For three years, she and her husband had worried about the status of their younger child, Tutu. He was born outside the one-child limit China set for most urban couples and lacked a hukou, the crucial household registration document all citizens need to attend state schools, receive health care, marry, open a bank account or even buy train tickets.
Beijing officials had told Ms. Zhang and her husband that their son would not receive a hukou unless they first paid a fine for having violated the family planning law, 300,000 renminbi, or about $45,000, which the family could not afford.
Then last month came what seemed like good news: The State Council, China’s cabinet, ordered local governments to come up with measures to register all citizens. The Jan. 14 directive said the hukou was a “basic right of citizens” and barred local governments from imposing any conditions that would prevent citizens from registering.
Coming after China’s new family planning rules had taken effect, which allow all couples to have two children, the hukou directive brought sighs of relief from Ms. Zhang and many other parents whose children could finally come out of the shadows.
“I was very excited when I saw the State Council directive,” Ms. Zhang said.
But instead of clearing up the issue for the estimated 13 million Chinese who lack hukous, 60 percent of whom were born outside the one-child limit, the State Council directive has left many parents of unregistered children confused and fearful. They worry that they will still be asked to pay a fine. And they fear that if they request a hukou for a child who was not previously declared, they will be handing officials information that could be used to penalize them for violating the previous family planning rules.
“We’re very worried and scared because we don’t know if we’ll still be asked to pay the fine,” said Ms. Zhang, 38, who asked that her full Chinese name not be used. “It could be that it will be even easier for them to fine us.”
“It’s really a lot of money for us,” said Ms. Zhang, who has a master’s degree in computer science and worked at a leading communications company for a decade. “It impacts a family tremendously to be fined tens of thousands.”
Some provinces have announced that while paying a fine will no longer be a precondition for obtaining a hukou, families who violated the old rules will still be required to pay fines for children they had when the rules were in effect.
In the southern province of Guangdong, public security and family planning officials said a fine would no longer be a precondition for a hukou for children born in violation of the national policy,
The Southern Metropolis Daily reported. However, their families would still have to pay fines for those children or risk being taken to court.
In Jiangxi Province in 2014, the provincial government had similarly declared that it would not make paying the fine a prerequisite for getting a hukou. But some families who registered children born in violation of the policy were forced to pay afterward.
Government officials in Beijing and many other parts of China have yet to disclose how they plan to carry out the new hukou directive and whether fines will be imposed retroactively.
“I’m now worried the local government might use the new directive as a trap to fine us once they learn we have a second child,” said a 43-year-old Beijing resident who asked that only his surname, Cheng, be used because he has not gone to the authorities to register his second child, who was born in July.
Mr. Cheng’s wife was fired from her job at a state-owned company after the couple, both in their 40s, decided not to terminate her pregnancy.
Officials at the Chaoyang District Family Planning Commission in Beijing, which had demanded more than 300,000 renminbi from Ms. Zhang and her husband, said they were awaiting instructions from the Beijing Municipal Family Planning Commission on how to proceed under the State Council directive.
A woman who answered the phone at the municipal commission said it had followed orders from the Beijing municipal government, and the government’s current position was that families whose second children were born before Jan. 1, when the two-children policy took effect, had violated the law and should be fined.
Ma Li, a member of the State Council who specializes in population, told Beijing Youth Daily that although every citizen should have a hukou, violations of the family planning policy should still be punished.
Now that the hukou can no longer be withheld to pressure parents to pay the fine, formally called the social support fee, Ms. Ma said, “collecting the social support fee will be even harder.” In the future, she said, there might be policies to empower the courts to help collect the fines.
Such penalties have long provided an important source of revenue for China’s local family planning commissions. State news media reported in 2013 that the fines brought in at least $3 billion a year.
The National Health and Family Planning Commission did not respond to questions for this article that were submitted, as requested, by fax. A spokesman for the commission did not answer repeated calls to his cellphone.
Ms. Zhang and her husband worry about what will happen when Tutu is old enough for school. If he has a hukou, but they have not paid the fine, will he be accepted? They have already had to leave him behind when they travel with his sister, because they cannot buy him a train ticket.
“We don’t know how to explain this to him,” Ms. Zhang said. “It doesn’t make sense, but there isn’t a way for us to explain it to him.”