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 that they could have only one child and threatened to take away everything if they didn’t listen. They were good citizens, Xu said, “so for 20 years, we put our whole future and hope into our son.”
Now, the couple 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 estimates by the United Nations — and contributed to the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio at birth, 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 — 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 by the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated that more than 1 million parents have lost their only child, a number expected to rise rapidly in coming years.
Many such parents are too old to conceive again, and some say they regret not pushing for a second child when they could have, even if it would have meant losing their jobs and getting hit with overwhelming fines.
In quiet and often-tearful interviews, more than 30 parents who have lost their only child described lives of emptiness and depression so deep that some have contemplated suicide.
Almost all characterized their child’s death as a crippling financial blow because China’s elderly tend to depend heavily on their children to supplement modest government pensions.
Many noted bitterly the enormous resources that the government has plowed into the enforcement of the one-child policy, creating a new wing of bureaucracy down to the township level.
With limited exceptions for rural and ethnic groups, the government collects steep fines from offenders, estimated to equal billions of dollars, although the precise amount is kept secret. And yet, the parents complain, it wasn’t until 2007 that China began to disburse small sums as compensation to parents whose only child had died.