China’s one-child policy, aimed at curbing the country’s growing population, has helped facilitate an economic boom over the last three decades. But in a country with few social safety nets, the policy has made elderly parents heavily reliant on their only children. Parents whose children have died face greater uncertainty and are now asking the government to help support them in their old age.
China's birth control policy
The term “shiduzhe” or “those who have lost their only child,” has become a buzzword on China's Internet and in media coverage, challenging the party’s positive evaluations of its birth control policy.
Last month more than 100 petitioners gathered at the National Population Family Planning Commission in Beijing. All of them had lost their only child, and were demanding compensation from the government. The popular Chinese magazine Southern Weekly, whose most recent edition featured the issue of shiduzhe and the plight of the petitioners, reported that they never got an official response.
Beijing University professor Mu Guangzong says that he understands the predicament these families are in. “The government has a responsibility towards this group.” Mu says, “Perhaps the direct reason why these children have died is because of an accident, or an illness, or they committed suicide. But at the basis there is always the policy. What is happening with these families is a risk that the policy has created from the inside,” he says.
Implemented nationwide in 1979, the one child policy attempted to correct the rapid population growth encouraged by Mao in the 1950s and 1960s, and restricted Chinese couples to having only one child.
Exceptions were permitted for minorities, rural residents, and other groups and it is estimated that nearly 36 percent of the Chinese population, roughly 480 million people, is legally bound to have only one child.
Thirty-three years into the policy, the number of families who lost their children and are too old to have another baby is growing. Though the actual population is difficult to survey, according to the latest official statistics, in 2006 there were more than 37 thousand women who were both over 49 years old and had lost their only child, this figure is expected to grow four-fold by 2038.
In losing their offspring, many of these parents have also lost their only hope for financial security.
“When we were young we responded to the nation's call to only have one child,” a petition circulated online earlier this year said. “But once drowned in disaster, we suddenly became aware that the blow of losing one's only child not only was cruel, but also fatal for us.” The document, signed by over four thousand people, pleaded to the government for help, and offered ideas on how to calculate the size of subsidies these families need.
Childless parents seek government assistance
China’s nationwide pension system was introduced in 1997, but today still barely covers the needs of its urban population, effectively leaving out most of the rural elderly.
These childless parents now rely on a monthly subsidy of roughly $15 that the government established for them in 2007.
Professor Mu acknowledges the government’s efforts, but says these subsidies are not enough. “It is mostly just a sign to show that they [the government] care about this group. But as far as the real outcome the families are the ones that know it.”
In recent years, the issue has gained prominence as families have started sharing their stories online, setting up virtual support groups where they can get in touch with others facing similar difficulties.
Yet, because their experience is closely link to the one child policy, the topic remains rather sensitive in China, and parents are reluctant to reveal their real names when quoted in newspaper articles and other media.