BEIJING — Li Xue owes her existence to a potato-peeling accident. Her mother was skinning spuds 22 years ago when the knife slipped and opened a deep cut on her thigh. The resulting infection got so bad that Li’s mother says doctors told her she’d be risking her life if she went through with the abortion she had planned.
Until the policy was reversed at the end of October, China’s strict family-planning controls dictated that many families could have just one child or else they would be fined. As the second daughter in her family, Li was denied a hukou (pronounced “WHO-co”), a crucial household registration document that would endow her with rights as a citizen of China. And so she became one of an estimated 13 million “undocumented” Chinese people.
People without hukous have lived in China for decades as second-class citizens. They can’t legally go to school, hold a job, stay at a hotel, see a doctor, get married or even buy a train ticket.
They often scratch out an existence parallel to that of an undocumented immigrant in the United States: working low-paying or dangerous jobs, always at the mercy of employers and police. While they don’t live under threat of deportation, some of the fears run just as deep. An undocumented man from central China told researchers of his anxieties working on dangerous construction sites: “If I die, no one would even know my name.”
That may be about to change. Chinese President Xi Jinping led a meeting on Wednesday that pledged to grant hukous to all of China’s undocumented citizens. If carried out, that move would resemble the effect of comprehensive immigration reform in the United States: At least 13 million Chinese people — equivalent to the combined populations of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia — would be allowed to come out of the shadows. Roughly 8 million undocumented citizens lack a hukou because of one-child policy issues, with the remainder stemming from out-of-wedlock births, lost hukous and extreme geographic isolation.
It’s a prospect that Li and others like her greet with optimism tempered by decades of frustration with a Chinese police and courts that have manipulated or outright ignored laws inconvenient to their personal and bureaucratic interests.
“I don’t think it matters who says they’re going to solve this problem — what matters is that they actually do what they say they’re going to do,” Li told The WorldPost. “I don’t want these to be empty words. In these 22 years I’ve never actually experienced them doing what they say they’ll do.”
Li was born in Beijing on Aug. 11, 1993. Then, her mother was fired from her factory job and her parents — both of whom are legally disabled — were hit with a fine several times their annual income. They were told Li couldn’t get a hukou until they had paid off the fines they had incurred for having two children.
That practice is illegal in China — a hukou is legally guaranteed for all Chinese citizens regardless of family-planning restrictions — but became common after China’s central government, frustrated by missed population targets, instituted a “one strike and you’re out” policy toward local officials: When it came to promotions, a missed population target would outweigh any good marks on economic growth or other metrics.
“Everybody had to get in line with a very unpopular policy,” explained Mei Fong, author of a new book on the one-child policy. “The stick for the local officials was the [one-strike policy], and one of the sticks for the people was the hukou.”
Li and her family have spent the past 22 years protesting, petitioning, suing and appealing to media, all in attempt to correct what they say is the illegal and unjust withholding of Li’s hukou. Two decades of struggles against intransigent courts and hired thugs have instilled Li with a blend of idealism and cynicism: perpetual hope that Chinese law holds the key to resolving her problem, and fear that the Chinese legal bureaucracy will forever find ways to reject her right to legally exist.
Denied the chance to go to school, Li learned to read and write from her older sister. Her parents taught her how to file lawsuits, stake out government offices and generally make a ruckus. No one in the family has studied beyond than middle school, but they’ve thrown themselves into legal textbooks and court documents about family-planning regulations.
“I know how to use the law to protect my rights and I want to use it to fight for my hukou,” Li said. “I use these legal weapons, but so far they’ve gotten nothing for me.”
The family petitioned and protested outside of government offices. By 1995 — when Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Beijing declaring “women’s rights are human rights” and criticizing forced sterilizations often used to enforce the one-child policy — they had become such a thorn in local officials’ sides that they were put under house arrest, with guards stationed inside the home 24 hours a day.
“The way they keep surveillance over our house, the things that they do,” Li said, pausing and shaking her head at legal documents arrayed on the table. “There’s just no way to describe it in words.”
In the years since, the issue has become an all-consuming family obsession. Prior to the Beijing Olympics, Li staged silent protests in Tiananmen Square, holding a sign reading “I want to go to school” until she was dragged away. Li’s mother says she and her husband were repeatedly beaten by security personnel while protesting. Between 1998 and 2014, Li and her family brought over 20 lawsuits against family-planning officials and police, all ending in failure.
The police station responsible for Li’s hukou declined interview requests for this piece.
Li sees her problem as less to do with the one-child policy itself, and more with a Chinese legal system that protects its own. Her mother describes police, lawyers and judges as “one family,” and Li says she hits rock bottom every time the court rejects one of her appeals.
“When I hear that it just feels like these laws don’t exist — there’s nothing there that forces them to do anything,” Li said. “It’s just another regulation, nothing more.”
If this week’s announcements turn those regulations into action, it wouldn’t just be a victory for equality; it could also give a nudge to the slumping Chinese economy. Recent surveys show that 44 percent of those without a hukou are unemployed, with many more working jobs off the books. Reforms to bring these people into the fold could transform them from dependents weighing on family finances into independent and engaged members of Chinese society.
But according to Wu Youshui, a Chinese lawyer who has taken on aspects of the one-child policy in court, it will take more than an executive order to bring China’s undocumented population onto the grid. Many undocumented residents have never applied for a hukou for fear of the family-planning fines. Fully canceling those fines requires chipping away at vested interests in the family planning bureaucracy, as well as local governments who have come to rely on those fees for revenue.
“We won’t be able to change this family planning mentality in the next two or three years,” Wu said. “Optimistically speaking, it could happen in 2020 at the earliest.”
In the meantime, Li continues to petition the local police and courts. If she wins her hukou, she hopes to find legal work that would allow her to live independently for the first time in her life.
Asked if recent announcements have given her new hope, Li demurs.
“Over the last 22 years I’ve been through too much, seen too much — I can only treat this as a hope,” she said. “I think it’s too early to be happy.”