Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017, 7:10 PM CST – China

Society

Extramarital Birth

CARELESS, FEARLESS

One separated couple decided to have a child out of wedlock to challenge rigid legal and social restrictions on unmarried couples and their offspring

Shen Bolun and his five-month-old daughter Photo by CFP

On December 20, 2015, Shen Bolun and Wu Xia took their five-month-old daughter to a medical service center in Beijing for a paternity test. A female receptionist in her 50s received them and asked a routine question about the reason for the test.

“Is it because of divorce or remarriage?”

“Neither. We are not married,” Wu replied.

The woman stared at the couple for several seconds before exclaiming, “What on earth is in these young people’s minds? Do you want to be trendy?”

Wu, a 32-year-old unwed mother in a country that legislates against having children out of wedlock, was not surprised by this reaction. She had experienced similar responses at the city’s family planning offices, hospitals and archives.

Nevertheless, a paternity test was a precondition that would allow Wu and her ex-partner to pay a mandatory fine for having a child out of wedlock, which would, in turn, qualify their daughter for a household registration permit, or hukou. Effectively an internal visa, the hukou grants Chinese nationals access to social services and welfare in their city of birth only. Without one, parents struggle to get their child a place at a public school, or subsidized treatment at a local hospital.

By the time she arrived at the medical center, Wu had been busy trying to resolve issues like these for several months. She told our reporter that she regretted not having her baby abroad.

“It’s so difficult to be Chinese, isn’t it?” She said.

Five months ago, Wu and Shen were already making headlines. They broke up when Wu was three months pregnant, but both were determined to keep their child. On the day of their daughter’s birth, they launched an online crowdfunding project called “Funding for the Fine for Our Newborn Baby Who Can’t Get Her Hukou.” The project raised an average of 10 yuan (US$1.57) from each donor, amounting to a total of 43,910 yuan (US$6,872).

“When it comes to our seemingly silly and ridiculous decision, don’t take out your wallet too quickly, or criticize too hastily. We are not looking at your wallets, but your eyes. We want to talk with you,” the couple wrote on their crowdfunding page. “We believe that reproductive rights shouldn’t be bound to marriage. As victims of these restrictions, we have to speak up and make our voices heard by more people.”

Fines

As an unmarried pregnant woman, Wu Xia received a mandatory “List of Materials to be Prepared for the Payment of Social Maintenance Fees” from Beijing’s family planning department, so she could pay the fine. This document included 12 “clauses” and two “notices.” Besides copies of Wu’s ID card and hukou, she also had to compile materials proving her marital status, employment history and income.

That communication from the local government was the first time Wu had heard of “social maintenance fees.” A female clerk who met Wu at her local branch of the Beijing family planning department told her that there was a much easier and more economical way to solve her problem: get married and then immediately get divorced. With a marriage certificate, even if the marriage had ended, Wu was told, she and Shen would never have to pay a fine or go through the long and troublesome process of acquiring a hukou for their daughter.

However, rather than participate in a sham marriage, the couple chose the hard road.

The social maintenance fee for the first child born out of wedlock to a Chinese national is calculated according to the previous year’s average annual income in the jurisdiction where the mother’s hukou is registered – in Wu’s case, Beijing in 2014. In addition, all healthcare costs were to be borne by Wu – costs that would have been covered by her social insurance if she had acquired a marriage certificate and birth permit.

“The whole process is actually a secondary victimization of unwed mothers,” Wu told NewsChina. Different policies for unwed mothers and their children, along with social condemnation, she argued, all “punish you from different angles.”

Choice

At 11:38 AM on June 21, Father’s Day, Shen Bolun met his daughter for the first time.

Shen was born in 1989. A communications major, he graduated from university in 2012, and left a “worthless” job after a year to found his Internet startup “+box.” Shen’s project aims to pose one question to 1,000 young people in 10 cities: “Given the chance to ask one question of your peers worldwide, what would your question be?”

Speaking to our reporter from behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses, Shen loves to question and challenge authority. His project, he says, “is trying to show and explore young people’s reflections on the world and themselves and encourage them to think independently, explore themselves, understand themselves and realize their life goals.”

Wu, six years Shen’s senior, was born in 1983. At 18, she enrolled in prestigious Peking University to study finance, but dropped out one year later. She then went to the US and completed a double major as well as an MBA. After working for six years as a management consultant, she changed direction and founded an educational organization that aims to cultivate civic awareness and creativity in young people.

In December 2013, Shen met Wu at a public event. Both remarked that they fell in love immediately and viewed themselves as soulmates. In the eyes of their friends, they were a perfect couple who had matching values and independent personalities.

A year later, Wu became pregnant. Using an account the couple created on the social media app WeChat, Shen published an article entitled “A Letter to Our Future Child.” The next article, published on January 18, 2015, was titled “We Don’t Plan to Get Married and We Have Broken Up.”

One thing remained the same, however. “To have our baby was a mutual decision,” the article ran.

Right

Shen is fond of children, and hopes to be a responsible father. In his opinion, breaking up and having a child are separate issues – what matters, he says, is being honest with your child, and giving him or her your love. Shen’s own parents did not have a good relationship, but remained together, in Shen’s words, “hurting each other under the same roof.”

“A pro forma family isn’t a real family,” said Shen.

When Wu turned 25, she told herself that even if she could never find true love, she would have a child. “I expected surprise and enlightenment to come with a child,” she told our reporter. “The bond [between mother and child] is much stronger and more magical [than a romantic bond],” she said.

In May, the couple initiated their crowdfunding project with the hope of raising public awareness and discussion on the limited reproductive rights of Chinese citizens. In exchange for financial support, Wu and Shen determined to maintain “an open accounting” of the whole process of seeking a hukou for their daughter. In six months, they told supporters, each donor would receive a record of their child’s development.

In just 16 hours, the project had received 9,581 yuan (US$1,499) from 312 supporters. The project was then suddenly taken offline with no explanation from the website, with all donations automatically returned. The couple had to relaunch their project through their WeChat platform.

This time, due to the less public platform, funding trickled in more slowly. Nevertheless, by September 28, Wu and Shen had received 30,530 yuan (US$4,778) from 1,777 supporters. They decided to use 17,770 yuan (US$2,781) of this to pay their social maintenance fee and donate the rest to other charitable projects.

Despite receiving support, Shen and Wu were also singled out for criticism. Most negative commentators accused Shen of being “irresponsible,” while Wu was dismissed as “willful.” Even Shen’s father came out in opposition to his son’s decision to have a child out of wedlock, but donated 10 yuan (US$1.57) anyway with a message that “I give you my support because I respect life.” One of Shen’s cousins told him to tell Wu that she “should be more reasonable, and shouldn’t repeat such regrettable things in the future.”

Despite the challenges they have faced, the couple’s daughter is a reality on which both parents are able to focus. Though Shen began a new relationship two months before her daughter was born, the couple still care for their baby together. For the first month, Shen lived in Wu’s home, and helped as much as he could. Even after he moved out, he has continued to visit his daughter almost every day.

Shen and Wu nicknamed their daughter Wu Suowei, which, in Chinese can mean both “careless” and “fearless.”

In a letter to her daughter, Wu wrote: “The only decision I won’t ever regret was to have you. Maybe one day you’ll feel sorry for your mom and dad and blame us for our decision. It was a willful decision, but never an impetuous one.”

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