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 in 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 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.
Equally difficult, many parents say, is their private struggle with shame. In a society that venerates ancestors, one of the gravest insults in Chinese is to curse someone to die “duanzi, juesun” — childless, without descendants.
“That’s what people will now say of us,” Xu said on a recent afternoon from his couch in Panjin, an oil town in northeastern China.
The shame for many runs so deep that they cut themselves off from the world. Xu and his wife rarely leave their cramped apartment for fear that strangers will bring up the topic of children.
They have tapered off contact with family and friends, finding their pity just as painful. Some friends suggested that they pretend that their son, Xu Zijie, had moved abroad or was too busy with work to visit. Others seemed to avoid the couple.
“They view us as bad fortune and worry our bad luck will transfer to them. I can’t say I blame them,” Xu said.
Xu’s 51-year-old wife, who asked that her name not be published so that she could talk freely about her shame, recalled through tears the joy the couple felt years ago at their son’s birth.
A second child was so unthinkable that, immediately after her delivery, doctors performed a procedure to prevent her from being able to conceive. Neither she nor the doctors thought it necessary to seek her permission.
“Family planning is good, the government will take care of our old,” read posters that were plastered on streets in those days.
Because Xu and his wife worked at an oil company owned by the government, as most enterprises were then, having a second child would have meant losing not just their jobs but also housing, health care and schooling for the children. They would have faced a fine that was more than five times their province’s annual average income.
With just one child to care for, Xu said, “We didn’t live for anything anymore, only for him.”
Xu’s wife quit her job and moved into a second apartment near her son’s high school so she could feed him healthier breakfasts and lunches than were offered in the school cafeteria.
By the time Zijie was approaching college graduation, Xu said, Xu had lined up a coveted job for him at the oil company. Then came the accident that sent the couple’s son tumbling out a loose car door to his death.
After months of deep depression, Zijie’s parents began searching for a new reason to live. They begged doctors in vain, Xu said, hoping to find some way to have another baby. They considered adoption — extremely uncommon among Chinese for cultural reasons — and ultimately rejected it. “Blood relations are just too important in China,” Xu said.
The only solace came from online forums created by other bereaved one-child parents. The conversations online often broached topics that were impossible to discuss elsewhere — about parents’ haunting dreams of their children, the struggle to get wives through Mother’s Day, the constant anger at the government.
Eventually, online talk turned to protest, and hundreds, including Xu, staged a sit-in in front of the Health Ministry building in Beijing to demand greater compensation.
Many said they received threatening phone calls from authorities in the lead-up to the event. Groups of 20 to 30 people were intercepted by sometimes-brutal police officers at train stations. Those couples who made it to the capital said they were turned away by hotels near the planned protest site.
“Why do they treat us like rebels and counterrevolutionaries?” said Li Jianhua, 58, a protester whose daughter died five years ago, as she holed up in a motel half a mile away.
Many interviewed on the day of the protest said they actually supported the one-child policy — as do a majority of Chinese, according to a 2008 Pew Research Center survey.
“China’s economy would not have risen as fast if there were too many mouths to feed,” said Niu Binghai, 48, a taxi driver from Wuhan whose son died recently at age 22. “But it was built on our sacrifice for the country. Why can’t our country love us back?”
Yang Yinlian, 54, recalled how — during an illegal second pregnancy in 1995 — her state-run factory sent a car and a family planning official to ensure that she went through with an abortion.
Confronted with more than 400 graying and white-haired citizens converging on the Health Ministry building, overwhelmed authorities called in reinforcements, who corralled the protesters out of public view.
Despite the tense atmosphere during the protest, Xu said he took heart from those around him. People he had known only online greeted him like old friends. Stories and tears flowed easily. Snapshots of children were exchanged.
In the end, health officials met with representatives of the protest group and persuaded the crowd to go home by making vague promises of better access to nursing homes, housing, medical care and higher subsidies at some point — the same thing they’d said during two earlier protests by parents.
A month later, back home and on the couch again after that rare trip out, Xu was pessimistic. In almost a year since his son’s death, the government had yet to deliver even the $22 monthly compensation required by law.
But, Xu said quietly, he had found at least one reason to keep going, nodding toward his wife as she made lunch in the kitchen.
He said that a few months ago, after doctors ruled out all medical possibility of her giving birth to another child, his wife had brought up the subject of divorce. “I wouldn’t blame you,” he recalled her saying matter-of-factly, noting how many other bereaved fathers in China leave their wives for younger women who can still conceive.
Her words shook him from his usual depression, he told a visitor. “How could I ever do that? It’s enough for her to lose our son. If she loses me, she would have nothing.”
He promised her instead that they would wait out these last decades of life together.
But the logistics of those final days now weighed on his mind. The couple still hadn’t buried their son’s ashes, because cemeteries in China often charge descendants renewal fees every few decades under threat of disinterment.
“Who will take care of his tomb after we are gone? Who will take care of ours?” Xu worried.
Recently, he decided that they would ask a relative to scatter all three sets of ashes at sea after the couple died, reuniting them with their son at last.
“Perhaps that will be our happy ending,” Xu said.
Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.