Family planning official records the suffering of parents who lost their only child

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/15 17:56:31

○ Family planning official Han Shengxue interviewed more than 100 shidu families who have lost their only child, depicting their suffering in his new book

○ These people endured extreme pain most people cannot imagine. The book was almost withdrawn halfway due to its sensitivity

A child sits in front of a family planning slogan.Photo: CFP

A shidu couple eats dinner in front of their television. Photo: CFP

Twenty five years ago, when Han Shengxue was passionate about his work in family planning, he couldn't have guessed he would spend years chronicling one of the saddest aspects of the one-child policy.

Starting in 2005, Han has traveled to more than 10 provinces and municipalities to interview over 100 "shidu" families, those who have lost their only child.

Last month, his book on his 12-year investigation that depicts the misery of these shidu families and how they have struggled without children to care for them was published. The first published work to cover such large number of shidu parents, in it Han reflects on the history of the one-child policy and the social problems related to shidu families.

China started to enforce family planning policies nationwide in the early 1980s, limiting most couples in the country to only having one child. In the 1990s, a group of parents who lost their only child but were unable to have another - often due to age - started to emerge. Since then, the number of shidu parents has only grown.

A 2010 report published by what was then China's National Health Ministry shows that 76,000 families lose their only child every year, and the total number of shidu families reached 1 million in 2012.

These childless parents now face their senior years without support from their offspring, which poses challenges in old-age care, medical insurance and psychological support.

 "These people have contributed to society and now are enduring extreme pain and difficulty. I feel obliged to record what's happening to them, so they can receive more attention from society and the government," Han, 55, told the Global Times.

A revelation

For a long time, Han dared not to tell his interviewees that he is an official responsible for carrying out the family planning policy that has brought them such pain. While interviewing shidu families is already tricky, his identity made this difficult task even more challenging.

At first, he did not conceal his identity when approaching these families and his requests were often rejected and he was sometime even attacked verbally. One parent exclaimed "You will pay!" Many parents shouted that "our pain is all because of you!"

"Many elderly people who have lost their only child blame their tragedy on the family planning policy," Han explained. He then usually pretended to be a journalist or a writer.

It took Han many years to realize the painful consequences the policy could have. As a young man, Han was proud to be a family planning official in a county in Huaihua, Central China's Hunan Province, because it was an important task at that time.

Han used to be a true believer in the family planning policy. He had to drop out of school as he had too many brothers and his family couldn't afford to pay for his education. Some of his relatives struggled to feed themselves because they had too many hungry bellies under their roof. Han believed that the tradition of having large families needed to change and that his work benefitted society.

Han was charged with inspecting the performance of township family planning officials, making sure they fined people and terminated any illicit pregnancies. A competent official, he was recognized as an "advanced worker" many times for consistently hitting his targets.

Naturally, these punishments and interventions bred tension between grass-roots officials and ordinary families. But Han could never understand why people didn't believe in the policy like he did. It wasn't until 2005 that Han appreciated the pain these families suffered.

One day in 2005, a father whose only child had died came to Han's office. "He was not crying, but his eyes were empty and full of tears. His face was like a dead man's, the most desperate face I ever saw. Only his eyes suggested that he was still alive," Han recollected. "I will never forget that face."

It was not the first time that shidu parents had come to him. Before then he did not take them seriously and tried to encourage them to have another child. But the face of that bereaved father touched him so much that he decided to investigate these miserable couples.

"I realized it is not one or two individuals. They are a group. I needed to talk to them and record their suffering," said Han. "The policy did not directly make them childless, but it no doubt  increased the risk of them becoming childless."



Opening wounds

It was a tough job for Han to knock on the doors of shidu parents.

"It is a terrible thing to lose children. They don't want to reopen the old wounds," said Han, "They have experienced incomparable pain. To them, losing the only child meant their sky fell."

The parents that Han has interviewed, who range from their 40s to 80s, all have lost their only child, be it to disease, suicide, or a traffic accident. Even though they have tried to come to terms with this fact, their wounds have not healed and are easily reopened.

As Han wrote in his book, one mother would turn on her computer before dawn, and "chat" with her dead son through the QQ instant messenger by opening both her and her son's QQ accounts. She spent at least 20 hours every day "chatting" with her son, which made her feel "united" with her child.

Almost all the shidu parents to whom Han has talked have learned how to use the Internet. As they find it hard to talk to most other parents, they find comfort in online chat groups where they can talk to people in the same position.

The wound is sensitive not only for the shidu families. Han also faced pressure from people around him.

Back in 2005, the family planning policy was still being implemented nationwide. Han's family members and friends thought that recording the negative side of the policy was not "suitable."

 "The topic was a bit sensitive. My friends wanted to talk me out of it, saying that I might not get it published. My wife worried I might get into trouble," Han revealed.

"But I could not stop. They [the shidu parents] are too pitiful. My view on life changed totally after getting into contact with them. I had to put other considerations aside," Han added, "I consoled myself by thinking that I was doing a thing out of kindness and conscience, without ulterior purposes."

He did indeed face barriers in reaching the public. In 2015, when Yang Guifeng, editor-in-chief of Woodpecker magazine, a publication under Han's publisher, recommended serializing Han's work, some of her colleagues worried it might bring the publishing house trouble, but Yang insisted that they should help spread Han's work.

"Shidu, as a social phenomenon, cannot be ignored. History can't be changed, but we should not forget it," Yang told the Global Times. "There are over 100 million families with only one child. They are all potential shidu families. The book serves a reminder to society."

Noticing suffering

Han has become a channel for shidu parents to get their voices heard. According to Han, later in his investigation, many parents learned his true identity as an official, but they were still willing to talk to him because they hope this attention might lead to practical solutions to their problems.

Almost every year, shidu parents come to Beijing to petition the authorities in an attempt to get more attention and help. 

In May 2015, nearly 1,000 parents who had lost their only child demonstrated in front of China's National Health and Family Planning Commission. Some parents chanted the slogan "Family planning is good, the government will provide for the aged" that was popular in 1980s and 1990s to encourage people to have only one child, to demonstrate that they now need this promised support.

Han says that the problems shidu families face are getting more serious as their population grows and ages.

From 2008, China started to provide special assistance to families whose only child is dead or disabled if the mother is over 49. The subsidy has been increased twice in recent years. In March 2016, "strengthening the care and help for shidu families" was part of China's 13th Five-Year Plan.

However, this help is far from enough. A survey conducted by the China Population and Development Research Center in 2012 shows that families whose only child is dead or disabled still face major difficulties in security, elderly care and healthcare.

As Han has found out, many policies pushed forward by the government are poorly executed at the grassroots level. Besides, there is still a lack of professional social workers and nursing homes to help these elderly people.

"Now [through the book], at least more people in society have noticed this group of people. After the book came out, many compassionate people called me and said they were willing to help them. It's all I could expect from the book," Han said. "The situation is getting better."


Newspaper headline: Reopening the old scar


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