Author: CHUNG Yoon Ngan
Date: 04-24-12 07:20
Empty homes, broken families
By He Dan
April 24, 2012 - 8:58am http://www.chinadailyapac.com
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A portrait of Yang Fei in the family home. (Photos by Jiang Dong/China Daily)
Parents who have lost their only child are increasingly worried about how they will cope when they grow old. Our reporter, He Dan, traveled to Wuhan and Nanchang to hear their stories.
Mei Yunqing, 52, lay quietly on a couch at his home in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, wearing a striped sweater that once belonged to his dead son.
"I asked him to wear it. I hope our son in heaven will bless his sick father," said Mei's wife, 49-year-old Zhang Taomei.
In 2007, their son, a 16-year-old high school basketball star, died from head injuries he suffered in a bad fall on the court. A year later, Mei suffered a stroke that left him blind and unable to walk. "My husband didn't like to speak about the pain (caused by the loss of their son). Instead, he turned to alcohol and that has ruined his health," said Zhang, who had recently undergone surgery to treat thyroid cancer. She also suffers from acute insomnia, which she believes is the result of overwhelming grief and depression caused by her son's death.
Their monthly income of 1,900 yuan ($300) barely covers medical bills and living expenses. "I dare not think about our old age," admitted Zhang. "We have no savings, so we can't afford to hire a maid or live in a nursing home."
Many aging couples in China face this problem. Traditionally, children become the main providers for their elderly parents. However, if the only child predeceases the parents, they are often left in financial and social limbo. A population and family planning law enacted in 2001 said that local governments should provide "necessary help" to couples who have lost their only child, but are incapable of conceiving again or adopting a child.
In 2007, the National Population and Family Planning Commission started a project to provide help for such couples and urged the provision of a monthly subsidy of not less than 100 yuan to each parent. In Shanghai, the sum has been raised to 150 yuan, but it's still a drop in the ocean. "It's better than no subsidy at all, but it isn't enough to improve our quality of life," said Zheng Puli, a 61-year-old Shanghai resident, whose daughter died in 2007.
China launched its family planning policy in the late 1970s. It's estimated that there are 120 million households with one child on the mainland, accounting for about 30 percent of the national total, according to Zhai Zhenwu, a leading demographer from the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Beijing's Renmin University. He predicted that by 2020, at least 1 million couples who have complied with the policy will end up childless, because some of those children will inevitably die as a result of illness, traffic accidents or other factors.
The inability to become pregnant after losing a child can endanger or even destroy some marriages. One retired teacher from Wuhan, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said her ex-husband and in-laws could not accept the fact that there was no heir to continue the family line after their daughter died from congenital heart disease in 2001, when the mother was 47 years of age.
"My physical condition did not allow me to bear another child and we could not agree on the idea of adoption, so my husband asked for a divorce in 2003 and quickly married a young woman to have a child," she said.
She was forced to move from the family apartment and has lived with her mother and her brother's family since then. Although she realizes that her brother's home is only a temporary shelter, she faces an awkward situation. Her monthly pension of 1,200 yuan isn't enough to buy a home, but is too high for her to qualify for government-subsidized housing. "I just can't figure out how I ended up like this," she said.
Yang Weiguo and Cai Li, from Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, sued Liao Weiming, a former vice-president of Jiangxi Agriculture University, who killed their daughter, a university student studying accountancy, when driving drunk. In total, two people died in the incident and four others were injured. Liao was sentenced to just three years in prison and was ordered to pay total compensation of 2 million yuan.
Yang and his wife received roughly 800,000 yuan to pay for the medical and funeral expenses, but the court rejected their claim for a symbolic 1 yuan as specific compensation for the loss of their daughter, because it found no legal basis in Chinese law to support the request. Now the couple is awaiting a reply from the court of appeal. "We guess the result will not differ from the first trial, but it's not about the money. What we want is more attention and support from the government and society," said Yang.
"People with a complete family can never understand the pain of a middle-aged couple who have lost their only child, so we tried to create a platform for those broken families to get together and help each other to continue with their lives," said Li Minglan, the founder of Lianxin Jiayuan, or the Heart-to-Heart Family Association.
Li established the mutual-aid organization after a particularly vivid dream about her son, who died from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 21. The agony of losing the young man resulted in Li suffering post-traumatic stress. "For the first few months, I still cooked and paged my son to come home for dinner every day and kept buying clothes for him, as if he were still alive," she recalled, "I cried a lot and even planned to commit suicide, so my husband had to send me to hospital."
The turning point came when her son appeared in a dream and warned. "If you go crazy and die, you will not be able to recognize me in heaven." After that, Li fought to resume her normal life and decided to create a group to help others in the same predicament. "Whenever people call our hotline and seek help, we visit them, listen to their stories and share ours, and give them advice," she said.
The organization has more than 300 members. However, lacking support from the government or charities, Lianxin Jiayuan often runs short of operating funds. "We organize a gathering once a month, but the funds collected from our monthly membership fee of five yuan per person are nowhere near enough to cover the expenses, including a simple lunch for every member and renting a place to meet," she admitted.
More help urged
However, help may be at hand. Yuan Weixia, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, has proposed that the government should better protect the rights of parents who have lost their only child.
Yuan said that the current policies overemphasize the obligations of citizens to abide by the policy, while at the same time overlooking their rights.
"Since the family planning policy was introduced more than three decades ago, families with only one child have helped to relieve the demographic pressures on the environment and the job market and have helped (the country) to realize rapid economic growth," she stressed.
"The current family planning policy on the mainland allows couples to have another baby if their child passes away, but that's not enough, the government should also provide financial help to make it possible," urged Yuan.
The government should also work to establish a fund to ensure that these childless couples can receive aid if they suffer from severe disease or become too frail to care for themselves, she said.
Jiang Li, a 57-year-old from Yingkou city in Liaoning province, urged the government to set up dedicated nursing homes for elderly people who have lost their only child.
"It's hard to witness children visiting their parents or to hear people talking about their children," said Jiang, whose daughter, a PhD candidate, was killed in a traffic accident four years ago.
"In addition, many nursing homes refuse to take older people who are childless, because they don't have anyone to offer a (financial) guarantee," she added.
Hong Lian, director of the civil affairs bureau in Wuhan's Jianghan district, admitted that nursing homes for the elderly have failed to meet the needs of this particular group, but said that establishing new institutions is not feasible in the short term, given that the overall number of those affected is relatively small.
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org