"Li Xue is a Chinese citizen," her mother, Bai Xiuling, said in an interview. "But nobody acknowledges her existence. Only her family does."
The second daughter of a blue-collar family in southern Beijing, Li was born contrary to the rules that have limited most urban couples to one child. Like quite a few such "illicit household" children, she grew up, essentially, as a stateless inhabitant of her own country - without the identity documents, rights and services that usually come with citizenship. She never went to school, and has struggled to find work.
"There's just too much I have to deal with compared with normal people," Li, a petite, soft-spoken woman, said Friday while on break from her job as a waitress. "I shouldn't be made responsible for this."
Li's story illustrates how China's family planning rules have had repercussions far more complicated and enduring than just limiting the number of children. Without the residence permit and identity card that nearly all Chinese carry, people like Li have no access to education or health care. Good jobs and marriage licenses are out of reach as well.
Li said that she felt nothing more than muted curiosity when the television news announced on Thursday evening that the Communist Party would allow all couples to have two children.
She wondered if the relaxation would help people like her, but also said she had endured too many false hopes to expect that the latest shift would open the way to better treatment for families like hers.
"It's been 22 years and we've already been through a lot," she said. "The government has talked about legislation and policy changes, but I feel we just have to wait and watch, and hope that afterward they will implement or enforce these things."
Births have been regulated by a tangle of rules, and families deemed in violation were often caught in a labyrinth of punishments, fines and deprivations enforced by the local police and family planning officers. Not all children have faced the dire consequences Li has, but the family planning administration has inspired intense anger among many people.
Millions of Chinese people live without the "residence permit," or hukou, that serves as a kind of passport, allowing them to navigate the bureaucracy. This year, a government researcher, Wan Haiyuan, estimated that at least 6.5 million Chinese had no official status because they were born outside the family planning rules.
The rules say that officials cannot deny such children their official resident permits and other papers, but in practice officials deny them as a way of punishing families, or families avoid applying for the permits out of fear of being fined. In previous decades especially, local governments have been under intense pressure to meet population control targets, encouraging administrators to resort to forced abortions, home demolitions and other coercive measures to punish wayward families.
Li said her parents had never set out to violate the family planning rules, and they refused to pay the consequent fines. Her mother and her father had disabilities that should have entitled them to have a second child, she said. But officials deemed that they had not gotten the necessary approvals. Her mother even considered an abortion, but the doctors said she was too ill at the time to risk the operation, Li said.
Li grew up in the shadow of her sister, Li Bin, eight years older, who was born with official approval and had all the right papers.
The elder sister went to school; Li Xue could not. She said she learned from her sister and from reading books on her own. Her elder sister could visit a doctor when she was ill; Li Xue said she could not, because clinics and hospitals in Beijing usually require identification papers. And while her elder sister found work in a factory, Li Xue struggled, because most employers demand identity papers.
Growing up, she said, has been an excruciating series of frustrations and dead ends. She got her job as a waitress through a friend, with an employer willing to overlook her lack of papers, she said. She lives with her mother and sister in a sparely furnished home; her father died last year.
"Without a residence permit, she doesn't have any rights," said her sister, Li Bin. "It's already created so much harm. How will she work in the future, how will she get married? There are many problems that we can't keep her from for the rest of her life."
Li Xue said she has resisted even thinking about a boyfriend, because marriage appeared impossible, for now at least.
"When you get married, you can't obtain a marriage license without a residence permit, and then you can't have a child," she said. "So I haven't thought much about it, because there's not much use in even thinking about it."
Li Xue and her family said they had often visited government offices and appealed to courts, hoping to win official status for her. But so far that has not worked, and they have refused to pay the fines that would clear the way for that, saying they are too much and unfair. Li Xue said the fine demanded in 1993 was about $800 (5000 renminbi), but she was unsure whether the sum had grown because of interest and extra penalties. Many families with unregistered children end up paying thousands of dollars to the government.
The police station and family planning office in Li Xue's neighborhood both declined to comment on her claims, despite many phone calls, citing either ignorance of the case or rules against speaking to journalists.
"According to the law, it's illegal to deny people residence permits because of family planning violations," said Yang Zhizhu, a law academic in Beijing who was shunted from his teaching job several years ago after he and his wife had a second child and fought the resulting fines and punishments.
"But in practice, some local governments still bundle the two things together, to make it more costly to ignore the rules and to extract fines," Yang said. "Being the capital, Beijing has always been especially strict in population policy."
Li Xue said that if she ever gained her residence permit and other formal documents, and could attend university, she wanted to study law and agitate to end punishment of children born without the right permits.
"I've been learning about the law so I can defend myself and people in my situation," she said. "I can't say that I'm very optimistic, because we have to say what they do, not just what they say."