The Death of the Hukou-less Baby

(InMediaHK)  Making the News Production Process Transparent.  By Cheung Ta-fung.  August 20, 2006.

[in translation]

The meaning of the Internet for journalism is that it can allow news media to be the subject of public discourse, even if it is just a little bit and even if it is severely restricted.  Unfortunately, the interaction between Hong Kong newspapers/media and the Internet is still stuck at the stage of selling information and advertisements.  The news workers are mysterious gatekeepers whom outsiders cannot scrutinize.

In mainland China, journalism seems to be less free as in Hong Kong.  But the way in which mainland journalists use the Internet is extraordinary and they leave the Hong Kong reporters far behind.  If you don't believe that, you can read Fu Jianfeng's blog.

Recently, Fu Jianfeng wrote a report about a Beijing migrant worker killing his own son under the title of "The Death of a Hukou-less Baby."  Hong Kong newspapers reported on the case as well.  The common opinion is that the hukou system was unfair to migrant workers and this was a situation in which a male migrant worker suffered a case of depression when he was unable to register his son and therefore killed his son.  Fu Jianfeng wrote the report from that angle too.

Fu's report drew some critical comments from several readers, covering his writing style, the rigor by which he verified the information, the correctness of his inferences (is the affair really related to the hukou system?), the balance between the macroscopic view and the microscopic details, the line of Southern Weekend, and so on.  Fu Jianfeng responded in great detail on his blog and presented the entire production process transparently for the readers.


The issues about Fu Jianfeng's interviewing, thinking processes, writing skills, professionalism and objectivity are minor compared to his ability to use new media to present the news production process for the readers to think about and discuss.  This is an invaluable practice of journalism.  Independent media practitioners often claim that this is a special feature of alternative media.  Actually, mainstream journalists can accomplish that.  Fu Jianfeng's practice is better than what many civilian journalists do, and deserves Hong Kong media workers to think about. 


A hkǒu (Chinese: 户口) or hj (Chinese: 戶籍) refers to residency permits (household registration) issued in mainland China (by the People's Republic of China and Taiwan (by the Republic of China). A household registration record officially identifies a person as a resident of an area and includes identifying information such the name of the person, his date of birth, the names of his parents, and name of his spouse, if married.


Persons without a residency permit have much less access to education and government services, and in several respects occupy a social and economic status similar to illegal immigrants in some other countries, such as the United States.

(Southern Weekend)  The Death of the Hukou-less Baby.  By Fu Jianfeng (傅剑锋) and intern Ma Jieting (马捷婷).  August 10, 2006.

[in translation]

The Cause of Killing the Baby

A male baby that lived in this world for only 43 days was killed by his father who threw him into the ground.

During those 43 days, Liu Ruiliang tried everything to get a Beijing hukou for his baby.  After all hope was gone, he put a stop to the small life on Chinese New Year's eve.  Previously, neither Liu Ruiliang nor his wife were aware that he had a severe case of mental depression.  In mid-August, this patient will go on trial at the Beijing city Changping district court.

Some commentators say that the tragedy of Liu Ruiliang is the extreme example of the irrational evolution of the hukou system in Chinese system.  This is a live example of hukou as murderer.  Others say that Liu Ruiliang killed his son mainly because he had a case of depression that has nothing to do with the hukou system.

Liu Ruiliang explained to the police why he killed his son: "If the child cannot be registered into a hukou, he will be a 'black' hukou person who will be subjected to discrimination.  Rather than that, it would be better to relieve him of his troubles early on."

Liu Ruiliang's wife Shi Xiuwen said: "If I did not push him constantly to get the hukou for the child, he would not have killed the child even if he was sick in his head.  Whenever the child cried, he was more worried than I was."  Just like Sister Changlin, she repeated to people: "When the child died, I hated him at first.  Later, I hated myself for pushing him (to get the hukou)."

For a long time, the hukou system has been criticized.  Ever since the "agricultural hukou" was separated from the "non-agricultural hukou," the evolution of the urban hukou system has become more complicated.

The "unit" plays an important role in the administration of hukou in the cities.  Certain people who do not have proper hukou in the city can be included in the "collective hukou" of their units.  Although Liu Ruiliang is married, his wife's hukou is still in Zhuozhou, Hebei and his own hukou was with the Beijing "collective hukou" before he got married.  According to Chinese Renmin University Academy of Labor Studies professor Liu Erfeng, since 1997, the collective hukou has become the principal means of controlling the flow of population into the cities.  If he cannot obtain approval to stay in Beijing, his hukou reverts back to his rural origin.  "Therefore, the collective hukou system is not a perfect system.  It is only a transitional hukou.  By imposing additional conditions before allowing a collective hukou to stay in the city, the population movement is skillfully restricted," said Liu Erfeng.

Liu Ruiliang and his wife hoped that the child could have a Beijing hukou so that he child can attend school and get employment.  But the Beijing hukou registration system requires that the father must have a Beijing hukou while the mother can have an outside hukou, the child must be born after August 7, 2003 and there must be "proof of residence" in Beijing (that is, possession of a home in Beijing).  "Liu Ruiliang makes only 800 RMB per month and I don't work.  Even if we bought the cheapest house in Nankou town in Beijing, our family will have to not eat or drink for fifteen years to pay for it," said Shi Xiuwen.

