FEELING BETTER TOGETHER: Members of a self-help organization for parents who have lost an only child rehearse a choir performance in Chongqingn on October 23, 2012 (LI JIAN)
Traditionally, Chinese people are expected to support their parents during retirement. But filial piety cannot mollify parents who have lost their only child. After more than 30 years of the family planning policy, aging parents bereft of an only child are becoming an increasingly visible group in China shouldering an unimaginably dreadful emotional and financial burden.
"They are too old to have another child. During big festivals when extended families reunite, they intentionally avoid these reunions so as not to think of their deceased children. However, memories of their beloved children's laughter and happy moments keep haunting them and always make them teary," said Huang Xihua, a deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, when talking about her suggestion submitted to the NPC session in March asking that the government build retirement facilities for senior citizens who lost their only child.
Huang is also the head of Tourism Bureau of Huizhou City in south China's Guangdong Province, and on her third consecutive term as an NPC deputy.
She submitted 23 suggestions at the NPC session. Of these suggestions, six are about China's family planning policies: building retirement facilities for senior citizens who survive their only child; relaxing single-child restrictions; abolishing family planning service certificates; abolishing compulsory maintenance of intrauterine devices and mandatory check-ups on pregnancy status; abolishing regulations that deny a family's change of household registration locality for disobeying family planning policies; and revising the Population and Family Planning Law.
"I started to observe and study China's population and family planning policies in 2010," Huang told Beijing Review, adding that parents surviving their only child are without a doubt a marginalized social group created in part by these policies.
China adopted a policy encouraging family planning in the 1970s, but a state policy prohibiting additional births was not formalized until 1982. Although most urban couples can only have one child, rural couples are allowed a second if the first is a girl or suffers from certain disabilities. At the turn of the 21st century, the country allowed couples who are both only children to have a second child as well.
Loss and loneliness
What brought Huang's attention to the well-being of parents who lost their single child was a magazine article about the Heart-Connecting Society in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, a self-help organization for parents whose only child had passed away. Founded in September 2007, the organization has provided crisis intervention to alleviate the pain of bereaved parents. "Reading this story, I was moved by the enormous misery suffered by these parents. Losing a child is the greatest agony in life," Huang said.
However, what inspired Huang to submit suggestions on the welfare of these childless parents was a telephone call she answered before she came to Beijing to attend the NPC session.
When Huang answered calls to a hotline for public complaints, she had a 20-minute conversation with a woman whose only son was killed in a traffic accident. The anonymous caller told Huang that she followed the family planning policies and aborted her second pregnancy.
However, her son died in 2004 when she was 52 years old. She and her husband were too old to adopt another child.
"The grief also drove the couple mad during the first year after the young man's death. Struggling with the enormous loss over an extended period of time, both of them ended up suffering from numerous illnesses, which can be attributed to their psychological pain," Huang said.
The woman went on to tell Huang that she had been recently diagnosed with cancer and was living on a monthly pension of a little more than 2,000 yuan ($323) and she wanted Huang to suggest raising the state allowance for surviving parents during the NPC session. "Now the Central Government only disburses 150 yuan ($24) per month per person to parents who lost their only child. It is too little," Huang said.
The woman also expressed concerns about her husband's life after she died. She worried that nobody could sign consent forms for him as a family member when he needed hospitalization, surgery or admittance to a nursing home. Later, the husband called Huang through the hotline. He broke into tears asking the same question over and over: "What can we do?"
"We need to give more care to this special group, which is getting bigger," Huang said.
The Beijing News reported that China had at least 1 million families whose only child died prematurely in 2012 and the number grows by 76,000 a year. Demographer Yi Fuxian said that China now has around 218 million only children and 10.09 million of them will die before turning 25, which would cause endless pain for their families.
"The bereaved parents suffer from unimaginable loss and agony," Hu Qiang, another NPC deputy, told Beijing Review.
Through research, Huang found out from the local population and family planning authorities in Huizhou that parents who lost their only child are entitled to a one-time aid disbursement of 10,000 yuan ($1,600), but very few parents came to collect it. "Nobody is willing to go through procedures to tear open the deepest scar in their hearts again," Huang said. In comparison, she said, many more parents whose only child became handicapped applied for government aid.