BEIJING — President Xi Jinping is now be turning his attention to China's so-called "black households," those without an official family registry document, who are thus barred from obtaining legal proof of identity.

But China will need more than Xi's good will to solve the problem, which ultimately can be traced in large part back to the country's one-child policy. People in black households face enormous difficulties enrolling in schools, accessing medical care, registering for marriage, finding legal employment and traveling.

A survey conducted in 2010 suggests that least 13 million people in China — roughly 1% of the population — lack these basic documents. The National Development and Reform Commission found that approximately 60% of these black households involve people born outside of the one-child policy. They are not registered officially because their families couldn't afford the heavy financial and social penalties of having more than one child. The other 40% involve children whose parents were not joined in wedlock, who lost their migration card, or whose birth was simply not reported to the authorities.

Local authorities, in order to reach their birth-control goal, have long levied what is known as a "social compensation fee" in exchange of household registration of any child born outside of family planning regulations. For migrant families, furthermore, adherence to the one-child policy is a requirement for obtaining a permanent residence permit in many big cities, including the capital, Beijing.

This month, in an effort to address the issue, President Xi Jinping announced plans to decouple the family planning policy from the household registration system. On paper, at least, this is a huge step foward given the major social problems and even tragedies that resulted over the years from the linking of these two systems.

Two years ago, for example, a 16-year-old girl from Sichuan province killed herself because she was not registered in her household and was barred from participating in the high school entrance examination. That same year, the Xinmin Weekly quoted an eight-year-old boy saying, "The family planning bureau and public security staff are so evil that I want to join the mafia when I grow up to get revenge on these people." The boy was unregistered because his parents couldn't afford the colossal social compensation fee of 330,000 RMB (nearly $51,000).

Rights vs. regulations

For years, the existence of so many black households has violated the basic principles of modern society, denied these individuals their civil rights, and seriously damaged the Chinese government's image.

President Xi's unprecedented announcement is thus a major step forward since every child, whether they come from a "planned" or "unplanned" birth, and regardless of whether the conduct of their parents meets certain regulations, is an independent person and should enjoy the basic right of citizenship.

Flags in Tiananmen Square, Beijing — Photo: D'N'C

The Nationality Law, furthermore, states that a person with one or both parents of Chinese nationality, and who is born in China, is entitled to Chinese nationality. Thus, to be registered in the family registry is a necessary means of legally confirming one's citizenship and a constitutional right not to be deprived of.

And yet in order for its plans to be effective, the State must simultaneously bring an end to the collection of the social compensation fee. So far it has failed to do so. The result is that many people fear the family planning bureau can still come and force them to pay a penalty once they register their children, which is exactly what happend recently to some families in Jiangxi province. Some are even convinced the new policy is just the authority's way of deceiving them in order to collect the fine.

Shuttered schools

From a legal standpoint, the social compensation fee is deeply flawed. Children are a nation's future. Providing children with necessary public resources is the basic duty of a modern government. Though more children means more demands on public resources, it also means that this "additional" population will in turn create more public resources as adults. In the end, a person's social contribution is generally greater than the burden he brings.

On top of that, children from black households — because they lack documents — are deprived of the legitimate use of most public resources. Thus imposing a further fine on their parents is illogical.

The proportion of children in China's population is at a historic low. In the past decade, in both the countryside and in the cities, a number of primary schools have shut due to insufficient enrollment. In Beijing, for example, the number of primary schools dropped from 2,867 in 1995 to 1,081 in 2012.

With today's low birth rate, families raising more children are actually making a greater contribution to the sustainable development of China. Yet we are forcibly penalizing them with a social compensation fee that these families should be using to support their children.

Impossible hardship

Most of the black-listed people come from the bottom of society, and are thus the least able to afford the collosal social compensation fines. Forcing them to do so pushes them to the brink, sometimes with fatal consequences.

The story of Ai Guandong is a case in point. Starting in 2003, the impoverished farmer's family was hassled with a 7,000-RMB ($1,080) fine. Since Ai Guandong couldn't afford it in one go, officials came to collect money in installments. "Sometimes 200 RMB, other times 300, without any receipt. And then when we had the third child, they imposed a fine of 60,000 RMB ($9,260), which is beyond our means," Ai's wife recalled. Two years ago, when official goons came and forcibly took away 7,000 kilograms of corn — the crop making up the total annual revenue source of the family — Ai committed suicide in despair.

Such extreme examples should push China's leaders to take the demographic reform to its logical conclusion: eliminating the social maintenance fee and give families the true freedom to contribute to the country's future.