About 1.6 billion yuan (U.S. $261.5 million) collected in fines—often with the threat of violence or forced abortions—from Chinese families who exceed draconian birthrate quotas are being misused or embezzled by officials, a recent report has shown.
The fines levied across nine Chinese provinces, cities and counties between 2009 and May 2012 for "excess births" were misadministered by local officials, according to a probe by the National Audit Office in Beijing.
The figures were released after a high-profile campaign by 14 Chinese lawyers, who wrote to the Bureau on Sept. 1 to call for a probe into the the way such funds, which are often forcibly levied from impoverished rural families, were being used.
"I think our campaign has had an effect, in that they are paying much closer attention to this area of statistics," Guangzhou-based lawyer Lu Miaoqing, one of 14 women attorneys who signed the letter, said this week.
"I believe that if everyone starts to focus on this issue, they will make it more open and transparent," Lu said.
Lu's hopes appear to have been confirmed with the report, which suggests that money levied from disempowered rural families may be enriching local officials or financing their pet projects, instead of contributing to the social security costs of the extra child, as intended.
"There are a lot of disciplinary issues with the family planning fines issue," Lu said after sending the letter.
"[We should consider] whether criminal proceedings are appropriate where officials embezzle family planning fines, or don't follow the rules in collecting them, or in remitting them to state coffers."
But amid growing public anger over China's family planning regime, transparency activists say the scale of the problem may be far larger than the figures provided by statistics officials.
Zhejiang lawyer Wu Youshui was told that a total of U.S. $2.7 billion (16.5 billion yuan) was collected in fines from parents who had violated family planning laws across 19 provinces in 2012 alone, the New York Times reported on Friday.
Wu told the paper that the fines were likely a substantial source of revenue for governments in poorer regions of China.
In an interview earlier this month with RFA's Mandarin Service, Wu said the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing was aware that problems existed.
"They know there are issues lower down the ranks, but they have covered it up," Wu said.
"I have been trying to get hold of internal statistics and requesting information from provincial- and county-level governments, statistics bureaus and finance departments."
Wu said any cases linked to the family planning fines system would routinely be rejected by courts across China.
"They won't even accept the case, because someone intervenes from higher up," he said.
Zhang Wenfang, a mother of two from Honghu city in the central province of Hubei, said local officials often used low-level coercion tactics to exact funds from the poorest families, including regarding the fines as a type of ongoing debt to the government.
"When they fine you ... they don't say you have to pay it all to the government in one go, but that you should pay some when you have some money," Zhang said.
"This can cost you your life and your health."
Zhang said local officials pay scant attention to the regulations when it comes to levying family planning fines, and frequently use violence to enforce their demands on families who exceed birth quotas.
"Something that should only be a matter of a few thousand yuan (several hundred U.S. dollars) becomes tens of thousands (several thousand U.S. dollars)," she said. "When I was fined, they sent me another demand a few days later."
"They just do as they please; they don't follow national policy."
Zhang, who has tried to lodge a formal complaint against her family planning bureau after being forced to abort her second child at nine months in 2008, said ordinary people faced with such treatment had nowhere to turn.
"Regular folk have no real form of help," said Zhang, who still suffers from the after-effects of the forced abortion and sterilization, and who was forced to pay 10,000 yuan (U.S. $1,630) in fines.
"These officials ... turn what is illegal into 'law' ... and the people can't get justice."
Current family planning rules state that no abortions should be forced, and that none should be carried out after six months.
A Guangzhou-based mother surnamed Huang said family planning fines should be ordered only by courts, and should only be payable once.
However, ordinary people had no protection against official abuse of power, she said.
"They should be able investigate your sources of income and your economic situation, confirm that you have exceeded the quota, and then apply to the court for a fine, which the court would then order you to pay," Huang said.
"The court should receive the money, not the family planning bureau."
Under current family planning rules, urban families are limited to one child, while rural families are allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl.
But celebrities and members of China's political elite often get away with having larger families than most ordinary Chinese.
Many of China's political and financial elite can afford to pay the fines necessary to have large numbers of children, while people without money or connections are routinely forced to undergo sterilization, or to terminate even very late-term pregnancies.
Reported by Lin Ping and Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.