Care facility in China offers help to aging parents who have lost only children


Zheng Qing hugs her dead son’s favourite jacket as she shows it to reporters during an interview at her house in Zhangjiakou, China, November 22, 2015. Fan Lifeng, the son of Fan Guohui and his wife Zheng Qing, both aged 56, was born in 1984 and died from a car accident in 2012.

In the 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 have 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. “Care from the government and society brings them warmth.”

Officials in Beijing say they have elevated shidu seniors to a position next to leading scientists, model labourers and others worthy of special treatment. “China is paying increasing concern to such families. The Chinese government has considered their contribution to the national policy,” said Li Hongbing, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Civil Affairs, which is charged with protecting the rights of the local elderly.

“What is our hope? That when they join this senior home, there will be a change,” he said. “They are ‘staying together to keep warm,’ as we say in Chinese.”

Governments across China have slowly begun to acknowledge the sacrifices made by shidu families. Parents have been given increasingly large monthly payments – $100 per person a month in Sichuan province, for example – and, in some places, even a small annual stipend for the purchase of a birthday cake.

Having space devoted to their care as seniors, however, marks a new degree of official willingness to take responsibility for their care. Those staying at the Beijing Fifth Social Welfare Institute must pay roughly $500 a month, but the service they receive goes well beyond what others are given for that price tag.

The officials who conceived of this place say they are building a template. A stream of delegations has descended since the first floors dedicated to shidu parents opened in August, as officials from elsewhere in China contemplate doing the same.

Beijing alone has 224 elder-care facilities; some might devote a floor to parents who have lost only children. Others, entire buildings, Mr. Li said.

“We need to create a service standard,” he said. “This is a design for them.”

At the same time, China’s attempts to provide new services for shidu parents have only underscored the vast gulf between what is needed and what governments have been willing to provide.

An estimated one million parents have lost only children – a number growing by tens of thousands each year – and for most of them, a few floors in a single Beijing care home do little to make up for their suffering, or years of government inaction and harassment that continue to this day.

The word shidu did not grow in popularity until after the devastating Sichuan earthquakes in 2008 that killed more than 5,000 children, many of whom were at schools that collapsed.

Their deaths also brought attention to their parents.

In the years since, disparate groups of shidu parents have clustered together, organizing in cities and travelling together to Beijing to petition for better treatment.

For decades, after all, Chinese governments soaked up second-child fines that, in the final years of the policy, added up to billions of dollars a year.

For shidu families fighting for redress, “the overall argument has been: We followed the rules to our detriment,” said Mei Fong, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. Families believe it’s time for government “in some way to make reparations,” she said.

The extent of their demands underscores the difficulties they face. They want someone who can sign documents for them as they age, care for them when they are sick, provide pension payments that replace money they might otherwise have received from a child and, once they have died, pay for their tombs.

“There are so many things that haunt our hearts – and we are very scared to think of life in the future,” said Mr. Cheng.

He and his wife had planned to have two or three children. “Chinese tradition is that more kids means more happiness – and that raising kids will serve as a guarantee for parents later in life,” he said.

But at the time his wife became pregnant a second time, family-planning officials “would visit your home every day and ask you to have an abortion,” he said.

Ignoring them was perilous. Give birth to a second child and you would almost certainly be expelled from your job, and face either a hefty penalty or state refusal to register the child – denying them the benefits of statehood.

Mr. Cheng’s wife had an abortion late in her second term. She was then sterilized.

Years later, his son, a top student who had secured a coveted bank job in Beijing, slit his wrists. He was 23 and severely depressed. “It was like the sky had fallen,” Mr. Cheng said. He and his wife withdrew into their home, growing isolated from friends and family.

Authorities paid little attention. “For more than 10 years, no one ever asked if we needed anything, or showed any concern for us,” he said.

China’s treatment of shidu parents is “inhuman,” said Li Minglong, whose 17-year-old only son drowned last August. Three months later, Mr. Li attended a meeting with one of the top figures in China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, to demand solutions.

“It’s not that the country cannot do it, but that they will not admit reality,” Mr. Li said. “The state is not willing to face the issue.”

Instead, authorities often treat shidu families like criminals, placing those who protest under house arrest and barring them from travel. Once, Mr. Li bought a train ticket to Beijing, where he wanted to attend a protest, only to have police call him less than two hours later, telling him he was not allowed to go.

Those who do get to the capital are quickly removed by the country’s security apparatus.

This fall, on the day a group of shidu families organized a rally at the headquarters of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, nine full-size city buses were parked outside to take away protesters. A handful of other buses were filled with police. Minutes after a Globe and Mail reporter arrived, officers ordered a halt to interviews, telling a reporter to leave the site.

“What we want is fairness,” said Mr. Li – but he struggles to even get recognition. He estimates that 80 per cent of people in China are not even familiar with the term shidu.

Until 2012, one of them was Liu Fengqin, a therapist at the Beijing Maple Psychological Counselling Center. That year, a journalist called to ask about parents who had lost only children. “It was the first time I had heard this word,” Ms. Liu said.

Hoping to help, she secured funding and organized a group session. Twenty-seven people came, but it nearly turned into a disaster. Bringing so many shidu parents into one room only served to concentrate their feelings of anger and isolation, she said. People collapsed. Women began to wail. Men walked out. “They blamed me. They said they wanted to forget it all, but I had raised it up again,” she said.

The grief she encountered was profound, but few had been able to process it. One family kept a half-eaten steamed bun in the fridge, the last thing their child had consumed. Others refused to visit the grave of their dead child. Some divorced or fell into domestic violence. One woman said she feared she would go blind from crying too much.

“They think they have failed in life. Many, in particular mothers, feel very guilty,” Ms. Liu said. “Why do they refuse to move on? Because they think their kid is gone, and they have no right to live a happy life.”

For those willing to do it, however, talking has helped. With funding from a foundation run by Internet giant Alibaba, Ms. Liu once travelled to the tropical southern island of Hainan for a shidu retreat. There, the woman who feared blindness ran up to her with a smile. “I must live for my own well-being from now on,” the woman said. “And I have stopped crying.”

People who have attended have begun calling themselves “tonmingren,” or people with a shared fate.

But like Beijing Fifth Social Welfare Institute, Ms. Liu’s work is a rare ray of hope. Since 2013, Maple has held seven workshops, attended by roughly 100 families, a fraction of those who could use the help.

“And in terms of grief-transformation workshops, I think we are the only ones doing this,” Ms. Liu said.

Still, her experience suggests there is value in bringing shidu families together.

It “can help them relax, and provide a sense of normalcy,” she said. “It let’s them feel like they are not the most bad-luck people in the world.”

That is the hope, too, at Beijing Fifth Social Welfare Institute.

As they prepared to open floors to shidu parents, officials heard from critics who worried that bringing together people scarred by loss could magnify their sorrow. But the first shidu resident was an elementary-school teacher, who moved in accompanied by two of her former students, now in their 50s.

As more people arrived, “we found that they often asked for leave to go out. They actually have quite a large number of social connections,” said Ms. Chang, the institute director.

“And as time goes by, I think they will have more contacts with each other, too.”


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