China’s One Child Left Behind

It wasn't just the sex. On Dec. 28, at a gala launch of china's state-run TV Olympics coverage, celebrity sportscaster Zhang Bin was confronted by his distraught wife, Hu Ziwei, another well-known newscaster. Before a stunned audience, Hu grabbed the mike and denounced Zhang for having an affair. A short clip soon showed up on YouTube, and Chinese Web sites exploded with gossip, including unconfirmed charges that he'd impregnated both his wife and mistress. Such allegations are doubly controversial in China, for they would make Zhang both an adulterer and the latest in a string of wealthy Chinese officials, entrepreneurs and celebrities to flout the country's famous one-child policy—a wave of resistance that has Beijing anxiously searching for means to bring things back under control.

For 30 years, China has banned most urban couples from having more than one kid. But though the penalties for breaking the rule can be steep—including fines of up to six times a couple's annual income—more and more Chinese are starting to ignore them, because they have either the money or the connections to do so. In Hunan province alone, 1,968 government workers violated the family-planning law between 2000 and 2005, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

This phenomenon is yet another sign of China's growing riches. But it's also threatening the viability of the one-child policy and enraging ordinary Chinese, who see it as yet another difference between the haves and have-nots. It's impossible to pinpoint the number of "extra births" which are, after all, clandestine. They may not be statistically significant in such a huge country. "The number of violations [by] the rich and famous is not a lot," says Zhang Weiqiang, a top family-planning official. "But it has a very bad social influence." Liu Dalin—a scholar and curator at a Suzhou museum devoted to the history and sociology of sex in China—says, "This is not just an individual matter; it has created problems for society."

The one-child rule was enacted in 1980 by Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping as part of his campaign to slow population growth and reduce poverty. Exemptions, some added over the years, include cases of divorce, adoption, marriages between single children (since their progeny will likely have to support four grandparents), and rural citizens, who still comprise more than 60 percent of the population and are allowed a second child if their first is a girl.

With the explosive growth of the private sector and increasing population mobility, compelling couples to limit family size has become harder. Xiao, a successful Beijing real-estate broker who asked not to use his full name to avoid legal repercussions, says enforcement among city-dwellers is now "only really strict for government employees" who risk losing their jobs. Xiao himself already has a daughter but is preparing for the arrival of lao er—"number two"—in April. He says his daughter is always asking 'When will you make me a brother or sister?'"

Urban yuppies like Xiao resort to numerous tactics to skirt the law. Some simply pay the penalty, which can be as high as $130,000. In Shenyang, meanwhile, one entrepreneur paid nearly $20,000 to a surrogate mother to bear him an additional child. Another businessman had children with several wives whom he divorced in turn. And in 2006, one crooked minister in Hainan, Deng Shanhong, was found to have six mistresses—and a child with each.

Then there are the celebrities and the superrich who arrange to have their extra births in foreign countries like Canada. A more popular (and less expensive) tactic among the well-to-do is to deliver in Hong Kong, as Xiao plans to do, since kids born there don't violate the mainland law. To discourage the cross-border baby boom, Hong Kong authorities now require mainlanders to prebook hospital beds and pay in advance. But couples like the Xiaos happily shoulder the expense, which in their case totaled more than $4,000. He claims he and his wife never felt much pressure to conform to the law.

What makes all this awkward for the regime is the link between extra kids, rich, crooked cadres, and concubines. Last year, a study by Chinese prosecutors concluded 95 percent of corrupt officials had mistresses; one of the most senior was National Statistics Bureau head Qiu Xiaohua, who reportedly bankrolled a mistress and an illegitimate daughter using money from the Shanghai pension fund. The case fueled public perceptions that having extra kids has become a new form of corruption. Resentment has been further inflamed by the fact that, while urban enforcement is increasingly lax, many rural Chinese still complain of harsh and extra-legal sanctions. To compensate, authorities have warned that entertainers who break family planning rules may be publicly "outed"—or even barred from winning awards. And regional officials are upping the ante; in Hunan, for example, the provincial parliament is considering raising the fine to as much as eight times the average per capita income, or roughly $12,000. Authorities in Henan and Zhejiang provinces are also discussing harsher punishments.

Yet authorities need to move delicately. Though ordinary citizens resent the privileged few who can enjoy extra children, they're quick to take to the streets if the rules are enforced too strictly among their own ranks. In the 1980s, Beijing was heavily criticized at home and abroad for using forced abortions—sometimes in the last trimester—to enforce family planning laws. While that practice has diminished (though not disappeared), other heavy-handed tactics remain in use in the hinterland. Last May, riots exploded in rural Guangxi province after local officials began forcibly confiscating the property of families who had borne extra children. And in one Hunan county, cadres abducted a dozen unregistered children (some of them adopted) and demanded that their parents pay "fees"—more like ransoms—for their release. Among such families, gossip about Zhang Bin is likely to stir up volatile emotions. Neither he nor his wife nor his alleged mistress has commented on the rumored pregnancies, but the larger issue won't go away. Signs are that as more Chinese grow rich enough to violate the one-child rule, more of them will.