Tea Leaf Nation
My Secret Life as a Forbidden Second Child in China
The country's draconian birth control policies have lifted, but the millions of children born outside the system live on in the shadows.
I was not supposed to be born. Six years after China implemented what is often called the one-child policy, I arrived — a second child to a Chinese family. It’s an experience common to millions of Chinese children born after 1980, often in secret. But our generation will be unique in Chinese history. On Jan. 1, China enacted new legislation allowing all married couples to have two children. Meanwhile, mass urbanization and rural migration have changed the financial and social calculus, making multi-children households less desirable. These combined shifts mean far fewer Chinese children will be born outside the law, marking the end of an era.
The almost mythic size of China’s population has occupied the minds of its leaders for more than a century. Sun Yat-sen, widely revered as a founding father of modern China, repeatedly invoked “China’s 400 million” — an approximation of its population, the world’s largest, around the turn of the 19th century — in his writings. In the 1960s, discussion shifted to how to control the huge and growing population as a means to alleviate poverty and ease stress on natural resources. Around 1980, China adopted a nationwide “planned-birth policy,” or “one-child policy,” as it’s often known abroad, limiting most families to one child. Family planning departments were established at every level of government, from villages up to national government branches. Government officials disseminated propaganda, issued registration papers for newborns, kept track of pregnancies, levied hefty fines on families who broke the policy, and sometimes even performed forced abortions and sterilizations.
“Planned-birth policy” was a phrase that terrified us little kids. Sometimes the people who worked for the local family planning office came to our village and took away pregnant women, leaving their children crying at the gates. Earlier-term pregnancies would often be terminated. For late-term pregnancies, officials would ask the women to pen a statement promising to have no more children, and then pay a penalty. One day when I was about 6 years old, five people from the local planning office came and stormed into the house of a family named Zhang. They confiscated everything of value and destroyed the roof.
The neighbors did not show any sympathy. Some stated that the Zhang family deserved it.
“Without money, how dare they have another child?” went the neighborhood chatter. “You don’t pay the fine, and you wish the government would treat you like a master? In your dreams!”
I asked my grandmother why the Zhang family had been treated that way. She raised her eyes from the beans she was shelling in front of the house. “They had a second child,” she said. “It’s against the law.”
I was so frightened that I jumped, right over the bowl of beans my grandmother had placed on the ground. I did not know what “against the law” meant — I was too young — but I knew I was a second child, since family and neighbors sometimes called me “little number two.” My mind raced with questions. Among my favorite toys, what should I hide first before those people came to demolish my house? Where should I hide if they came to take me away? And what if they managed to find me? That afternoon I hid in a corner in our backyard, and in the next few days, whenever I heard people knocking at our gate, I would run back to that corner. My parents did not know what had happened to me, and my older brother Liang started to call me his “weird baby sister.”
But those things I feared never happened to me. A month after I was born, my parents paid a $910 fine. This ensured that I was granted a hukou, the registration papers that enable Chinese people to obtain such services as education and healthcare. Years later when we talked about how I had found a place to hide after the Zhang family incident, we all laughed at my childish anxieties. But we all also knew it was not as light-hearted as it seemed. In 1989, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, the average annual income in urban areas was $192; in rural areas it was just $91. The penalty my parents paid was several years’ worth of their income.
Not everybody was as lucky as me. My childhood friend Mengmeng lived across the street from us. She was a cheerful little girl who always had two braids with red bows. One day, when we were picking flowers in our yard, pretending to cook in a game of imaginary kitchen, she shared a secret with me. “My mother has another baby in her belly,” Mengmeng told me.
Mengmeng was already a second child, the younger of two girls, and unlike me, she had no hukou. But her parents still wanted to have a boy. Shortly thereafter, Mengmeng disappeared. When I knocked on her family’s door in search of her, her mother told me they sent her to her grandparents’ home in another county. When she came back, it was already the end of the year, and her baby brother had been born. Mengmeng got a hukou only after her parents made sure their youngest son would be born safely. Her grandparents said that otherwise, she would have been given away. In those years, whenever people from the family planning office came to the village, Mengmeng’s parents would hide her.
