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Civil Records in China


Most of the documents listed below can be obtained from one of China's Notarial Offices (Gong Zheng Chu).  All Chinese documentation to be used abroad is processed through the notary offices and issued in the form of notarial certificates.  Notarial offices are located in all major Chinese cities and in rural county seats. These offices are part of the Ministry of Justice structure, but are separate from the people's court system.

Notaries in China do not perform the same functions as their American counterparts. Chinese notaries affix their signatures and office seal to certificates that attest to the probity of claims made by the applicants.  By regulation, notaries are empowered to issue certificates only after they conclude that the applicant's claims are true.  Notarial certificates of birth, death, marriage, divorce, no criminal record and pre-1981 adoptions are, at best, secondary evidence of the events they purport to document.  Although these certificates are secondary evidence, they are used because primary evidence is not standardized, is easily forged, and difficult to evaluate.  Notarial certificates are easier to interpret than primary evidence and theoretically represent an expert judgment on the part of the notarial official as to the facts documented.

The certificates can be based upon primary evidence, secondary evidence, testimony of the applicant or other parties, or investigation by the notary.  For most notarial certificates of birth or adoption, the primary underlying documentation is the household register (HHR) which appears to be extremely susceptible to fraud and manipulation, especially if the holder of the HHR lives outside of a major metropolitan area.  Notarial certificates rarely cite the basis for their issuance.

Thus a certificate in itself may not be adequate evidence of the facts claimed, and is best used in conjunction with primary and contemporaneous secondary evidence:  old land deeds and old family registers; letters or money receipts; family records from countries that have reliable public documents; school and medical records.  In relationship cases, especially where the petitioner left China years before, the best evidence of relationship, or lack of it, would be the Hong Kong Certificate of Registered Particulars (for petitioners who lived in Hong Kong), or the petitioner's immigration and/or naturalization file.

Local conditions often do not permit consular officers to conduct on-site inquiries. However, if there is a reason to doubt the claims in a certificate issued by a Chinese notary, the American consular post in the issuing office's area may verify the information through the notarial office, or, if possible, by field investigation.  A copy of the document in question should be submitted to the post, as well as detailed reasons for the suspicion.  For suspected relationship fraud, the first step should be a check of the information contained in the INS file or Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA) files for former refugees.  Given sufficient reason, notaries do investigate, and in some cases, revoke certificates.  Several months should be allowed for a reply.

Individuals residing outside of China may obtain notarial certificates from the notarial office with jurisdiction over the county of previous residence.  Chinese relatives or friends may request issuance of certificates on behalf of someone now living abroad.  Relatives and friends should have specific written authorization from the interested party before they request certificates.  Alternatively, persons in need of notarial documents may contact the PRC Embassy or Consulate nearest to their residence abroad and ask that the request be forwarded to the appropriate notarial office.  Obtaining a notarial certificate through a PRC Embassy or Consulate can require considerable time.

Birth Certificate

Available in the form of notarial certificates, which are secondary evidence.  Notarial certificates of birth (Chu Sheng Gong Zheng Shu or Chu Sheng Zheng Ming Shu) for persons living in or recently departed from China are generally reliable, but are best used in conjunction with other evidence.  They are most often based upon an AHHR, (Household Record) which is easily susceptible to fraud, especially in villages.  Notarial birth certificates for persons long departed from China are most likely based merely upon the testimony of interested parties.

While some notarial birth certificates will list stepparents or adoptive parents along with natural parents, this is not always the case.  In some cases, the certificates will list only the natural parents, covering up an adoption.  

Some applicants will present notarial certificates of relationship (Guan Xi Gong Zheng [or Zheng Ming] Shu) in lieu of notarial birth certificates.  These certificates of relationship are unreliable and tend to be based solely upon the testimony of interested parties.  Notarial birth certificates should be required.  Care should be taken with any certificate that lists step relationships.  These relationships are as of the date of issuance of the certificate only.  Marriage certificates should also be required.

Adotion Certificate

Available in the form of notarial adoption certificates (Shou Yang Gong Zheng [or Zheng Ming] Shu).  Until January of 1981 there were no laws or regulations regarding adoptions.  Adoptions taking place after January 1981 are considered valid only with the issuance of the notarial certificate.  The date of issuance of the notarial certification is the date of adoption.  Although notarial offices issue certificates for pre-January 1981 adoptions, these are extremely susceptible to fraud.

Commonly, adoptions were orally agreed to by the natural and adoptive parent(s).  There may or may not be a written record dating from the time of the adoption.  Parties to the adoption, however, may secure notarial certificates at a later point in time that will list the natural parents' names, adoptive parents' names, and the date of the adoption.  The certificate is supposedly issued only after the notary ascertains that an adoption took place conforming to local practice and regulation.

