Beijing, China, Mar 5, 2017 / 05:31 am (CNA).- For some 35 years, the population of China was strictly controlled by the Communist government’s one-child policy. Parents were only allowed one child, and additional pregnancies meant forced abortions or hefty fines and penalties, such as the loss of a job. These additional children could be denied family household registration, which is the equivalent of denying them citizenship and basic services such as public transportation and education.

There have been recent relaxations of the one-child policy. Alarmed by an aging population, shrinking workforce and potentially stagnating economy, government officials announced in 2013 that couples could apply to have a second child if either partner was an only child themselves.

In 2015, the rule relaxed even further, changing from a one-child policy to a two-child policy for everyone. But what about the estimated 13 million unregistered second and third children, stuck in the cracks of a government policy that refused to recognize their existence?

A short documentary entitled “Invisible lives: The legacy of China’s family planning rules” from the Thomas Reuters Foundation explores the lives of these people. “I don’t think the Chinese government has realized the human rights catastrophe caused by the family planning rules,” said Yang Zhizhu, an associate professor of civil law in Beijing. “The family planning rules have always been a mistake. It’s not that we don’t need them now. It’s that we never needed them.”

In 2010, Zhizhu was suspended from teaching and fined $36,000 — nine times the average income in his district — for having a second child. Since then, Zhizhu has tried to come up with creative ways to fight the policy, including posting a photo of himself online trying to “sell himself” to come up with the money for the fine, and being careful to write and record his experiences of injustice with the policy.

In 2012, the university reinstated his salary, but he is still not allowed to teach. It wasn’t Zhizhu’s plan to spend his life fighting the family planning rules, but because no one else seems to be doing it, “I have to do it,” he said.

Li Xue is another living casualty of the one-child policy. The second daughter to her parents, who couldn’t afford to pay the fines that would allow her to be registered, Xue has spent her entire life hidden at home, watching her older sister go to school and have friends and get a job.

“You can’t get married without registration,” Xue said. “Then, if you have a child, your child can’t be registered.”

When the one-child policy changed in 2015, it was unclear what that meant for unregistered people like Xue. “Sometimes I want to travel. But I don’t have an ID, so I cannot. I cannot buy tickets,” she said.

Even though she was denied a public education, Xue has been studying law on her own to sue the police for her right to citizenship. In August 2016, she was granted registration, but has been unable to access state benefits, because she lacks records from the first 23 years of her life.

The policy has also penalized unmarried parents. Liu Chunyan, a single mother, had to choose between paying an exorbitant fine — about $120,000 — or having her daughter be unregistered, and therefore forgo state benefits. “Unplanned children, if they disappear one day, we don’t even need to de-register them,” Chunyan said. “It’s sad. As if they had never been in this world.”

With the recent relaxation of the policy, it was announced in April last year that unregistered children could be registered without fines. Chunyan registered her daughter, who has since been attending school and struggling to catch up with the other students. So far, she has not been contacted about a fine.

Zhizhu’s family wants more children, but fears additional fines. When the policy changed to a two-child policy in 2015, several Chinese citizens told the New York Times that they weren’t sure the new policy would make them want to have second children, citing the high cost of raising children in China.

Another impact the one-child policy left in its wake is an imbalanced gender ratio. Poor and rural families often preferred boy children over girls, “sometimes even resorting to infanticide to ensure they have a son,” the New York Times reported. So while many agreed that the one-child policy needed to change, they have viewed the new policies with trepidation. And it is unclear how long it will take culturally to change the minds of a generation who has been raised to believe that one child is best.

“There has been progress over the years, but it doesn’t live up to our hope,” said Mrs. Zhizhu. “It takes many generations to create the society we wish for.”