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Parents are beginning to defy China's one-child rule

Seven months pregnant, Wu Weiping sneaked out early in the morning carrying a shoulder bag with some clothes, her laptop and a knife.

"It's good for me I wasn't caught, but it's lucky for them too," said Wu, 35, who feared that family planning officials were going to drag her to the hospital for a forced abortion. "I was going to fight to the death if they found me."

With her escape, Wu joined an increasingly defiant community of parents in China who have risked their jobs, savings and physical safety to have a forbidden second child.

Though their numbers are small, they represent changing ideas about individual rights. While violators in the past tended to be rural families who skirted the birth limits in relative obscurity, many today are urbanites like Wu who frame their defiance in overtly political terms, arguing that the government has no right to dictate how many children they have.

Using Internet chat rooms and blogs, a few have begun airing their demands for a more liberal family planning policy and are hoping others will follow their lead. Several have gotten their stories into the tightly controlled media, an indication that their perspectives have resonance with the public.

After finding out his wife was expecting a second child, Liu Lianwen set up an online discussion group called "Free Birth" to swap information about the one-child policy and how to get around it. In less than six months, it has attracted nearly 200 members.

"We are idealists," said the engineer, 37, from central China, whose daughter was born Oct. 18. "We want to change the attitudes of people around us by changing ourselves."

Freed of the social controls imposed during the doctrinaire era of communist rule, Chinese today are free to choose where they live and work and whom they marry. But when it comes to having kids, the state says the majority must stop at one. Hefty fines for violators and rising economic pressures have helped compel most to abide by the limit. Many provinces claim near perfect compliance.

It's impossible to know how many children have been born in violation of the one-child policy, but Zhai Zhenwu, director of Renmin University's School of Sociology and Population in Beijing, estimates that less than 1 percent of the 16 million babies born each year are "out of plan."

Liu thinks his fellow citizens have been brainwashed. "They all feel it's glorious to have a small family," he said. "Thirty years of family planning propaganda have changed the way the majority of Chinese think about having children."

The reluctance to procreate is also an issue of growing concern for demographers, who worry that the policy combined with a rising cost of living has brought the fertility rate down too sharply and too fast. Though still the world's largest nation with 1.3 billion people, China's population growth has slowed considerably.

Penalties for violators are harsh. Those caught must pay a "social compensation fee," which can be four to nine times a family's annual income. Parents with government jobs can also lose their posts or get demoted, and their "out of plan" children are denied education and health benefits.

Wu said she never intended to flout the one-child rule. She had resorted to fertility treatments to conceive her first child -- a daughter -- so she was stunned when a doctor told her she was expecting again in August 2008.

The news triggered a monthlong "cold war" with her husband, Wu said. Silent dinners, cold shoulders. She wanted to keep the baby. He didn't. After a few weeks, he came around, she explained with a satisfied smile.

But family planning officials insisted on an abortion. The principal at her school also pressured her to end the pregnancy.

Desperate, she went online for answers -- and was led astray.

At her home on the outskirts of Zhuji, a textile hub a few hours south of Shanghai, the energetic former high school teacher recounted how she divorced her husband, then married her cousin the next day, all in an attempt to evade the rules.

The marriage with her cousin was easily dissolved after they discovered it was never valid, because marriages between first cousins is illegal in China.

Wu was fired from her job as a public school teacher because of the baby, and her ex-husband, who is also a teacher, was demoted to a freelance position at his school.

"I don't think I've committed any crime," Wu said. "A crime is something that hurts other people or society or that infringes on other people's rights. I don't think having a baby is any kind of crime."