Russian academic Maria Gromakova's recent visit home to Moscow was bittersweet. The professor at Xiamen University in southern China took her 5-year-old son, Kay, along. But when she returned to Xiamen in early March, she was forced to leave the boy in Russia with her mother because China would not issue a visa for him.
"I miss him so much every day," said Gromakova, 37. "I have never left him like this since he was born."
The reason Kay, who has a Russian passport, cannot get a Chinese visa is that his father is Chinese.
The family's predicament is not just some random bureaucratic snafu. A Chinese law on citizenship in place since 1980 is causing big headaches for the growing number of mixed-nationality families in China.
The law says that a child who has one Chinese parent automatically receives Chinese citizenship, no matter where the child was born. But the law also prohibits Chinese citizens from having dual nationalities. This means that Chinese authorities will not recognize a child's passport from the home country of one of his parents until the parents make a formal — and complicated — application to "cancel" their child's Chinese citizenship. The process can take a year.
In the meantime, children like Kay who leave China for a vacation or to study in a foreign country need to apply for a "travel document" at Chinese embassies to return. But because they're not given a visa, they cannot attend schools in China.
In 1989, there were 20,389 marriages registered between Chinese nationals and foreigners, Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs statistics show. That number jumped to about 78,000 in 2003 and has stayed around 50,000 annually in the last decade.
"The law was adopted more than 30 years ago at a time when not many foreigners married Chinese," said Sun Yonggang, a Beijing lawyer who specializes in mixed-family cases. "And it didn't allow Chinese citizens to have multiple nationalities, mainly out of political concerns. But times have changed."
With no changes expected in the near future, families like Gromakova's will continue to face difficult choices when selecting their children's nationality.
Gromakova married in 2008 in China and gave birth to Kay in 2009 in Russia — primarily because medical care was basically free for her there; hospitals for foreigners in China were much more expensive.
When their son was 6 months old, the family returned to China because her husband, who speaks no Russian, could not find work.
The first time, they were lucky. Because Kay's birth certificate was in Russian, Chinese officials didn't realize the father was Chinese, and they issued a visa. That document was renewed annually when Gromakova renewed her work visa.
But things changed in 2014, when Chinese police, citing a new regulation, asked her, as part of the visa renewal process, to provide a translated copy of her son's birth certificate.
When Gromakova handed the translated document to police, she was told that her son could not receive a Chinese visa in his Russian passport, because, under Chinese law, he was considered a Chinese citizen. But because the boy also already had a Russian passport, he could not be recognized as a Chinese citizen until this "conflict of nationality" was resolved.
Though he was allowed to stay in China, the boy was essentially unable to enter school because of the bureaucratic morass: Without a Chinese visa in his Russian passport, he wasn't allowed to enroll as a foreigner. Yet as a Russian passport holder, he also couldn't obtain a required Chinese residency document to attend school as a Chinese citizen.
Unwilling to give up Kay's Russian passport and unable to quickly cancel his automatic Chinese citizenship, Gromakova and her husband decided, begrudgingly, to enroll him in school in Moscow.
"Of course, I want my son to be with me," Gromakova said. "But I had to make this hard decision so he could be taken care of and receive some form of education like other kids at his age do."
Beijing education consultant Wang Hui and her American husband faced a similar problem with their son, who was born in Beijing but has a U.S. passport.
"I never thought about nationality issues until I had my son," said Wang. "When we started to prepare for [our first] trip, I learned a lot about different regulations from online forums and understood that my son's American passport is not enough for him to leave China."
It took Wang, 36, more than a month to obtain an "entry-exit permit" for her son for their initial trip to visit her husband's parents in 2012. Since then, Wang has tried twice to take her son to visit his grandparents, but canceled both trips after it took too long to get the permits.
Wang and her husband have decided to move to the United States.
"I have already started the application process for a green card," Wang said. "My husband said U.S. schools are better for our son…. My mom always cries whenever I mention to her that I'm preparing to move to America, but I have to do what's best for my son."
Victoriya Batueva, who is from Ulan-Ude, Russia, and is married to a Chinese man, is facing a similar dilemma.
The couple avoid taking their daughter to Russia because the one time they did, Batueva had to have her father drive her 10 hours through Siberia in winter to reach the nearest Chinese Consulate, in Irkutsk, and obtain a special travel document for the then-10-month-old to return to Shanghai.
"Now, I'm more worried about finding the right kindergarten for my daughter, as the private ones where my daughter could go are all too expensive," Batueva said.
Gromakova has decided to renounce her son's Chinese citizenship. That will allow him to get a Chinese visa in his Russian passport and enroll in school in China. And, holding a foreign passport will give him a huge advantage in China when it comes time to go to college: as a non-Chinese, he will be exempt from the grueling Chinese college entrance exams and needs only to pass a language proficiency test to enter top universities.
"I don't want to see him go to battle every day in school and having to compete with all the other Chinese kids," she said. "I want him to have a more relaxed time in school, you know, to just have fun."