My Secret Life as a Forbidden Second Child in China


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.“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. Read more…


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