Life as a ghost
March 16, 2015 9:28 PM   Subscribe

The Ghost Children of China Forty-five years ago, China inaugurated an era of population control, amid fears that too many people would bring catastrophe. In 1980, it officially announced a national one-child policy, forcibly limiting the size of families. But there have been, inevitably, second (and, rarely, third and fourth) children: children who go unrecognized by the government, have no official identity – who are left to live outside the institutions of regulated society. Little Jie is one of them.

The foundation of Chinese civic life is the hukou, a maroon-and-gold household-registration document. It is a form of identity used to control people’s movements inside the country, set up by the Communist regime, and similar to systems used in Soviet Russia and imperial China. With it, a person can secure a national-identification card, attend school, access basic medical services, find a place to live, board a bus or train, open a bank account, get a job, and secure a passport. Without it, each of those things becomes difficult and, for those with too little money or too few connections, often impossible.


“I used to be a person who believed we shouldn’t make trouble for the party,” Feng says, in an interview at a cafeteria outside his new workplace – a private company where he works as a software engineer. Neither the benefits nor the job title match his old status, but at least he has work. “But this has made me rethink not only the family-planning policy but also broader issues such as people’s rights and the construction of our civil society. I started rethinking the whole system.”
posted by modernnomad (12 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Hukou has so many issues, and afaik still is essentially used to segregate groups of people even apart from these "ghost children." I haven't been to China in quite a while, but I remember that when I was last in Shanghai that there were crappier schools that children of citizens with "rural" or "country" hukou could attend, and different (better) ones where wealthier Shanghainese could go.

I suppose going to the country hukou school is better than no school at all, though.
posted by auggy at 10:03 PM on March 16, 2015

It looks like this may also be a contributing factor to "Birth Tourists" that have been increasing in the US.

I'm sure the main appeal is the benefits of US citizenship, but it also offers a loophole to the one child policy according to Wikipedia: Children born in overseas countries are not counted under the policy if they do not obtain Chinese citizenship.
posted by p3t3 at 10:10 PM on March 16, 2015

I remember that there used to be a lot of talk that the one-child policy would alter the sex ratio in China. Has this happened to any great extent? if so, what are its social effects?
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:05 PM on March 16, 2015

I'm sympathetic to the kids who didn't ask to be born in that situation, and the parents who didn't realise or got shafted on a penalty (like the mom of the kid above the fold), and I hope China at least provides them some relief even if they don't abolish the one child policy entirely.

But the ones who blatantly flouted the system, like that engineer dude who was full aware of what was going to happen and was given multiple chances to change his mind before his resignation was accepted without penalty -- nope, that's your own fault. Seriously, are you even kidding? Look after the wife and kid you've already got.
posted by Xany at 4:22 AM on March 17, 2015

I hardly think your community trying to force you or your partner to have an abortion against your will, and trying to avoid that assault on a persons body is "your own fault."
posted by xarnop at 5:40 AM on March 17, 2015 [11 favorites]

But the ones who blatantly flouted the system, like that engineer dude who was full aware of what was going to happen and was given multiple chances to change his mind before his resignation was accepted without penalty -- nope, that's your own fault. Seriously, are you even kidding? Look after the wife and kid you've already got.

I think that's a very harsh reading of that couple's story. The article said that they had spent years trying for a child and only managed in the end with expensive in-vitro fertilization; the second pregnancy was unexpected and certainly nothing they could have planned. Multiple chances to change his mind means multiple chances to force his wife to have an abortion.
posted by Azara at 5:43 AM on March 17, 2015 [13 favorites]

I think there is a difference between knowing what the consequences are and doing a thing, and feeling that the consequences are in and of themselves unjust.
posted by sciatrix at 7:14 AM on March 17, 2015

But the ones who blatantly flouted the system, like that engineer dude who was full aware of what was going to happen and was given multiple chances to change his mind before his resignation was accepted without penalty -- nope, that's your own fault. Seriously, are you even kidding? Look after the wife and kid you've already got.

