Chinese society.
First promulgated around 1980, the goal of the OCP was to achieve zero population growth by the year 2000 and government statistics declare it a success. The policy stemmed the traditionally high birth rates (5.81 births/woman in 1970) encouraged in the 1960’s and 70’s by Mao Zedong, and brought China to near zero population growth.
While addressing overpopulation was viewed by many as a positive step for China, the country has been criticized for how the OCP has been and continues to be implemented. Local governments are responsibile for ensuring compliance with the OCP. The result has been inconsistent enforcement and abusive tactics due to national pressure on local officials.
To understand the means of enforcement as well as consequences of the OCP, it is important to grasp the nature of China’s registration system. As a Chinese citizen you are required to register at birth, marriage and death. A person must be registered to attend school, receive social welfare benefits, get married, attain legal employment, and to have a child. Registration also costs money, frequently more than many rural families can afford.
Registered married couples in cities are allowed one child. Rural and minority families may have two if the first is a girl. There are a few exceptions to these rules, but the permits cost money. In one province a person who qualifies to have second child must pay $500 for the permit. This is half the average annual income in China and 10 times the average annual income in rural areas.
For families desiring multiple children and for those that cannot afford the registration process or permits, the only option is to have a child “out of plan.” Violations of the OCP are punished harshly. The offending couple are usually strongly “encouraged” to have the pregnancy aborted. Methods of encouragement may include disqualification of social welfare benefits, administrative demotion, deprivation of farmland, withholding of family food rations, beatings, forced late-term abortions, and forced sterilization. One village razed the homes of six pregnant women with out of plan children and forbade local residents from sheltering the now homeless women.
While such treatment is egregious, perhaps more devastating in the long term repercussions for children born out of plan. Such children are ineligible to register with the government. This is the equivalent in the U.S. of being denied the ability to ever have a birth certificate or social security number. Out of plan child are disqualified from all state subsidized services including education and health care. In the eyes of the government, they do not exist.
But the unregistered do exist and in large numbers. Studies suggest that well over half the rural population of China is unregistered. A statistical analysis indicated a 40% error for a census conducted in a rural province due to the exclusion of the unregistered. It is unknown how many of the unregistered are children, but some estimates are in the 100’s of millions.
While the Chinese government has acknowledged that there are problems with the policy, there is little indication that there will be a significant shift in tactics any time soon. One problem is that the country’s weak social welfare system is struggling just to support its registered population, let alone handle the millions of unregistered. Additionally, the frenetic growth in the last 20+ years has only been possible with China’s abundant supply of cheap labor.
Since the late 1970’s the Chinese economy has been shifting away from state run work units responsible for providing employment, housing, food and health care for its workers, to a market driven economy that allows an increasing number of private enterprises who are only responsible for providing employment. Given the pace of the shift, the transition has been remarkably smooth, though not without cost. To avoid punishment by the government millions of unregistered workers must settle for low paying and often dangerous jobs. Shanghai is nearly finished constructing the world’s tallest building. The 24/7 construction schedules for this and other projects often rely on the cheap labor available from unregistered workers who have illegally migrated to Shanghai so they can eek out $1/day working 12 hours a day 7 days a week.
The unregistered population issue in China has more than a few parallels with the United States’ struggle to address illegal immigration. In the political sphere, there are those who argue that the unregistered/illegal immigrants should be given an opportunity to be full members of society. Since the vast majority of non-citizens are hard working and would chose to be lawful participants in society, why not give them that opportunity. Others maintain that non-citizens chose to disobey establish rules and should not be rewarded for doing so.
A significant difference between China’s and U.S.’s scenarios is that children born in the U.S. have a right to a birth certificate, whereas out of plan children in China are forever relegated to the status of unregistered. As such they are more susceptible to trafficking and enslavement for work and/or more licentious purposes.
This Washington Post article is a good follow-up read if you are interested.
In response to some foreign critics, China has published an interview discussing its general strategy for population control. http://www.china.org.cn/english/2002/Oct/46138.htm
Wikipedia provides a fairly comprehensive overview as well.