The sacrifice my mother paid to have me was not as simple as losing some money. When she was 18 years old, my mother started work as a substitute teacher. She had two opportunities to be promoted as an official registered teacher, a job which would have given her a stable government salary known as an “iron rice bowl,” and a pension when she retired. But she missed both. The first time was when she married my father and her father-in-law insisted that a woman’s main responsibility was taking care of the family. My mother quit her job temporarily, but soon returned to it against my grandfather’s will. The second time was when she gave birth to me, which meant she had to give up the position permanently — people with official government jobs, including full-time teachers, were not allowed to break the one-child policy, even if they paid the fine. Breaking the rule meant losing the job. That remained true even in the policy’s later years. In 2010, law professor Yang Zhizhu was fired from the China Youth University of Political Studies in Beijing, after he and his wife decided to go through with an accidental second pregnancy. He lost his job, and officials slapped him with a fine of over $36,000.
Many people didn’t understand why my parents wanted to have another kid when their first child was a boy. Raising an additional child meant a greater financial burden on their shoulders. My parents were frugal with themselves but generous with their children. They sought the lowest prices for everything they needed to buy. My mother never bought the jewelry she had loved when she was young, but did not hesitate to pay for my drawing lessons.
“How good it would be if you just had Liang,” said my mother’s best friend, a teacher who had only one son. “You would be a formal teacher with an iron rice bowl, a pension paid by the government, and more financial freedom.” But my mother didn’t like that discussion, especially when I was around, and would simply reply, “To have her was the choice we made.”
I can understand why she wanted more children. I come from a big extended family. In traditional Chinese culture, more children means a prosperous family, and my grandparents on both sides had seven children. They shared happiness and burdens alike; when my grandmother was sick in the hospital, seven children took turns caring for her. In the years before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the country had experienced eight years of devastating war against the invading Japanese and another four years of civil war. Tens of millions of people had died. To continue the construction of the young nation, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong encouraged people to have more children. Women who gave birth to many children were called “heroine mothers.” So when the pendulum swung so far to the other extreme, my family thought it was absurd. Despite the restrictions, most of my many aunts and uncles have two children each.
Even though my mother was ready to give up her job, having another child was not easy. Six months after she gave birth to my older brother, the family planning office took her to the hospital and forced her to put an intrauterine device in her body, a common practice at that time. Every few months, women who had already had one child would be taken to the hospital to take an ultrasonic photo and make sure their intrauterine rings were still there.
“The way they treated the women, pushing them up into the cars, sometimes even into trucks with some wooden bench for them to sit on, was like the way butchers treat the pigs when driving them to the slaughter houses,” said my mother. “There was no dignity. To cheer ourselves up, on the way we cursed the people who pushed us, or we sang songs.”
“But it’s their job, isn’t it?” I asked. “Nobody forced them to do that job, and they could always turn a blind eye,” she replied. “They used their knife of power to kill so many unborn babies.”
In the spring of 1988, my mother secretly removed her intrauterine ring, but she still couldn’t escape the regular physical check. These were the years when the one-child policy was strictly enforced, and my mother had to think of a way out. So during the physical check, she wore a long coat. She put an iron ring in her pocket, and adjusted the pocket to the exact position where the intrauterine ring should be. The photo showed a ring right where it was supposed to be — a low-tech fix, but it worked perfectly. She became pregnant. By the time her secret was discovered, the fetus was too far along to be aborted. And in the March of 1989, I was born.
I asked my mother if it would have been better if she had only had my brother. If they did not have me, they would have been less reluctant to go traveling, to buy things they liked; they wouldn’t have had to carefully budget every penny of their income. “But without you,” my mother replied, “all the ‘better’ things don’t mean anything at all.”
I know I am lucky. One autumn day in 1994, I was taken to a relative’s home where people were crowding around a newborn boy. The father was a teacher, officially not supposed to have a second child even if he paid the fine. To have a permit for the second child, he had faked a certificate indicating that his first child, a daughter, was physically handicapped — a condition that would have permitted the birth of a second child. The year before, the parents had taken their daughter from one clinic to another in search of a fake report, and by pulling some strings, had finally managed to secure a permit to have the son. In the girl’s teenage years, she became very rebellious, angry about her official health statement, feeling her parents had insulted and used her.
In October 2015, when China first announced that the one-child policy would soon change to a “two-child policy,” I felt it was the end of an era. When I get old, I will tell my grandchildren how I almost had no chance to come into this world. I will tell them the stories that are absurd, funny, sad, or stupid, but that all helped me to value the life I had and cherish the people I met. I wonder what they will say.
After the one-child policy was scrapped, I attempted to contact the family planning office in my hometown to ask them about their previous work. My request was refused. “There are two directors from the local family planning office now living in loneliness and despair,” my uncle, who still lives in the village, told me. “Both of them lost their only child. They have many lives on their hands; it’s divine revenge.” I put down the phone and thought that the irony was almost unbelievable. But I guess that’s how the world sometimes works.