Besides, the punishment is so harsh. Honestly, when I was in China I did not realize how harsh. Let's just assume that the policy works on some level (which is dubious) and that therefore there needs to be some mechanism to discourage people from having multiple children. Why not a fine that people could actually conceivably pay? Scaled to their salary, perhaps? Why not school fees on a sliding scale? Or why not incentivize as well - families with only one child get [thing] when the child turns [age]? Or a retirement bonus - have only one child and get [benefit]?

Actually, the main thing that depresses me about this sort of thing is the opportunity that it offers for petty cruelty, and how ready people are to be cruel in petty and ongoing ways, like everyone shunning the ghost girl or taking away her father's ventilator in the hospital. There's no reason to be proactively cruel to people even if you don't want to help them, it's just that humans are utter shit most of the time.
posted by Frowner at 7:21 AM on March 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

from what I know, most of the failures of the one-child policy stem from the same source of most failures in PRC governance - that is of corrupt, lazy officials who rarely coordinate with one another and often have overlapping jurisdictions that results in a race to the bottom of some citizen's meager pocketbooks

the family court, for example, deciding that Little Jie was the third child in spite of the reality of custody doesn't accord with the official state-mandated policy so much as it reflects the insipid bureaucracy and corruption at lower level courts. it could be that if she were living in another province with a better family court judge, she would have faced a much more lenient fee or even no fee at all

this also isn't a story that's just Chinese in nature. fta -

For different reasons, the U.S. military began to sound the alarm in the 1950s, worried that burgeoning Asian populations would provide fertile ground for Communist revolutions. In the 1960s, after the global population passed 3 billion, environmental concerns also arose internationally. The United Nations and the World Bank both advocated population control, the latter deeming unchecked population growth a detriment to economic expansion. Richard Nixon called it a “world problem which no country can ignore.”

this was very much in line with the line of environmental thinking advocated by books like The Limits to Growth and while modern thinking on sustainability has changed to focus on more discrete systems of industry and resource, the policy hasn't really caught up (though there are a lot more exceptions than there used to be). the way this story casts China's view on their policy is comparably critical and dismissive and it smells like a lot of the pro-nationalist, anti-foreign rhetoric you see in US news when it talks about China's (bad but not historically unprecedented) issues of pollution and human rights abuse

I think this story also runs up against a very real issue with public health policy worldwide. when you look at large demographics and you attempt to shift its behaviors with policy, you end up deindividualizing (ie dehumanizing) whole masses of people like Little Jie. but, if the alternative is the fear of uncontrolled population growth producing massive famine and weak sovereignty relative to other geopolitical powers (a very real thing for China in the 70s and 80s) then it's easier to do the former than the latter. a lot of US policies are problematic, for example, because they ignore the individuals in favor of maximizing efficiencies and the markets, presumably for some of the same reasons of geopolitics. it's a logical thing for a state to do and, in its idealized form, it would not have produced such cruddy consequences as it currently exists. it's just that the current balances of power favors Western nations wrt development, trade, and infrastructure and not Asian ones and it's that gap where a lot of these issues of corruption, abuse, and outdated policy fester.
posted by runt at 8:00 AM on March 17, 2015

Joe in Australia,

You might want to check out the phrase "missing women of Asia" coined by Sen. While he was focusing more on South Asia (India and Bangladesh I believe), the phrase has been expanded to focus on the very similar phenomenon in China. Of course the Chinese issue has a different set of root problems that causes it, the one child policy + the desire for a male child being a huge part.
posted by auggy at 9:10 AM on March 17, 2015

Also, previously.
posted by auggy at 9:17 AM on March 17, 2015

I, too, had no idea how much the ghost children were denied, how impossibly unaffordable the reinstatement fees are or that official punishment extended to things like removing the father's ventilator. To my surprise, my admittedly cursory googling couldn't find any NGOs working on the issue, nor did I see any evidence that it's receiving much attention via the organizations concerned about human rights issues in China, which tend to focus on the "one child" policy's impact on the parents. No churches raising money to pay fees or educate children either. Nothing at all. This is so, so wrong.
posted by carmicha at 9:56 AM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

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