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The Chinese City That Wants To Fine Unwed Mothers

A shocking measure...
A shocking measure...
Wang Feng and Wen Jing

Last week, the city government of Wuhan, in central China, published a draft law on population and family planning management that quickly became national news. The bill charges “social maintenance fees” against unmarried woman who have given birth to a child but could not provide valid identification of the child’s father, or those who have a child with a man they know to be married.

Critics say the measure is meant to simply punish unwed mothers, and the question has sparked a heated debate across China. On June 2, Wuhan authorities were forced to release a statement saying that the regulation was still in draft stage and that they welcomed public discussion on the issue.

But the main question remains: is there any legal basis for imposing a “social rearing fee” on single mothers?

Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, said such legislation would overstep the Family Planning Bureau’s authority. “The main function of the Bureau should be promoting healthy and hygienic living, not administrating fines and other forms of punishment,” he said.

Since 1995 the functions of the Bureau of Family Planning have been gradually transformed from punishing couples who have more than one child, to providing disease prevention and birth control services.

In 2013 the Bureau was folded into the Ministry of Health, further reducing its authority and focusing on addressing China’s low fertility rates and aging population.

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In Beijing - Photo: Bill Holler

Wang believes the Wuhan government’s new draft has no legal basis. “The Bureau of Family Planning should not be made the upholder of social integrity,” he said. Wang asks: Does China need an “ethics police” to regulate the way its people live with fines and other forms of punishment?

Pressures on unwed mothers

Having children outside of marriage should be an issue resolved between each man and woman involved, says Wang. Were a dispute to arise, the involved parties can resort to legal channels. Under the current system, China's family planning departments should be forced to become service-oriented. They are not there to administrate social values.

Most Internet users weighing in on the issue agree with Wang. Many of them worry about the fact that women are the ones who will be punished, and that men will not be held accountable, even though they have just as much social responsibility. Wang says that there is indeed distinct gender discrimination in the Wuhan government’s scheme.

Unwed mothers are already facing economic and social pressures. They are already a vulnerable group,” Wang says. “The Ministry of Health should be providing help to them instead of punishing them. Such discrimination and punishment will only exacerbate existing problems of abortion, child abandonment and child trafficking.”

The so-called "social maintenance fee" has been highly debated in recent years. Although the Population and Family Planning Law provides for this fee to be paid over to the state treasury, in reality most of the money is not turned over. Not only have local governments been allowed discretionary power on how to impose the fines, but the use of this revenue is anything but transparent.

However, as Wang points out, the fact that Wuhan authorities published their draft on the government website is a positive sign. At least the public has been given the opportunity to join the debate before any law is passed and implemented.

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Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Noel, a Cuban engineer who had to emigrate to the faraway island of Saint Lucia, tells about the Cuban government's systematic intimidation techniques and coercion of its professionals abroad. He now knows he can never go back to his native island — lest he should never be allowed to leave Cuba again.

Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Next stop, Saint Lucia

Laura Rique Valero

Daniela* was just one year old when she last played with her father. In a video her mother recorded, the two can be seen lying on the floor, making each other laugh.

Three years have passed since then. Daniela's sister, Dunia*, was born — but she has never met her father in person, only connecting through video calls. Indeed, between 2019 and 2023, the family changed more than the two little girls could understand.

"Dad, are you here yet? I'm crazy excited to talk to you."

"Dad, I want you to call today and I'm going to send you a kiss."

"Dad, I want you to come for a long time. I want you to call me; call me, dad."

Three voice messages which Daniela has left her father, one after the other, on WhatsApp this Saturday. His image appears on the phone screen, and the two both light up.

The girls can’t explain what their father looks like in real life: how tall or short or thin he is, how he smells or how his voice sounds — the real one, not what comes out of the speaker. Their version of their dad is limited to a rectangular, digital image. There is nothing else, only distance, and problems that their mother may never share with them.

In 2020, Noel*, the girls' father, was offered a two-to-three-year employment contract on a volcanic island in the Caribbean, some 2,000 kilometers from Cuba. The family needed the money. What came next was never in the plans.

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