A couple who fled mainland China with their three children after years of persecution under the country's draconian family planning policies has been granted refugee status in the United States after more than a decade on the run.
Hu Hanmin and Zhou Xiaoping were repeatedly targeted by family planning officials in their home province of Hunan after giving birth to a second and a third child in breach of population targets.
Zhou said the family spent a decade on the run from officials, hiding out in Tibet, before splitting up to throw off their pursuers.
Eventually, they were caught and detained, Zhou told RFA in Washington this week.
"We had just got back from buying groceries when a minibus pulled up in front of us and a few people got out and asked me if I was Zhou Xiaoping, and told me to produce my child's birth certificate," she said.
"I couldn't, and somehow, I'm not sure how, they got us onto the minibus," Zhou said. "When I woke up, they had already sterilized me."
Zhou said the family were forced to pay a fine of more than 15,000 yuan (U.S.$2,430), more than twice the local average annual income in rural Hunan.
When the family was unable to pay, family planning bureau officials detained her husband, performing a forced vasectomy on him, she said.
Hu escaped to Thailand after his release, to be followed shortly after by Zhou and the three children.
In a quiet voice which still sounds haunted in spite of the family's recent good news, Hu said he hadn't been home for many years, and had been forced to make a living as an itinerant laborer to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
"Laboring in China is extremely tough; it's like being a slave," he said. "Some bosses or gang leaders don't even pay you, so it's a really hard life."
The couple's children, now 17, 12, and 10 have just four years of formal schooling between them.
"My eldest got four years of school in China, and she's 17 now," Zhou said. "The middle and youngest have never been to school, apart from six months of a charity school in Thailand."
While they were in Thailand, the family said they were helped by an "underground railroad" run by exiled Chinese pro-democracy activists and religious rights activists.
Campaign for asylum
Their bid for asylum began after Zhou wrote to U.S.-based dissident and Laogai Foundation founder Harry Wu, who led a vocal campaign among U.S. lawmakers to change the law allowing victims of China's one-child policy to claim political asylum.
Wu told RFA that cases like Hu and Zhou's are a drop in the ocean of similar harassment and mistreatment of families who fall foul of official birth quotas in China.
"Zhou Xiaoping wrote to me five years ago saying she'd suffered forced sterilization under the one-child policy, and had escaped to Thailand," Wu told RFA in a recent interview.
"I got in touch with Congress and the State Department, and they were eventually allowed to enter the U.S.," he said.
"There are many hundreds of times this number of families affected inside China, but the U.S. can't rescue them all."
He said U.S. capacity to accept asylum bids linked to the one-child policy is extremely limited, compared with the "millions" of the policy's victims.
He called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to remove all coercion from its current population controls, and to implement U.N. human rights treaties guaranteeing the freedom to reproduce.
In a purported easing of the world's most populous country's one-child policy, Beijing announced at the end of last year that couples are now permitted to have two children if one of the parents is an only child.
Previously, most parents were restricted to having one child, although many receive exceptions. Urban couples were permitted a second child if both parents do not have siblings, while rural couples were allowed to have two children if their first-born was a girl.
The policy has also some flexibility for ethnic minorities.
However, many couples continue to face large fines, seizure of their property and loss of their jobs, as well as forced abortions and sterilizations, and even violent forced evictions by local officials.
According to Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of California-based Women's Rights Without Frontiers, the changes aren't likely to reduce the number of forced abortions or ease human trafficking in the country.
Littlejohn said Beijing's move allowing couples to have two children if either parent is an only child under a so-called reform of the one-child policy "is not going to end gendercide," the voluntary sex-selective abortion of baby girls.
China's government could reduce the numbers of aborted or abandoned girls by providing economic incentives to families giving birth to girls and special compensation to retirement-age couples who have no sons to support them, she told RFA in an interview last week.
Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.