Single parents: Pariahs

The Economist – AFTER more than three decades of often brutal interference by the government in citizens’ reproductive choices, it seemed something of a breakthrough when, in October, it decided to allow all couples to have two children. Previously, many had been limited to just one. Last month there was a further concession: children born in violation of the erstwhile rules would be given the registration document that is needed for everything from getting a place at school to opening a bank account. For children born out of wedlock, however, the nightmare of bureaucratic non-recognition persists. Attitudes to sex have been changing fast in China, but not the taboo surrounding extramarital births.

The government imposes stringent penalties on the very few unmarried women brave enough to have children. Giving birth requires permission from family-planning authorities. They will not give it without proof of marriage. Violators usually have to pay the equivalent of several years’ working-class income.

Then there is the problem of registering the child. Until last month it was impossible for many of those born in violation of family-planning rules to get identity papers. Now it is easier, as long as both parents can prove they are related to the child. But a mother who does not know who the baby’s father is, or who cannot convince the father to submit to a DNA test, is out of luck. The child cannot be registered. Hence it cannot obtain other vital documents such as an identity card (essential, not least, for travel on long-distance transport).

To avoid such horrors, some unmarried women leave China in order to have their children. Their babies would then have foreign proof of birth, and a chance of growing up normally abroad.

Xiao Min, a successful 36-year-old businesswoman who lives in Shanghai, decided to stay put. Her relatives acquiesced to her decision two years ago to have a child even though she had not found a husband. “I’m lucky to have so much support and a career that allows me to hire a full-time nanny,” says Ms Xiao. “I do not want to hurry to find someone to marry just so I can have children.”

Ms Xiao is also lucky because she managed to persuade a friend to donate his sperm and enter into a sham marriage with her. Armed with a marriage certificate, she had a baby daughter without paying a hefty fine, or “social maintenance fee” in official language. (In July, when asked by reporters why single parents were punished this way, a senior family-planning official insisted the fines were needed to maintain “reproductive order”.)

Most women, however, try their best to avoid extramarital births altogether. Abortions are readily available. Those who do not want to terminate their pregnancies are sometimes forced to do so by officials. Mei Fong, a former Beijing correspondent of the Wall Street Journal who wrote a book about the one-child policy, says the cost of raising a child on one’s own is such that it is usually only rich people who try.

“I want to make my parents happy and I want to have a baby,” says a 30-year-old woman in Beijing who works as a low-paid office assistant. “But if I’m not married and can’t pay the fines, the child would become like a ghost, without legal standing. How could I do that to my own child?”

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