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.

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.