What will happen to China's undocumented "ghost children" after the one-child policy ends?. Image 1.

What will happen to China's undocumented "ghost children" after the one-child policy ends?


On Thursday morning, the Chinese Communist Party ended its “one child” policy, the New York Times reports, a policy that has been widely criticized as oppressive and considered a failed social experiment. According to the experts we spoke with, it is not enough to deal with the real issues: the legal status of China's undocumented children, the skewed gender ratio of the population, and the infringement of reproductive rights and of the rights of rural people living in cities.


Marina Galperina

Additional reporting:

Sophie Weiner,

Kelsey Lawrence

For decades, parents of second children were fined extensively and faced innumerable social repercussions. Many families could not bear the cost of the fine, and their children were effectively hidden and denied "an official status."

Earlier this year, The Globe and Mail profile of "China's ghost children" detailed the trials of these families: Without the legitimate household registration document hukou, the "ghost children" could not obtain a national identification card, a passport, or a bank account; they could not access basic medical services or public transportation and were unable to rent an apartment or work a legal job. As the family's potential penalties compound year after year, the goal of legitimizing their undocumented child becomes less feasable.

According to a brief and vague Xinhua news agency announcement, urban married couples are now allowed to have two children, as part of the party’s plan “to counter the aging of the population” of the labor force, much to the disbelief and even apathy of the population.

on the cover

Young, orphaned Chinese children eat a meal during feeding at a foster care center on April 2, 2014 in Beijing, China. China's orphanages and foster homes used to be filled with healthy girls, reflecting the country's one-child policy and its preference for sons. China says it has 576,000 orphans in its child welfare system, though outside groups put the number at closer to a million. In many cases an unwanted baby is never registered so the parents can skirt the one-child policy if they try for another.

PHOTO BY Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Why has the public reaction been so “restrained”? How will this policy change affect the millions of “ghost children” and will they be able to apply for identification to be legitimized as Chinese citizens? Does this policy change reflect any admission of a mistake on behalf of the government? Is this a move forward? With little information to go on, we reached out to journalists who have reported on the law and its consequences, as well as public policy organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.


Nathan VanderKlippe


The Globe and Mail correspondent, Beijing, writer of "The ghost children: In the wake of China’s one-child policy, a generation is lost"

At this point, it’s not clear what the effect will be for undocumented second children. But I did interview one person today who said some parents of those children were brought in for consultations this summer on a draft policy that would set the fine based on the year the child was born. This would dramatically decrease the fine for many parents, and make it much easier for some to resolve the issue.

That said, it was a draft document, and these things can take time to percolate through the system here. All we have so far is a single line in a communique saying all couples will be allowed two children. We know nothing more at this point.

13 000 000

people did not have official documentation in China in 2010

Census via The Globe and Mail



Doug Saunders

The Globe and Mail International-Affairs Columnist, Author of Arrival City and Muslim Tide

Many citizens of China have second children and they’re not illegal. The policy has been applied very differently over the years in different regions and cities in China. Generally speaking, in rural areas it’s acceptable to have two children (for a number of reasons related to how rural life works) and many people do.

[As far as undocumented children], I don’t know if there’s a retroactive policy, or how the new policy is going to work.

I don’t think moving from a one-child to two-child policy is going to affect the big problem which is sex inequality. There’s a much larger ratio of males to females in China. Interestingly, that’s a much bigger problem in rural areas than urban areas. Many of the rural provinces have an average of 1.6 boys for every 1 girl—16 boys for every 10 girls—whereas in the cities, it’s much closer to even. I don’t think this new child policy is going to solve that problem. People with lower incomes from poor, rural areas want to have more children. Generally, urban Chinese people are like urban people everywhere, which is they have about 1.5 children on average. That’s true in almost every urban area in the world—Iran, Brazil, the U.S. I think the interesting change will be in rural areas.

[The people] are skeptical because it’s not dealing with the real problem. The real problem is the people who have more children are rural people living in the big cities. In the big cities, if you don't have an identity paper you’re not allowed to bring your children into school, whether there’s one or two of them. That’s the bigger problem; people from rural areas are not allowed to live in bigger cities. They’re not allowed to have any citizenship rights in cities. That’s 200 million people right there.

Population of China














Richard C. Bush

Director, Center for East Asia Policy Studies, Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies, Brookings Institution

I expect that there hasn’t been a public reaction because people are waiting to see how the policy is implemented. 

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) never admits mistakes. I expect if Party officials were to answer your question [about the policy's failures] they would say that the CCP always adopts policies that are appropriate and adjusts to changing circumstances.

It will be interesting to see whether China follows the pattern of all developing countries, that over time couples voluntarily choose to limit family size (which means it’s no longer necessary for the state to do so). I expect that pattern is already taking hold in the cities, but will take longer in the countryside.

Most elderly population on the planet

China's government has said the country could become home to the most elderly population on the planet in just 15 years, with more than 400 million people over the age of 60. CNN


Robyn Shepherd

Deputy Communications Officer, Amnesty International, USA

Our statement on the policy change can be found here. William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International: “The move to change China’s one-child policy is not enough. Couples that have two children could still be subjected to coercive and intrusive forms of contraception, and even forced abortions—which amount to torture. The state has no business regulating how many children people have. If China is serious about respecting human rights, the government should immediately end such invasive and punitive controls over people’s decisions to plan families and have children.”

As to the ghost children, we’re still trying to determine what this means for them ourselves, as what we’ve seen isn’t clear. 

Forced sterilizations and abortions in China

In 1983 alone, 20.7 million Chinese women were sterilized, and there were 14.4 million abortions. Many were not done by choice. The Globe and Mail

Amnesty International has continued to receive reports of coerced abortions—which are technically illegal—and sterilizations in China. In 2010, 1,377 relatives of couples targeted for sterilization in Puning City, southern China, were detained in an apparent attempt to pressure the couples to "consent" to sterilization. Amnesty International


Sophie Richardson

China director at Human Rights Watch

I don’t think it changes very much for [undocumented second and third children].

