n August 30, the government of Central China’s Anhui Province released new draft rules on changes to the provincial birth registration code, which will scrap all pre-conditions for registering child births. Anhui is not the only province to launch similar reforms. In May, Guangdong Province became the first to liberalize the birth registration system.
After China adopted the so-called “one-child” policy at the end of the 1970s, which enforced birth restrictions, the registration system was a key component in enforcing China’s family planning policy. Only “legally born” children were allowed to be registered, with those born to unmarried mothers or children born without permission refused. This resulted in a large number of unregistered births in China. Not only did birth registration restrictions deny many people access to public services, like healthcare and education which are tied to an official birth record, it distorted demographic data that could lead to wrong demographic policies.
The existence of a large number of unregistered births is a major reason why China’s official birth rate is considered unreliable. With vastly different estimates on the actual number of unregistered births, experts disagree on what the real birth rate is, leading to conflicting advice on how China should reform its family planning policy.
According to China’s 2010 census, there were about 13 million unregistered citizens, and it is estimated that 60 percent were in violation of the “one-child” policy with the rest born to unmarried or homeless mothers. Since late 2012, Chinese authorities started to grant these people official household registration documentation, which is closely related to the birth registration system. According to the Ministry of Public Security, by the end of 2016, China had provided household registration permits to nearly 14 million unregistered citizens.
As China has gradually loosened related policies, birth registration has become much more straightforward. But as long as restrictions on birth registration exist, it continues to have a major impact on affected populations.
In June 2021, the State Council released a decree to further liberalize the family planning policy to allow couples to have three children. Among the announced support policies, the State Council pledged it would reform the birth registration system to cover the whole population. In December 2021, China’s National Health Commission released a guideline on improving the birth registration system. It is expected that more provincial governments will scrap restrictions on birth registration in the coming months.
These reforms are long overdue. Birth registration should be a system to grant people basic citizen rights, rather than serve as a tool to enforce birth restrictions. According to provincial documents already released, birth registration will no longer be connected to marital status and the number of children a couple has. In short, all children born in China can be registered with the government. If these reforms are effectively implemented, birth registration will be finally restored to serve its original purpose – ensuring people can access essential public services.
Other than scrapping the restrictions on birth registration, the guidelines released by the national government and the plans launched by provincial governments focus on making it easier for people to register a birth. For example, people will be able to register a child in the place of birth, rather than having to travel to where their parents’ household is registered.
As the country shifts its family planning policy from restricting births to encouraging births, reforming the birth registration system should be just the beginning for China to build a more inclusive and people-oriented demographic regime.