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If Chinese president Xi Jinping is serious about combating corruption, removing obstacles to education, and relaxing China’s one-child policy, he needs to answer for the case of Wang Guangrong. 

Wang, a 37-year-old father of four, killed himself in March 2014 after he was told that two of his children could not enroll in the local public primary school unless he paid the fines for violating China’s family planning policy, which limits most people to having only one or, in some cases, two children. Wang, the father of four, faced a fine of RMB22,500 (US$3,600) – an astronomical sum for an already debt-ridden and ill farmer.

In November 2013, China announced its family planning policy would be relaxed, allowing couples to have a second child if either parent is an only child. While this modest change will affect millions of couples, it did nothing to change the reality that China’s family planning policy remains coercive and abusive.

It is common for family planning bureaus to link the provision of vital services – most notably household registration (hukou), which ensures access to public services such as education – to compliance with family planning policies. The out-of-quota child is denied access to education unless the payment, or “social maintenance fee,” has been settled. In other cases, family planning offices also require that women insert intrauterine devices or get sterilized before registering their children’s hukou.

China’s education law guarantees nine years of compulsory education and the constitution provides for many other social services. And officially, there is no policy linking family planning compliance and hukou. In April 2014, a teacher submitted information disclosure requests inquiring about precisely that relationship, but all the provinces which responded to his request denied that such policy existed. Yet, the latest census results show that 13 million people across the country have no hukou, mostly because of failure to comply with family planning policies.

Adding insult to injury, staggering fines are imposed for violating the family planning policies. In 2012 alone, two-thirds of China’s provinces and municipalities raked in more than US$2.7 billion in family planning fines. It is unclear where this enormous amount ends up – the National Audit Office acknowledged in December 2013 that these fees have been “misappropriated and divided up” by local governments. Much of that money appears to be payouts to family planning bureaus for salaries and bonuses, creating further incentives to impose fines. Police – who administer hukou – get kickbacks, too. In one cash-strapped Jiangxi county, police received over RMB1 million ($160,000) a year for “sponsorship” from the county’s family planning bureau in return for blocking hukou applications from families who have not paid their social maintenance fee.

Wang’s case is a tragic, toxic mix of bureaucratic obstruction and extortion. Xi has the power to resolve these problems. Will he?

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