Chinese customs and practice regarding adoption differ substantially from U.S. practice.  Typically, there is no clear distinction between adoptive, foster and godparent/godchild relationships.  Owing to the ease of fraud in cases involving adoption (especially pre-January 1981 adoptions), contemporaneous evidence of the adoption and co-residence, especially in the form of school records, should be required.  The inability to obtain a notarial certificate of adoption, on the other hand, is prima facie evidence no adoption ever took place.

Care should be taken in cases where a petitioning parent departed China without the adoptive (then minor) child, especially if other natural children accompanied the parent.  Most likely, this indicates the Chinese government did not recognize the adoption at the time the alleged adoptive parent departed.  The INS file of the petitioner and/or the Hong Kong Certificate of Registered Particulars (for petitioners who transited Hong Kong) will generally be the most reliable evidence of the existence or nonexistence of the adoption in these cases.

A new China-wide adoption law was implemented on April 1, 1992.  Under this law, notarial certificates of adoption are still required, and a written record dating from the time of the adoption should be available in these case of an adoption of an orphan.  The Ministry of Civil Affairs must approve the adoption of a parentless or abandoned child who becomes the ward of the Chinese state.  Adoptive parents must travel to China to complete the adoption of a Chinese child, and should receive three notarial certificates upon completion of the adoption process:  birth, abandonment and adoption.  The notarial certificate of abandonment should state under what circumstances and when the child was either orphaned or abandoned.  It is extremely rare in China for male children to be given up for adoption.  Traditionally, the vast majority of orphaned children adopted in China by foreigners have been female.  Cases involving the adoption of a male child, particularly if adopted by a relative, should be thoroughly documented.”

Police Record

Generally available, reliable.  Persons should apply for a certificate of no criminal record at the local Public Security Bureau (PSB) (or certain types of employers such as state owned enterprises), then make application to the notary office for a certificate based on the PSB document.  Persons without a criminal record will be able to obtain a certificate to that effect.  Certificates for individuals with one or more criminal convictions will list all convictions for which records still exist.  The certificates purport to reflect all criminal convictions during residence in China.  Police records are generally not available for the period prior to 1949.  Police records also are not available for those who were in China in diplomatic status including those working for international organizations such as the United Nations.  Notarial police certificates are based in part upon records from an individual's employer.  If an employer refuses to release records, the notarial office is not able to issue a certificate.  This is the case for persons sent abroad for education by the Chinese Government who fail to return to China. 

According to a 1957 state council ruling that is still in force, the imposition of a re-education through labor (Lao Dong Jiao Yu) term does not result from a criminal conviction.  Administrative organs, rather than courts, impose re-education through labor.  It is important to distinguish re-education through labor from labor reform (Lao Dong Gai Zao), which is a sentence meted out for criminal offenses.

Prison Record

See Court Record below.

Military Record

Generally not available.

Marriage and Death Certificates

Available in the form of notarial marriage certificates (Jie Hun Gong Zheng [or Zheng Wing] Shu) or death certificates which are generally reliable.

Divorce Decrees

Available.  Notarial offices will issue notarial divorce certificates based upon extant records to confirm either a court-decreed or uncontested divorce.  In an uncontested divorce, a couple can obtain a divorce certificate from the marriage registration office in the neighborhood where they reside.  In a contested divorce, both parties will receive a copy of the formal divorce decree from the court at the time the divorce is approved.  If the original decree is lost, the same court will often issue a duplicate, but these various decrees or certificates should not be accepted in lieu of the notarial certificates.

Court Record

Available in most cases.  Normally, when someone is tried by a people's court or by an organ of the executive branch of government, some record remains of the case even for a political crime.  In some instances, the entire formal court verdict (Pan Jue Shu) is available upon request by the former defendant.  In other cases, the court can provide only a synopsis of the charges and the verdict.  In all instances, it is necessary to have the applicant request court records.  If an applicant is unable to secure court records, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, or the posts in China with jurisdiction over the area where the record is located can contact the appropriate provincial foreign affairs office and request assistance in securing records.  It is not advisable for other U.S. officials to contact courts directly.  Most court records will also indicate the original sentence, the actual sentence served and any reduction or commutation of the original sentence.  Court records are generally not available for the period prior to 1949.

Notarial Work Experience Certificate

Available.  Notarial Work Experience Certificates (NWECS) briefly describe an applicant's work experience in the PRC.  They should be required of all employment based preference immigrant applicants who claim work experience in China.  Employer's letters or sworn statements from persons claiming person’s knowledge should not be accepted in lieu of NWECS.  The inability of an applicant to obtain a NWEC should be regarded as prima facie evidence the applicant does not possess the claimed experience.