the politics of backbiting

By now you have probably read that Shenzhen passed a new law that makes it more difficult to avoid the one-child policy by giving birth to a second child outside the country.

Between 2000-2009, it is estimated that the number of Chinese citizens having children in Hong Kong went from 709 to 29,766 annually and was still rising in 2010 and 2011. Indeed, some claim that today almost half of the children born in Hong Kong are born to Mainland families. Of this total, over 25% had Shenzhen hukou. Their children have Hong Kong identity cards, and although the parents must pay extra fees for schooling and medical care, nevertheless, they have avoided “second child fines (二胎罚款)” and other more drastic measures of enforcing the one child policy.

As of January 1, 2013, Shenzhen parents who have a second child abroad and then bring the child back to Shenzhen to raise for more than 1.5 years will be fined up to 219,000 rmb (US $35,000), which is roughly the current fine for second children born to parents with Shenzhen hukou. The fine is set each year by multiplying the average annual salary of the year before by 6 to 8 times. In 2011, the average salary was 36,505 rmb. This means that the 2012 Shenzhen penalties for second children are between 219,030 to 438,060 rmb.

This past spring, the Chinese news was full of speculation about how the government would handle the case of Olympic gold medalist Tian Liang, whose wife gave birth to a second child in Hong Kong. People wondered if Tian Liang would be fined as much as 2 million rmb and, more to the point, if he would loose his job, which is representing China in international track and field events. After all, ordinary government workers are not only fined for having a second child, but also loose their jobs. Thus, the Tian Liang case illuminated how it was possible for the wealthy and influential to avoid the consequences meted out to “common people” who gave birth to a second child in the Mainland.

Today, a friend told me about this new law as an example of the politics of backbiting, after all, it has been the rich and powerful who have taken advantage of Hong Kong hospitals to give birth to second children. Moreover, these are precisely the people who are targeted by ambitious underlings. He asked me to imagine how someone advanced within the government bureaucracy. Not on talent, but guanxi. However, when guanxi failed, it was possible to hire a private detective for 20,000 rmb to follow someone and document when and how they broke a law. He estimated that the first half of 2013 would be interesting to see how the newly pregnant rich and powerful handled the births of their second children; ordinary families became pregnant already prepared to pay second child fines.

Clearly my friend moves in nervous circles, where the law is used as a weapon of political infighting. This was, in fact, his point. Human rights and rule of law will not be established in China, he concluded, as long as careers were advanced and derailed through guanxi and/or backbiting.

“But people still accept this situation,” I commented.

He sighed, before saying, “China isn’t yet so corrupt that the people will risk their lives to overthrow the Party. There are still enough talented people in the government that society works. At some point, the balance will tip and we’ll be in revolt.”

“But now?”

“Now I’m just frustrated. I want out. But there’s nowhere to go.”

A catch-22, in fact. My friend plans to send his daughter to school abroad with the understanding that she not come back, unless it is to work for a foreign company; he believes she will be happier abroad than she could be in Shenzhen. He is not jumping, however, because he also knows the only place to earn the money necessary to launch his daughter abroad is his current, relatively high ranking position within a work unit of trusted guanxi and potential backbiters.