China May Lower Fines for Poor Who Violate One-Child-Only Policy

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

BEIJING, Jan. 23 -- Fines imposed on Chinese who violate the country's one-child-only policy may be reduced for the poor, a top family planning official said Tuesday, as authorities stressed a broader approach to population management.

The announcement came a day after state media reported that many Chinese believe it is unfair that the wealthy can "buy" a second child by simply paying fines for breaking the one-child-only rule for most urban couples.

"Rich people and poor people, they are all equal before the law," Zhang Weiqing, the head of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, told reporters in Beijing.

"With very poor families, we may reduce part of the social compensation fee or waive the fee, depending on the actual situation," he said. "As for their other difficulties, we will help them by all means, including providing compulsory education and medical care."

The announcement appeared to be part of a broader attempt by officials to put a more human face on China's much-maligned family planning policies. As the most populous country on Earth -- China has 1.3 billion people -- the country is struggling with an aging population, a growing rich-poor gap, unemployment pressures and continued reports of family planning abuses, including forced abortions and sterilizations.

"Our priority is to invest in human development -- to change from a country with a huge population base to a country with rich human capital," Zhao Baige, vice minister of the family planning commission, said last week.

This month, officials released what they said was their first "population development strategy research report," assembled by hundreds of scholars. That report credited China's national family planning policy with preventing the birth of more than 400 million people over the last 30 years.

The policy has also contributed to an imbalanced sex ratio; allowed only one child, many couples choose to abort female fetuses, in keeping with the traditional preference of the Chinese for boys. According to the population report, there are 118 boys for every 100 girls, and the gap is expected to grow. By 2020, if the current birthrate remains stable, marriage-age men will outnumber women by 30 million, a "serious hidden danger which may lead to social disorder," the report said.

A survey conducted Monday by the China Youth Daily and the popular Web site found that 61 percent of respondents thought it was unfair that wealthy people could essentially afford to have more babies by paying fines. One-third thought officials should develop some punishment other than a fine.

That fines might be eased for the poor shows the great attention the government is paying to public opinion about the rich-poor gap, said Ma Mingjie, director of the Social Research Center of the newspaper, which conducted the survey. "They really want to take some effective measures to ease the tension."

Zhang, the head of the family planning commission, called for the improvement of living standards and the status of women, a social security system for the elderly and stricter laws prohibiting sex-selective abortions. But he did not detail any new major policy changes.

Instead, he and Vice Minister Wang Guoqiang emphasized the complexity of China's population policy, based on residency and other factors. About 36 percent of China's families -- those who live in cities and some rural areas -- are "encouraged" to have just one child; 53 percent are allowed to have a second child if their first baby is a girl. Other families, depending on where they live, are allowed to have two children and, in rare instances, more.

"Actually our policy is a more multidimensional policy," Wang said.

That policy has been abused frequently as local officials manipulated it for financial gain.

In areas where poor, rural families have one child or only two girls, local governments will now give those parents a pension or reward, Zhang said. In an indication of rampant corruption, Zhang said distribution of aid to the poor will be managed by different agencies that will monitor each other.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company