Zhao Xin had always wanted to be a mother. She didn’t care if the child was a boy or girl — as long as it was hers.
“Of course, the ideal choice would be having both a boy and a girl,” she said.
But having two children wasn’t a possibility for the Tianjin native. Under China’s one-child policy, couples living in cities couldn’t have more than one child.
That policy changed last month. In response to a shrinking labor force and an aging population, the Chinese government announced that couples living in urban areas could have two children. (Couples in rural neighborhoods were already permitted to have multiple children.)
For Xin, this change came too late — and fell short. When she became pregnant in 2005, she was dating her now-husband Jin Yang in Tianjin. Unmarried couples were not allowed to have children at all under the one-child policy. Three months later, a local government employee showed up at her door and alerted Xin that she had to abort the child. Somebody had ratted her out to the authorities.
“To this day, I still don’t know who it was,” she said.
That July, Xin walked into a local hospital. When she came out, she was childless.
Six years later, in 2011, she came to the United States on a tourist visa and applied for political asylum, citing the forced abortion as evidence of the persecution she was fleeing.
Xin’s story has become a standard narrative in China’s history. In the late 1970s, the one-child policy was enacted to address overpopulation in China. Forced abortions and sterilizations soon became customary, one of the human rights issues that prompted some Chinese to flee to the United States.
Approximately 30,000 Chinese nationals have been given asylum status since 2011, according to the Department of Justice, though there are no statistics on how many may have won their asylum claims because of persecution under the one-child policy. Although China still tops the list of asylum grantees in the U.S., the numbers have declined, in part because of improved economic conditions in China over the past decade, according to New York-based immigration lawyer Theodore Cox.
As for those who have already received asylum, Cox said they should not worry about their immigration status in light of the policy changes.
“It has no effect on people who have experienced forced abortions or sterilizations in the past,” Cox said.
For those who haven’t been forced to undergo these procedures, it is also a waiting game. Flushing resident Yunjun Zhang knows this well. She came to the United States in 2011 after being pressured by her employer in Shanghai to get an abortion. After she refused multiple times, Zhang was fired, and her husband, Chen Kexin, received a visit from a government employee.
The couple was given two options: Pay a $400,000 fine and keep the child, or get an abortion. The fine was too steep for Zhang, and even if they paid the fee, the child would be denied hukuo, or household registration. Without this status, a child would not have access to education, health care or even a valid ID.
“This child would’ve suffered if we stayed in China,” she said.
Zhang and her husband left China in November 2011, when she was nearly seven months pregnant. She applied for political asylum within months of arriving in the United States. Now 37 and the mother of three children, Zhang is still waiting for a response.
“If the one-child policy changed back in 2011, then I wouldn’t have come to America,” she said.
Because the full implementation of the two-child policy has yet to take place, lawyer Cox said there should not be notable changes to the asylum process.
Advocates of change in China’s birth rules, such as Rep. Christopher Smith, R-NJ, said last month’s policy changes are not enough.
“The proposal doesn’t change the basic structure of coercive population control, and it is not some major reversal of policy to be lauded. And this so-called reform isn’t a done deal yet,” Smith said at an early December hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of the advocacy group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, said coercion by the state is the “core of the policy.”
“Instituting a two-child policy will not end forced abortion or forced sterilization,” she said.