In China, a daring few challenge one-child limit

By Alexa Olesen

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 23 2011 10:10 p.m. MST

In this Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011 photo, Prof. Yang Zhizhu and his wife Chen Hong, back, prepare to take their two daughters Yang Ruoyi, front, and Yang Ruonan, out for a walk at their apartment in Beijing, China. Yang Zhizhu, a law professor who taught at Beijing Youth Politics College, was fired from his job after authority found out he and his wife had a second child against the one-child policy. Chinese today are free to choose where they live and work and who they want to marry, but when it comes to having kids, the state says the majority must stop at one.

Alexander F. Yuan, Associated Press

ZHUJI, China — Seven months pregnant, Wu Weiping sneaked out early in the morning carrying a shoulder bag with some clothes, her laptop and a knife.

"It's good for me I wasn't caught, but it's lucky for them too," said Wu, 35, who feared that family planning officials were going to drag her to the hospital for a forced abortion. "I was going to fight to the death if they found me."

With her escape, Wu joined an increasingly defiant community of parents in China who have risked their jobs, savings and physical safety to have a forbidden second child.

Though their numbers are small, they represent changing ideas about individual rights. While violators in the past tended to be rural families who skirted the birth limits in relative obscurity, many today are urbanites like Wu who frame their defiance in overtly political terms, arguing that the government has no right to dictate how many children they have.

Using Internet chat rooms and blogs, a few have begun airing their demands for a more liberal family planning policy and are hoping others will follow their lead. Several have gotten their stories into the tightly controlled media, an indication that their perspectives have resonance with the public.

After finding out his wife was expecting a second child, Liu Lianwen set up an online discussion group called "Free Birth" to swap information about the one-child policy and how to get around it. In less than six months, it has attracted nearly 200 members.

"We are idealists," said the 37-year-old engineer from central China, whose daughter was born Oct. 18. "We want to change the attitudes of people around us by changing ourselves."

Freed of the social controls imposed during the doctrinaire era of communist rule, Chinese today are free to choose where they live and work and whom they marry. But when it comes to having kids, the state says the majority must stop at one. Hefty fines for violators and rising economic pressures have helped compel most to abide by the limit. Many provinces claim near perfect compliance.

It's impossible to know how many children have been born in violation of the one-child policy, but Zhai Zhenwu, director of Renmin University's School of Sociology and Population in Beijing, estimates that less than one percent of the 16 million babies born each year are "out of plan."

Liu thinks his fellow citizens have been brainwashed. "They all feel it's glorious to have a small family," he said. "Thirty years of family planning propaganda have changed the way the majority of Chinese think about having children."

The reluctance to procreate is also an issue of growing concern for demographers, who worry that the policy combined with a rising cost of living has brought the fertility rate down too sharply and too fast. Though still the world's largest nation with 1.3 billion people, China's population growth has slowed considerably.

"The worry for China is not population growth — it's rapid population aging and young people not wanting to have children," said Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, a joint U.S.-China academic research center in Beijing.

Wang sees a looming disaster as the baby boom generation of the 1960s heads into retirement and old age. China's labor force, sharply reduced by the one-child policy, will struggle to support them.

He argues that the government should allow everyone at least two children. He thinks many Chinese would still stop at one because of concerns about being able to afford to raise more than that.

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