ZHUJI, China — 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 37-year-old engineer 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.
"The worry for China is not population growth – it's rapid population aging and young people not wanting to have children," said Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, a joint U.S.-China academic research center in Beijing.
Wang sees a looming disaster as the baby boom generation of the 1960s heads into retirement and old age. China's labor force, sharply reduced by the one-child policy, will struggle to support them.
He argues that the government should allow everyone at least two children. He thinks many Chinese would still stop at one because of concerns about being able to afford to raise more than that.
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, depending on the province and the whim of the local family planning bureau. Parents with government jobs can also lose their posts or get demoted, and their "out of plan" children are denied education and health benefits.
Those without government posts have less to worry about. If they can afford the steep fee and don't mind losing benefits, there's little to stop them from having another child. There's popular anger over this favoring of the wealthy but not much that ordinary people can do about it, since the policy is set behind closed doors by the communist leadership in Beijing.
In 2007, officials in coastal Zhejiang province threatened to start naming and shaming well-off families who had extra kids, but the campaign never got off the ground, possibly because it threatened to tarnish the reputations of too many well-connected people.
Hardest hit by the rules are urban middle class parents with Communist Party posts, teaching positions or jobs at state-run industries.
Li Yongan was ordered to pay 240,000 yuan ($37,500) after his son was born in 2007 as he already had a 13-year-old daughter. After refusing to pay the fee, Li was denied a household registration permit for his son, forcing him to pay three times more for kindergarten.
He was also barred from his job teaching physics at a state-run university in Beijing. "I never regret my second child, but I have been living with depression and anger for years," said Li, who struggles to make ends meet as a freelance chess teacher.
Of course, there are surreptitious, though not foolproof, ways to evade punishment: paying a bribe or falsifying documents so that, for instance, a second child is registered as the twin of an older sibling. Or, sometimes second babies are registered to childless relatives or rural families that are allowed to have a second child but haven't done so.
Wu, the woman who made the early morning escape, said she never intended to flout the one-child rule. She had resorted to fertility treatments to conceive her first child – a daughter nicknamed Le Le, or Happy – 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 soap-opera-like subterfuge was meant to take advantage of a loophole that allows divorced parents to have a second child if their new spouse is a first-time parent.
Wu had helped raise her cousin, who is 25 and 10 years younger than her, and when she asked if he would marry her to help save the baby, he agreed.
The divorce, on Sept. 27, 2008, involved signing a document and posing for a photo. It was over in just a few minutes. The next day's marriage was similarly swift.
"I remember I was very happy that day," Wu said holding the marriage certificate with a glued-on snapshot of the cousins. "Because I thought I'd figured out a way to save my baby."
But her problem wasn't over. When the newlyweds applied for a birth permit, officials informed them conception had to take place after marriage. They were told to abort the baby, then try again. Wu was back to square one.
A popular option that was out of reach for Wu economically is to have the baby elsewhere, where the limits don't apply. Some better-off Chinese go to Hong Kong, where private agencies charge mainland mothers hundreds of thousands of yuan (tens of thousands of dollars) for transport, lodging and medical costs.
The number giving birth in Hong Kong reached 40,000 last year, prompting the territory to cap the number of beds in public hospitals they are allowed from 2012. However, parents of kids born abroad face the bureaucratic hurdles of foreigners, having to pay premiums for school and other services.
In the end, Wu also fled, but not as far as Hong Kong. Three months from her due date, she kissed her baby daughter goodbye, telling her she was going on vacation, and hopped an early morning train to nearby Hangzhou. There she switched to another train bound for Shanghai, hoping the roundabout route would throw off anyone trying to tail her.
In Shanghai, Wu used a friend's ID to rent a one-room apartment with shared bathroom and kitchen. It was tiny and not cheap for her, 700 yuan ($107) a month, but it was across from a hospital that allowed her to register without a government-issued birth permission slip and it had an Internet connection.
Wu had never used email, so her husband – the real one – set up a password-protected online journal that he titled "yixiaobb," or "one tiny baby." She posted to the journal up to nine times a day, describing where she was living without ever revealing her exact location. She prefaced every entry with a capital M for mother, and added a number to mark how many messages she wrote in a day. Using the same journal, her husband wrote to her, coding his messages with an F.
It felt like an invisible tether linking Wu to her husband. He didn't know where she was, but knew she was OK. Shortly before her due date, she asked him to come to Shanghai, and he was present for the birth of their son.
More than two years later, she and her former husband, the father to both her children, have yet to remarry – hoping it will legally shield him from any future punishment.
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. Though told she has been assessed a 120,740 yuan ($18,575) social compensation fee, Wu has refused to pay.
Enforcers of the family planning limits showed up at their house in July, and again in November, threatening legal action. Wu is afraid their property might be confiscated or that she or husband might end up in detention, but she doesn't want to pay the fine because she doesn't believe she's done anything wrong.
"I don't think I've committed any crime," she 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."