'Belly money:' How China profits from population control

China's new two-child policy
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Story highlights

  • Parents who've lost their only child form choir for support
  • Lawyer says one-child policy was financially lucrative for provinces

Hangzhou, China (CNN)The odd collection of voices cuts through the cold Beijing air, the sounds emanating from a small, unremarkable back room.

Inside, there's 20 or so people, most in their sixties and above. They're singing somber songs from the Chinese revolution, painfully and endearingly off-key.
They call themselves a choir, but in reality, they're not there to sing. They are there to help one another grieve.
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Each person in the choir is a parent of an only child, and each person's only child has died.
"I will never get rid of the pain," says Yang Chunhai. His son died of leukemia last year at just 31 years old.
"My son told me while I was alive to continue to live my life, so that's what I'm doing here in this group."
He speaks with a painful resignation that many in the group share, knowing that with the death of his son, the chance to carry on the family name is no more.

'Belly money'

Yang is one of hundreds of millions of Chinese couples affected by the country's one-child policy.
The law held that most Chinese couples could only have one child each. On January 1, the law changed to allow couples to have up to two children.
But the one-child policy was enforced for three decades, at times in brutal ways. Rights groups have long said forced abortions and sterilizations were a regular occurrence.
Couples who could afford it were allowed to pay fines in exchange for having more than one child.
"The so-called social support fees are actually a method for local authorities to rake in money," says lawyer Wu Youshui.
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Wu is a lawyer who says local governments strongly rely on family planning fines to help fund their operations.
His interest in the subject was triggered a few years ago, when a client of his said they had paid a fine of only a few thousand yuan to local officials so they could have a second child.
Wu said that fine was far lower than others he had heard about that tallied into hundreds of thousands of yuan. He suspected the fines were lowered to encourage people to pay them, rather than to deter having more children.
An investigation he conducted bore this out.
Wu sent letters to each of China's 31 provinces asking for information on the amount of money made from one-child policy fines in 2012.
Twenty-four provinces responded, and together reported they made 20 billion yuan or $3.2 billion.
"The civilians call it 'belly money,' because it's all made off of females' bellies," said Wu.

Half a million enforcers

Enforcing the policy and collecting those fines takes incredible manpower. The government says about half a million people work for the family planning commission.
They form a deeply entrenched bureaucracy that has helped create an entire generation of only children.
"I'm not optimistic about the new policy, because I think forced abortions will just continue for couples that have more than two children," said Wu.
He also expects local governments will still be very aggressive in levying fines against families, because they will still need to rely on the fines for revenue.
For people like Yang, questions about the future are irrelevant. He and others in the choir grieve about the past.
He says his son was very kind, and gets choked up talking about it.
Whether things change for others in the future, he says, is no longer his concern.