Commentary: China’s one-child coverage has left 1,000,000 Chinese language with out help

CLEVELAND, Ohio: The death of a child is devastating to every parent. But for Chinese parents, the loss of an only child can add financial ruin to emotional devastation.

This is a conclusion from a research project on parental grief that I have been doing in China since 2016.

From 1980 to 2015, the Chinese government restricted couples to only one child.

I interviewed over 100 Chinese parents who started their families during this time and have since lost their only child – be it through illness, accident, suicide or murder.

Because they had passed reproductive age at the time their child died, these couples could not have another child.

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In 2015, the Chinese government raised the birth line to two to reverse the decline in the birth rate and rejuvenate an aging population. In May 2021, she announced that Chinese families could have up to three children.

The new “three-child policy” met with a generally restrained response in China. Many Chinese couples say they prefer not to have multiple children as the cost of raising children increases, makes career aspirations difficult for women, and the preference for a son decreases.

The childless parents I interviewed told me they felt forgotten when their government moved away from the birth planning policies that left them alone and insecure in old age – in a country where children are the primary safety net for the elderly are.


China’s one-child policy was a massive social engineering project launched to curb rapid population growth and support economic development efforts.

By the early 1970s, most Chinese women had at least five children. In 1979, China’s population had reached nearly 1 billion, up from 542 million in 1949. The Chinese government claimed that the one-child limit prevented 400 million births in China, though this calculation has been denied as an exaggeration.

Experts say China is entering a “demographic crisis” as the relaxation of the one-child policy has not increased the country’s fertility rate. (File Photo: AFP / WANG ZHAO)

The birth limit was initially unpopular.

“Back then we wanted more children,” says a grieving mother, who was around 60 when I interviewed her in 2017. “It is even more difficult for my parents to accept that we can only have one child.”

To enforce the unpopular one-child policy, the Chinese authorities have developed tough measures, including compulsory contraception and, if all else fails, forced abortions.
Those who violated the policy paid a fine, and children from unauthorized births were often unable to enroll for citizenship status and benefits.

Parents who worked for the government – and many urban workers under China’s economic system – risked losing their jobs if they had more than one child.

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Several grieving mothers told me that they had become pregnant with a second or third child in the 1980s or 1990s but had an abortion for fear of job loss.

The one-child policy, while painful, contributed to an age structure that benefited the economy: the large working-age population, born before and after, grew rapidly compared to the country’s younger and older dependent population.

According to a 2007 United Nations working paper, this “demographic dividend” accounted for 15 percent of Chinese economic growth between 1982 and 2000.


But China’s one-child policy also harbors a risk for couples: the possibility of becoming childless in old age.

“Families with an only child walk a tightrope. Every family can fall off the tightrope at any moment, ”one grieving mother told me when she loses her only child.

“We are the unfortunate ones,” she said.

In a rapidly aging nation - by 2050, one in three people will be in China, or 487 million people

In a rapidly aging nation – according to the official Xinhua news agency, one in three people in China or 487 million people will be over 60 by 2050 – the internet has become a kind of fountain of youth for those who want to perpetuate their talents AFP / WANG ZHAO

In China, where pension and health systems are inconsistent and stratified, adult children are the primary safety net for many aging parents. Your financial support is often necessary after retirement.

It is estimated that one million Chinese families will have lost their only child by 2010. These childless, grieving parents, now in their 50s and 60s, face an uncertain future.

With a long tradition of filial piety, children also have a moral obligation to support their aging parents. Parental care is actually the legal responsibility of children in China – it is enshrined in the Chinese Constitution.

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This safety net does not exist for parents who have lost the only child the government would leave them.


For the past decade, groups of grieving parents have been negotiating with the Chinese authorities to seek financial assistance and access to affordable elderly care facilities.

Those I interviewed said they had fulfilled their duty as citizens by observing the one-child rule and now felt it was the responsibility of the state to look after them as they grew older.

Finally, the authorities responded to their complaints.

For many of China's 222 million elderly people, dancing in public has become the key to staying fit and

For many of China’s 222 million elderly people, dancing in public has become a key to staying fit and staving off the loneliness of aging AFP / WANG ZHAO

Since 2013, the government has launched several programs for grieving parents, most notably a monthly allowance, hospital care insurance and, in some regions, subsidized nursing homes.

However, grieving parents told me that these programs were not enough to meet their elderly care needs.

For example, adult children often look after their parents, bathe them and buy meals while they are in hospital. Private caregivers can charge up to $ 46 (300 renminbi) per day for these tasks.

In regions that now offer government-paid hospital care insurance for childless parents, my research shows that most plans cover between $ 15.50 and $ 31 (about 100 to 200 renminbi) daily for a caregiver.

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Other people I interviewed were concerned about the high cost and limited availability of quality nursing homes in many regions. China’s elderly care facilities cannot meet the needs of the aging population and life in these facilities is not insured.

China’s controversial one-child policy is history, but its legacy may depend on how Chinese authorities treat the grieving parents it left behind.

Lihong Shi is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. This comment first appeared in The Conversation.

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