The Birth of the Baby

Poverty was shadowing this family before it was even formed.

Before getting married, Liu Ruiliang had broken off relationship with his impoverished father and elderly stepmother in a Beijing rural village.  The wedding in 2000 was paid for by Liu Ruiliang's brother and sister and Shi Xiuwen's parents.  For more than four years afterwards, they did not dare to have a child because they had not made enough money.

Their new home was at Liu Ruiliang's unit -- near the Nankou section of Changping, Beijing -- and it was a 10-plus-square-meter rental for 130 RMB per month.  This was a dusty small town in suburban Beijing and they stayed there for five years until the night when the child died.

In neighbor Wu Xiuqing's eyes, Shi Xiuwen was a very frugal housewife.  The couple spent less than 600 RMB per month.  Every afternoon, Shi Xiuwen would set up a stall to earn a little money and she always bought the cheapest food.

Shi Xiuwen was always bothered by the 130 RMB rent: "We spent so much money on this.  Many of Liu Ruiliang's colleagues rent from the unit and pay just over 20 RMB.  He does not know how to speak up and work on the guanxi.  He is so useless."  The honesty and meekness of Liu Ruiliang is legendary in the Nankou section.  A colleague recalled: "He never raised his head when he walked.  He never spoke a word to me.  He never had a friend."

Liu Ruiliang's body is just as weak as his personality.  In 2004, Liu Ruiliang was encouraged by his unit to donate blood and then he became seriously ill afterwards.  "You know, it is normal for healthy people to donate blood, but he was so simple that he did not know how to assess himself."  Shi Xiuwen was crying when she said that.  That illness cost more than 3,000 RMB in medical expenses, but the honest Liu Ruiliang did not expense a single RMB with his unit.

Shi Xiuwen used the money from her stall sales to pay for her husband's medical expenses.  Every afternoon at 3pm, she set up a ground stall at the street of Nankou town.  In the evening, Liu Ruiliang came to meet her and go home.  "We can see that this little couple were meticulous, frugal, hardworking and loving.  The neighbors thought that they were nice," recalled neighbor Xia Sumin.

On November 18, 2005, three days before delivery, Shi Xiuwen came home and saw her husband coughing severely again.  She was worried.  "I asked him to buy some medicine, but he was afraid of spending money.  I was so worried that I began to cry," recalled Shi Xiuwen.  After the fight, this pregnant woman went out to set up the stall.  In the cold wind of early winter, the pedestrians looked at her with shock and sympathy.  But the heavens did not look upon her favorably -- the pregnant woman got wet in the rain, went home, had a bout of vomiting and diarrhea and delivered the baby prematurely three days later.

The premature baby had an excessive heart pulse and his brain lacked oxygen.  The doctor spent one week to save him.  "Whenever the baby cried, I worried, but Liu Ruiliang was even more worried than I was," said Shi Xiuwen.

For the month after leaving the hospital, the parents of Shi Xiuwen had arrived to offer help and they took the baby to Beijing Children's Hospital every day for oxygen.  When Liu Ruiliang had a break from work, he would accompany them.  They would rather take the public bus and stand for one or two hours than take a taxi.  "If we spend 60 RMB a day, that would be 1,800 RMB a month.  Does Liu Ruiliang care about money?  He would not seek treatment if he was ill, but he was unafraid of spending money on the baby," Shi Xiuwen said to herself.

One month later, the child finally recovered.  From the date of delivery back to full health, the family had gone through the more than 20,000 RMB in savings.

The Death of the Baby

It was Chinese New Year's Eve.  The firecrackers were going on in the small town.  In the evening, there was a strong cold wind outside.  Liu Ruiliang turned up the fire inside, and his wife Shi Xiuwen was humming to the child.  The pork elbow was stewing slowly in the wok and the smell of the meat permeated the dingy house.

"That day, we were arguing about the hukou of the child.  The child is more than a month old.  I was worried if he is still unregistered, he will become a 'black' hukou and we would be fined," recalled Shi Xiuwen.

The hukou problem has been worrying them for more than ten days.  Before the child was a month old, Liu Ruiliang had gone to the Nankou government office over the hukou issue.  The hukou police officer said that since Liu had a collective hukou in Beijing, he needed to have proof of residence in order for the child to have a Beijing hukou.  Liu Ruiliang could not afford to buy a house.  So he went to his unit leader and begged the unit to give him a house which he would return as soon as the hukou matter was settled.  But the unit leader did not agree.

From that day on, Liu Ruiliang began to be pensive in an abnormal fashion.  He would laugh out for no apparent reason.  "I did not imagine that he may have a mental problem.  I thought that he was just too tired from taking care of me and my baby," Shi Xiuwen recalled with regret.

When the first approach did not work, Liu Ruiliang could have gone and placed his child's hukou under this father Liu Fuming, who has a Beijing hukou.  But due to the longtime hostility between father and son, he did not want to see his father under any circumstance.

