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World End of China’s one-child policy is slowly giving ‘ghost children’ identities

For two years since her second child was born, Eva Kuang debated how to make her son legal.

Because he was born in contravention of China's one-child policy, local authorities demanded that she pay a $60,000 fine before they would assign him a hukou household registration. Without that, he would have no right to function legally in his own country and be denied vaccinations, health care, education and employment.

China ended its one-child policy this year, but "ghost children" like Ms. Kuang's son remained, stuck in a system that demanded heavy penance for bearing illegal children. Even at the age of 2, he had already felt the weight of being different: He could not travel with his mother, who also warned that he might not be able to attend kindergarten.

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That suddenly changed last week, as authorities in Beijing quietly began to strip away one of the last vestiges of a decades-long policy responsible for untold hardship in China – allowing Ms. Kuang and others like her to give their children legal status without first paying punishing fines.

Ms. Kuang, 34, heard about the change on Chinese social media, when she came across two sentences written by Li Xue, a 23-year-old "ghost child" who has waged a decades-long fight for recognition. She wrote: "The Dongcheng police station has started hukou registration. You can go and give it a try."

So at 8 a.m. Thursday, Ms. Kuang arrived at her local police station.

In the past, police always demanded proof that Ms. Kuang had paid her fine. This time, the officer responded: "If we're allowed, I will try to get it done for you today," and checked with a superior, before verifying Ms. Kuang's documents.

"When they finished, they handed me back the hukou book with my son's information entered on one page," Ms. Kuang said. The process took an hour.

"At that moment, the only thing I felt was so much gratitude." Her husband was waiting outside in the car. She broke down in tears when she saw him.

"It felt like I had been relieved of a great burden," she said. Her husband held the hukou document for a long time, not saying much, shocked that in the end the couple's troubles could disappear so easily.

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On social media, she and other parents swapped tales. Some districts – Xicheng, Dongcheng and Changping – were registering children. Others were not, a scattershot approach that has left some frustrated.

Ms. Li herself so far has not been registered. She has filed lawsuits and sent written petitions to police and the public security ministry leaders, who have shuffled responsibility. During China's recent "Two Sessions" political meetings, police tailed her rather than providing her the registration she has long sought.

"My issue has yet to be resolved," she said.

Other areas of China, however, have for months already registered second- and third-born children. In the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, the new era began in January, ahead of the school enrolment season in March, according to local media reports.

In 2010, China estimated that 13 million people had not been properly registered.

Many of them are "ghost children," barred from full status as people by local authorities seeking money, despite laws that date back to 1988 requiring registration of all children regardless of other issues.

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Birth controls still exist in China: The one-child policy was replaced by a two-child policy. In March, Li Bin, the head of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said China still needs to restrict child-bearing. "Our resources pale in comparison with our vast population. Until this changes, we will continue with the current family planning policy," she said.

But the words "family planning" went unmentioned in China's state-of-the-union-style work report this year, for the first time since the advent of the one-child policy. Some observers see that as an indication that population control will soon vanish. In China, political leaders in some regions have already proposed tax and maternity-leave incentives for parents of second children.

For now, however, the two-child policy remains. Child registrations by Beijing police "have an impact on current family planning policy, but have not resolved the root of the problem," said Liang Zhongtang, a demographer from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. He has called for the complete abolition of birth controls.

"It's like trying to ask whether a person should be beaten with one blow, two blows or three. To specify such a thing is meaningless."

Meanwhile, parents are seeing signs that the once-formidable family-planning regime is collapsing. Wang Wenzhong's son was born in April, 2011, his first child with his second wife. Authorities called the boy his third, after counting two children he had in another marriage, and refused to register him.

Mr. Wang sued a local police station and, after losing, appealed to an upper court, which scheduled a hearing for March 30. That morning, he received a phone call. An official asked him to drop his suit, telling him several articles of the Beijing Regulation on Population and Family Planning "were no longer valid," Mr. Wang said.

His local police office said they couldn't register his son until April 11. Mr. Wang is nonetheless thrilled. "After all of our effort and all of our fighting, we are finally able to give our child his identity."

Still, after so many years of strict controls, Chinese families can't help but be suspicious. Before police allowed Ms. Kuang to leave with her son's registration, they asked her to provide contact details. They said it was "just in case there are additional conditions attached to the new rule, or in case it is changed or cancelled."

That warning has stoked worry among parents nervous they will still be charged a fine after registering their child.

But Ms. Kuang didn't stick around to ask more questions. Her son had finally become a person in the eyes of the law.

"I don't want to hear anything of this," she said. "Whatever it is, let it be."

With a report from Yu Mei

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