I’m trying to think of similar situations where some kind of status was granted retroactively, and I can’t think of any. Today, the State was pretty explicit in saying that “married couples from now on can have two children.” It wasn’t saying “single parents” or “all second, third and fourth children—out of quota children"—are now okay. In a way, that would be the far more exciting announcement.

While a two-child limit is better than a one-child limit, the ideal limit is no limit. It does nothing to provide any redress for the gross violations we’ve seen take place in the name of this policy in the past. It doesn’t do anything to mitigate the prospect of those abuses in the future. It leaves in place the full architecture of state and family planning, which is highly intrusive, completely personal, and completely legally baseless. It doesn’t [address] the most fundamental and problematic realities. This is a realm the state has no business in at all, and so while it’s a minor step in the right direction, we need to see the policy wholly abolished, not just tampered with.

I do think they’re concerned about the demographic shape of the population; they’re clearly concerned about the workforce. They’re clearly concerned about being able to support, in all senses, an aging population. Are they looking to set right the derivative abuses of the policy? I doubt it.

I’ve been watching some of the coverage today, and while some of the people in big cities are saying “It’s great to be able to do this, and I can afford to because I have the resources to do it and now the legal permission to do it!” there’re also a lot of people saying it’s too little, too late, and there’s nothing to redress past abuses.

Children in rural areas

Because peasants, the majority of Chinese population, rely on male offspring to serve as major manual laborers on the family’s farm, the inflexible policy that restricted rural households to one child often meant impending poverty, even starvation, for households with a single female child. The 1983 campaign was thus greatly resisted in rural area, occasionally in a subdued, tragic way, such as through infanticide.

For years, rural peasants whose first child was a girl were permitted to have a second child. In addition, couples who are both ethnic minorities and couples who are both only children were already allowed to have a second child.

Of the roughly 380 women who married between 1979 and 1987, 88 percent named a one-son-one-daughter family as the ideal [in a survey of residents of the Shaanxi villages]. Of 150 family heads asked their reaction to the old saying "more sons, more happiness" (duozi duofu), 91 percent rejected it outright. One child was clearly too few, for hazards of disease or accident could take it away, leaving a couple without issue. In short, two children were needed to guarantee one. And one of these had to be a boy.

Jiang, Lijing, "China's One-Child Policy", Washington Post, Susan Greenhalgh, "The Peasantization of the One-Child Policy in Shaanxi"


I think setting the situation right, as opposed to simply acknowledging the past policy wasn’t correct, would require prosecution and removing the states entirely from issues around reproductive rights. An implicit “oops, maybe that wasn’t such a great idea”  is pretty cold comfort for people who really just suffered tremendously.

One issue we’ll be watching over the coming years is this: is this an issue of the fines collected for having too many children or out of quota children? In the past it was one heck of a money spinner for provincial authorities, and one wonders how they’ll react to the end of an interesting revenue stream. That’s not a small thing for some of those provinces.

But I think we’re going to have to wait 5,10,15 years to see how these questions play out.

in Shanghai today, the average fertility rate is 0.7, far below the 2.1 rate that is needed to maintain a population. The Globe and Mail


Mei Fong


Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of One Child: The Past and Future of China's Most Radical Experiment

It's unclear what this latest decision by China to move to a "two-child" policy will mean for undocumented second and third children. I suspect it won't change their status. There is already an existing nationwide regulation that these people are entitled to hukous, or household registration, regardless of whether their parents paid fines—called social compensation fees—for breaking policy rules, but this is obviously not followed.

In recent years, legal challenges to this have mounted. Most cases are dismissed and never make it to court. Claimants saw glimmers of hope in a 2013 ruling where two provinces, Shandong and Jiangxi, ruled that hukous must be issued regardless of whether social compensation fees have been paid or not. (But the Xi regime's recent crackdown on lawyers will likely mean fewer legal officers will be brave enough to undertake these kinds of cases in the future.)

Issuing more hukous is a contentious issue for crowded cities like Beijing and Shanghai, anxious to limit the number of residents drawing on their social services and resources. (A Beijing hukou, for example, is much coveted and can be worth over $100,000 on the black market.) With an estimated 13 million hei haizi in China, resolving this will be a major headache for authorities in years to come.

We mustn't forget that this move to a two-child quota doesn't spell the end of family planning regulations. What we now call the "one-child policy" for convenience is a set of rules that govern and limit childbearing in China, and restrictions still in place. Despite what wags say, there's still no "womb to move."

In face of overwhelming evidence of the damage the one-child policy has wrought on China's demographic future, what's surprising is how slow and incremental the Communist Party's response has been to ending this unpopular and damaging policy. Part of this reason is likely a disinclination to acknowledge the problems this policy has caused in skewing gender and age imbalances. In terms of long-lasting damage, the one-child policy's side-effects will linger for decades, outstripping the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

Heihaizi (Chinese: 黑孩子; pinyin: hēiháizi) or "black child" is a term applied in China. The term denotes children born outside the One child policy, or generally children who are not registered in the national household registration system. Without birth and Hukou registration, the child cannot inherit or obtain property, receive insurance coverage for medical or social purposes, collect financial aid, or attend school unless financial penalties are paid. These “black-listed children” are also denied many rights when they become adults. They are unable to apply for government or other jobs, get married and start a family, or join the armed forces.[7] Aside from illegal occupation that does not require registration, such as organised crime and prostitution, Heihaizi have the option to remain with their family and assist with private work, such as agriculture or private businesses. Wikipedia.