The long shadow of China’s one-child policy
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: 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.