Shannon Stapleton / Reuters file
A photo of Boston Marathon bombing victim Lu Lingzi, a Boston University graduate student and Chinese citizen, is seen outside the Boston University Marsh Chapel before her memorial in Boston, Massachusetts April 17, 2013.
BEIJING – Losing a child is the most painful ordeal a parent can experience. But for the family of Lu Lingzi, the Chinese student who died in the Boston terrorist attack, the pain was particularly acute. As in most families in China, Lu was an only child – a byproduct of a policy initiated in the late 1970s to control runaway population growth.
The Chinese government stands by the one-child policy as an effective way to maintain a low birthrate and said as recently as January that it should continue as a “long-term” policy.
In a country that still has a weak social welfare system, losing a child devastates more than emotions. Parents in China rely on only children to take care of them in old age. At times the pressure to succeed can be unbearable for single children, as can the challenges for parents who lose their child.
National tragedies like Lu’s death in Boston and the huge number of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, place a spotlight on the issue in China, but the toll on society goes well beyond these high-profile cases.
According to Xinhua, the state newswire, since the policy was enacted in 1979, more than one million families in China have lost their only child, a situation known in the country as “shidu,” meaning “lost only one” in English.
“I am not afraid of dying, but I cannot afford to lie at a sickbed for a long time,” said Zhang Yulan who lost her only son 12 years ago in a car accident when he was just 23 years old.
In her grief, Zhang, 59, was forced to come to terms with the marginal life of a childless middle-aged woman of few resources in a society where children and the extension of the family line are essential to a person’s survival. She began to blame her husband, feeling he did not support her enough to have a second child. Zhang retreated from society, even living in a monastery for several years to escape the pain.
Each year 76,000 families in China lose their only child, according to an annual report by Chinese Ministry of Health in 2010. In June 2012, for the first time, over 80 parents from all over the country who had lost their only child marched to Beijing to protest the policy and the meager compensation they are given in front of the National Family Planning office.
Zhang heard about the protest and began to think about her own experience. Having one child had not been her choice. Indeed she had been pregnant twice after she gave birth to her son, thinking that, as a farmer, she would be exempt from the one-child policy.
But she says her county’s family planning department coerced her into having abortions under the threat of losing her husband’s teaching job and their house. The abortions were administered late, she said once when she was five months pregnant and once at eight months, when a gruesome procedure is required.
Le Li / NBC News
Around 500 parents protested in front of National Family Planning Office in Beijing on May 20.
NBC could not confirm Zhang’s allegation, but reports of forced abortions have caused international outcry in recent years. In June 2012 city officials in China apologized to a woman who was forced to have an abortion and disciplined three people responsible for it. The apology came after gruesome photos of the mother and the fetus sparked outrage among Chinese netizens.
The Chinese Ministry of Health released data in March that 336 million abortions 222 million sterilizations have been performed since 1971. (The one-child policy was implemented in 1979, but other family planning policies were enforced before it).
“When I was pregnant with my second child they showed up,” Zhang said, referring to the local family planning officials. “But since I lost my son, no one from the family planning department has come to talk to me in years.”
Turning to activism
Zhang feels the government has not kept the promise it made when it adopted the one-child policy: that the government would take on the role of the children who would not be there, caring for parents in their old age. The government even popularized a slogan at the time: “One child is good. The government will take care of you in your later life.”
Under the current policy, Zhang is given $22 a month from the government in compensation for her son’s death – a sum that could not even pay her monthly Internet fee. The monthly compensation for parents varies for the different provinces from $16 to $32
With their children gone, elderly parents who are unable to care for themselves are faced with another cruel irony: a signature from offspring is a requirement for admittance to a nursing home in China. Despite promises from the Ministry of Civil Affairs Beijing bureau last year that the policy would be amended, it remains unchanged. For instance, if someone wanted to check in to one of Beijing’s 400 public or private nursing homes, they would need a signature from their children.
Zhang has found companionship if not solace in a support group in Jiangshu province, joining up with other mothers and fathers who have lost their children. She participates in online groups and tries to raise awareness of the issue.
In May, Zhang joined 500 parents from all over the country who came to Beijing for another protest in front of the National Family Planning Office. They demanded the government increase the compensation to shidu parents and offer a welfare package for their old age.
“I never planned to be a petitioner,” Zhang told NBC. “I had no choice.”
The National Health and Family Planning Office declined to respond to questions from NBC News about the recent protests, saying the issue was too sensitive to comment on.
But in an email to NBC News the Family Planning office addressed some other issues: “Through the government's research, we fully understand the difficulty and issues faced by shidu families. We hope to help solve some practical problems faced by shidu families.”
The email added that the one child policy has made “great contributions to China's economic development” and that the government will continue to adhere to it and improve it. For example, they pointed out that if both parents are single child, they are now allowed to have a second child.
Despite the government’s promises to improve the policy, Hu Liying, a 56-year-old department store clerk, finds activism futile and did not join the recent protest. She lost her only son when he was just 23; he was working in a highway toll booth when he was run down and killed by a criminal eluding capture.
“In this country, it’s useless to seek justice,” the former activist told NBC.
Li Jianxin is a professor of sociology at Beijing University who has blogged about shidu families, describing them as the victims of the one child policy.
“We must lift the control over the family planning policy,” Li told NBC. “’Shidu’ is the product of the one child policy.”
Li is one of 15 experts who sent a recommendation to the National People’s Congress to end the one child policy last July.
Six month later, in January 2013, the National Health and Family Planning Commission responded that the policy should remain as a “long-term one” to maintain a low birthrate.
Waiting for heaven
Meanwhile, for parents like Zhang, life is still a struggle. The only time that excitement creeps into her voice is when she talks about joining her son in the afterlife.
When her son died, Zhang bought two plots, ensuring she will one day rest at his side.
“Our heaven will be there,” she said.
- China: One-child policy is here to stay
- Chinese say one child is enough as Beijing weighs end of policy
- Full China coverage on NBC's Behind The Wall blog
This story was originally published on Tue Jun 4, 2013 4:53 PM EDT