The long shadow of China’s one-child pol­icy

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE

A new care fa­cil­ity for the shidu, par­ents who have lost their only child, sig­nals a coun­try slowly ac­knowl­edg­ing their plight. But, af­ter years of in­ac­tion and ha­rass­ment, it also un­der­scores the vast gulf be­tween what is needed and what the govern­ment has been will­ing to pro­vide

Inthe pic­tures on the wall, moth­ers and fa­thers stand with chil­dren, smil­ing out through the muted colours of ag­ing film. Hung be­tween them are framed Chi­nese char­ac­ters. “Look­ing back on the past,” one says. “Happy times,” says an­other.

In most old-age homes, it might all bring a nos­tal­gic smile.

On the 13th floor of Bei­jing Fifth So­cial Wel­fare In­sti­tute, though, the pic­tures are hung in a ther­apy room as a re­minder of shared pain. None of the el­derly liv­ing here has chil­dren any longer. They have come, in­stead, to find a place where they can be to­gether in com­mon grief. Each of them has lost an only child.

They now live in a fa­cil­ity that is the first of its kind in China, an elder-care home de­voted to those who paid the high­est price from the birth-con­trol poli­cies that the coun­try en­forced with an iron fist.

The cre­ation of this place is the most strik­ing at­tempt yet in China to of­fer help to those cop­ing with the ugly af­ter-ef­fects of the coun­try’s for­mer one-child pol­icy. And to par­ents who have fought for re­dress, its mere ex­is­tence is a small vic­tory in an ef­fort to have China salve the wounds its pol­icy opened.

But the small num­ber of peo­ple who in­habit it – a frac­tion of those who have lost their chil­dren – is also a po­tent sym­bol of how, even with the one-child pol­icy now gone, the ug­li­ness it has caused will plague China for many years to come.

Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties for­mally ended their sin­gle-child re­stric­tions this year, putting a stop to nearly four decades of bed­room sur­veil­lance, forced abor­tions and ster­il­iza­tions that marked its fam­ily-plan­ning regime.

The past, it might seem, has at a stroke van­ished, the wrongs of by­gone years rel­e­gated to his­tory.

But in the ach­ing homes of those known in China as the shidu, par­ents who lost the only child they were per­mit­ted to have, the shad­ows of the pol­icy will en­dure for decades.

Now, as in­creas­ing num­bers of those par­ents reach re­tire­ment age, they are de­mand­ing that their sacri­fice be rec­og­nized. They want gov­ern­ments to as­suage their fears of eco­nomic un­cer­tainty with­out an­other gen­er­a­tion to take care of them.

But they also want to be re­lieved of worry that their se­nior years will again tear away old scabs, as they en­ter re­tire­ment homes where the hap­pi­ness of other fam­i­lies will re­mind them of their loss.

“I am afraid of be­ing to­gether with other nor­mal se­niors,” said Cheng Lan, whose only son died by sui­cide in 1998. “They will have chil­dren to come and visit and bring gifts. See­ing that will be dev­as­tat­ing.”

What Mr. Cheng and many oth­ers want is a place of their own to spend their lat­ter years.

Here on the 12th and 13th floors of Bei­jing Fifth So­cial Wel­fare In­sti­tute, a small group of se­niors has found it.

Plans call for this en­tire build­ing, all 17 storeys and 276 beds, to even­tu­ally be ded­i­cated to par­ents with dead sin­gle chil­dren. This is a pi­lot project, an at­tempt to see if there is hap­pi­ness in shared mis­ery.

“We want to see whether com­mu­nal liv­ing for shidu se­niors is good for them,” said Chang Hua, the in­sti­tute’s di­rec­tor.

The staff have re­ceived spe­cial­ized train­ing in car­ing for the el­derly with an ad­di­tional bur­den. They de­liver ser­vices not avail­able to other se­niors, in­clud­ing mu­sic ther­apy and grief coun­selling.

“We give them the feel­ing of be­ing in a fam­ily,” Ms. Chang said.

TOP PHOTO: JO­HANNES EISELE/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES; MID­DLE AND BOT­TOM PHO­TOS: KIM KYU

Top: Zhang Yu­fang holds an old pho­to­graph of her de­ceased son in Wu­zong, China, in April, 2015. Mid­dle: Su sin­gle-child cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in Zhangji­akou, China, in Novem­ber, 2015. Bot­tom: Zheng Qing hugs her dead son’s Zhangji­akou, China, in Novem­ber, 2015.

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