China's One-Child Policy Compounds Loss; Couples Whose Child Dies Become Social Outcasts with No Descendant or Future

Article excerpt

PANJIN, China * It's been 11 months, and Xu Min still rarely leaves the house.

He spends his days on the couch in front of a TV, trying to block out memories of his dead son. He blames fate for the car accident that killed the 23-year-old last September.

But for the loneliness that will haunt him and his wife the rest of their lives, Xu blames the Chinese government.

China told the couple they could only have one child and threatened to take away everything if they didn't listen. They were good citizens, he said, "so for 20 years, we put our whole future and hope into our son."

Now, they have no one to support them in old age. But even more crushing, said Xu, 53, they have nothing to live for.

For more than three decades, debate has raged over China's one- child policy, imposed in 1979 to rein in runaway population growth. It has reshaped Chinese society with birthrates plunging from 4.77 children per woman in the early 1970s to 1.64 in 2011, according to United Nations estimates and created the world's most imbalanced gender ratio, with baby boys far outnumbering girls.

Human rights groups have exposed forced abortions, infanticide and involuntary sterilizations, practices banned in theory by the government. And officials are increasingly deliberating whether the long-term economic costs of the policy including a looming labor shortage now outweigh the benefits. In the latest sign of such concern, the government announced last weekend that it is studying possible ways to relax the one-child policy in coming years, according to state media.

Little discussed and largely ignored, however, is a quiet devastation left in the policy's wake: childless parents.

A parent's worst nightmare in any country, the deaths of children in China are even more painful because of the cultural importance of descendants, increasing financial pressures on the elderly and the legal limits on bearing additional offspring.

Few reliable numbers exist on such grieving parents. But one study at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Science estimated that there are already more than 1 million parents who lost their only child, a number expected to rise rapidly. …