When the child was more than a month old, Liu Ruilaing asked his father-in-law if the child could go under the hukou of the Shi family in Hebei.  His father-in-law said that it would not be problem, except that the local regulations impose a penalty of between 5,000 to 8,000 RMB if the child is more than a month old.  Liu Ruiliang immediately fell into silence.

So the matter was unresolved until Chinese New Year's Eve.  That evening, Liu Ruiliang was silently stirring the pig's elbow and Shi Xiuwen was lying in bed to coax the baby into sleep.  Then she asked him: "Why did you buy the pig's elbow?"  He replied: "If you eat well, you will have milk to feed the baby."  Shi Xiuwen got a little bit angry: "If you don't have the money, you should not buy it."

Liu Ruiliang had nothing to say.  Then Shi Xiuwen brought up the demand again for Liu Ruiliang to put the child's hukou under his father Liu Fuming.  Liu Ruiliang refused again.  Shi Xiuwen got angry: "If you won't go, then I will bring the baby there tomorrow ..."  Liu Ruiliang said; "You can go if you want to go ..."  He then said, "I'll go and sell blood!"  "Go if you want to," Shi Xiuwen said that and then she lied back on the bed again.

"Afterwards, he looked at me with this look."  Shi Xiuwen imitated Liu Ruiliang's look at the time.  Then she heard Liu Ruiliang speaking to himself: "No more, I don't want him anymore ..."

As soon as he finished saying that, he rushed over and began to strangle the baby.  "I do not remember whether I started to pry his hands off first or I screamed for help."  When Shi Xiuwen came to describe this, she was crying uncontrollably.  "Before I could even react, he picked up the child and threw him hard into the ground.  The child was injured ..."

Shi Xiuwen grabbed the child and rushed out of the room.  "It was 6pm in the evening.  When she knocked on the door to call me, she was screaming.  I went out and saw Xiuwen barefoot in midwinter.  The child was naked and he was bleeding in the head," recalled neighbor Wu Xiuqing.  The neighbors wrapped the child with a blanket.  Liu Ruiliang stood in a daze on the side.

On the way to the hospital, Shi Xiuwen told neighbor Xia Shumin: "You keep watch on Liu Ruiliang.  I am afraid that he may be suicidal."  So Xia Shumin went to keep Liu Ruiliang company until the police came.

The child was bandaged quickly at the local hospital and immediately transferred to the main hospital.  After emergency treatment, the doctor shook his head and said, "It is hopeless."  Shi Xiuwen fell down on her knees and begged the doctor to save the child ...

In neighbor Wu Xiuqing's memory, the 43-day-old child had "big eyes, double eyelids, small round face and an really pretty little chin."

The Hukou Net

In Lu Guangyou's view, this tragedy was rare but it was also representative.

Lu Guangyou is a white-collar university graduate.  His hukou is with the Hangzhou Human Resources Center and his wife is in Hunan.  Lu Guangyou wants to have a child with a hukou in Hangzhou, but he is under the same "proof of residence" restriction.  He could not afford to buy a house, so he gets on the Internet and offers to compensate any Hangzhou homeowner who is willing to transfer a home to him for the purpose of getting a hukou for his baby.  But he has still not come across anyone willing to help him.  "Due to concerns over the child's hukou, my wife did not dare to get pregnant over the years ..." said Lu Guangyou despondently.

Li Dongsheng had a similar experience as Liu Ruiliang.  According to a Chinese Economic Times report, university graduate Li Dongsheng got a collective hukou after getting a job in Beijing.  He had a daughter Dongdong with his Jiangxi wife.  But because he could not afford to buy a home, Dongdong could not get a Beijing hukou.

"Certain former privileges that were bundled together with the hukou system have not been severed properly, and certain new privileges have been bundled together now.  This will increase the difficulty involved in reforming the hukou system," a scholar expressed his concerns.

For some years, the National Ministry of Security has attempted to reform the hukou system.  Three years ago, they established a well-thought-out proposal, which has yet to be implemented nationwide.  Observers point out that under the theme of hukou reform, certain hukou systems in the large cities is an "electric fence" for some people (those in the cities) to exclude other people (those outside the cities).  The deep structural reason is that there are too many complicated relationships among the internal interests of the cities and the hukou system.

Hukou experts point out that the breakthrough in hukou reform has to proceed by severing the special privileges of education and job from the hukou system.

For Shi Xiuwen, she is not hoping that this could be realized.

Her current greatest hope is for her husband to be released soon.  "He deserves pity.  I hope that judge will be lenient.  If he comes out early, he can get treatment.  After he gets well, I still want to have another child with him."

After she said that, she was hesitant again.  She rubbed her hands together repeatedly.  When asked for an explanation, she shook her head and the tears were rolling in her eyes.

Finally, she said, "I don't know where the money for the treatment will come from."  Her father explained aside that Liu Ruiliang has been dismissed by his unit and there is no income.  Shi Xiuwen was also found to have a tumor for which there is no money for an operation yet.

In bidding farewell to the reporter, she smiled with sadness: "If he lives, I live too.  If he is ruined, I am ruined too."