For Beijing mother Yu Jun, family is simple but means everything to her – a life of two, with her four-year-old daughter Yueyue.
Yu, 46, an English-language tutor, lives in a small but comfortable two-bedroom apartment in the Haidian district. Divorced, she said she did not believe in love and leaning on a man. But she disliked the loneliness in her life, “eating instant noodles and frozen dumplings every day”, living without a goal and any desire.
Her life took a turn when she got pregnant after a date. “I decided to give birth to her so I can live for her,” said Yu. Her daughter was born on August 10, 2009, and the father disappeared.
Then trouble followed. Yu could not file household registration, or hukou, for her daughter because she was single and the father was missing.
“For four years, my daughter has not gained a legal identity. This is killing us because she cannot enter public school and get health care without an ID,” Yu said.
Before her daughter was born, Yu made an anonymous phone call to a family planning committee in a neighbouring community to ask about her situation.
It turned out Yu’s case was in a grey area not defined by law. According to China’s family planning policy, only married women with no children can get a birth permit. And usually no birth permit means no legal identification for the child.
The rules are part of China’s one-child policy, which restricts urban couples to one child as a way to control the population. The 1979 policy has prevented over an estimated 250 million births from 1980 to 2000.
When Yueyue was born, the family planning committee in Yu’s community refused to register the baby, saying that Yu did not have a birth permit and could not prove the legal identity of the father.
“I’ve tried everything, to negotiate, to beg and to threaten them with a lawsuit. It’s not working,” said Yu.
Yu had previously been told that if she paid a fine for not having a birth permit, her daughter could have an ID.
A lawyer from Guangdong, who is not involved in the case, said children are born with the right to hukou.
“The marriage law and juvenile protection law grant children the right of household registration – a right that children are born with,” said Lu Shaoqin, with Guangdong Huanyu Jingmao Law Firm.
Despite the rights defined by national law, Lu said, local governments often make binding rules to limit citizens’ rights.
Governments tend to “consider family planning as a priority over people's interest”, she said. “It’s outdated.”
Public defender Huang Xuetao said the fault lies in China’s rule by law.
“The reason civil rights of single mothers like Yu are violated is because administrative power is above legal power in China. Only when China transitions from rule by law to rule of law can the problem be solved,” said Huang.
Yu is not alone. China’s largest messenger network QQ hosts dozens of active chat groups for single mothers, some with as many as 500 members. In those forums, mothers find an emotional outlet and seek help.
There is 29-year-old Liu Xin, who said she fears marriage after a recent divorce. When she discovered she was pregnant, she decided to keep the baby as a single mother. Her expected due date is in October.
“Children are our hopes, they are our responsibilities. I chose to give birth, and I am responsible,” she said. “But I don’t own [the baby]. It has its own life.”
When Liu failed to gain a birth permit in Wuhan, Hubei province, she moved to her hometown, a secondary city in the central province.
“Smaller cities set the bar lower to get household registration,” Liu said. “If it is a money issue, my parents can help me at the moment.”
Many single mothers like Liu register their children’s identity in smaller cities or even in the countryside.
But Yu, the Beijing mother, did not want to go that route.
“I was born in Beijing and have lived here all my life. My own child cannot have an identity here or elsewhere. I don’t know what to do,” said Yu.
Luckily, her family has been supportive. Yu’s parents are retired professors in their mid-70s. They once lived in Vienna for seven years and have witnessed how a Western society embraces single mothers. They understand and respect Yu’s way of life, but they also worry about the future of their granddaughter.
Even if they were willing to cover the family planning fine, “the family planning committee would not allow it”, said Yu.
Tong Xiaojun, vice-professor at China Youth University for Political Sciences who focuses on children welfare policy, said it would take time to lobby the government to change rules over household registration. “Children of Yu and many single mothers should gain their legal identities,” she said.
Yu has now turned to tracking down her daughter’s father. He left behind his identification card with his permanent address in northern China’s Jilin province, and Yu hopes to register her daughter there because of a looser family planning policy.
She said she used a few thousand yuan to hire a local lawyer to sue the father for custody and to request hukou for her daughter. The lawyer said the local court required a DNA test to file a lawsuit. However, the father was in hiding.
“I will not give up,” said Yu. “I’m prepared to educate my daughter myself if she cannot enter school without an identity.”