The Lingering Shadows of China’s One-Child Policy: Bereaved Parents Navigate Emotional and Financial Abyss

In China where adult children are often the safety net for aging parents, the loss of an only child means a precarious financial future. (Image Midjourney)

In a quiet home in Beijing, a couple in their 60s who lost their only child navigate through the silent corridors, a stark reminder of the consequences of China’s stringent one-child policy, enforced from 1980 to 2015.

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Lihong Shi, Associate Professor of Anthropology, writing for The Conversation says the policy, aimed at controlling the burgeoning population, has left behind a demographic of bereaved parents grappling with not just emotional devastation but also an uncertain, financially unstable future.

Approximately 1 million Chinese families experienced the loss of their sole child by the year 2010, leaving parents, currently in their 50s and 60s, navigating through a future shrouded in uncertainty and bereavement.

The one-child policy initially met with resistance, was enforced through rigorous measures, including mandatory contraception and, in some instances, forced abortions.

Violators faced financial penalties, and their additional children were often denied citizenship status and benefits.

While successful in slowing population growth and contributing to economic development, the policy also sowed seeds of social and emotional challenges that continue to sprout long after its cessation.

In 2015, the policy was relaxed to allow two children and further adjusted in 2021 to permit up to three children per family.

However, the policy changes came too late for many parents who started families during the one-child policy era and subsequently lost their only child to unforeseen circumstances like illness, accidents, or other tragedies.

Having passed reproductive age at the time of their child’s death, these parents were left without the possibility of having another child.

In a society where adult children are often the primary safety net for aging parents due to patchy and stratified pension and healthcare systems, losing an only child means dealing with grief and facing a precarious financial future.

The cultural and legal framework in China, deeply rooted in the tradition of filial piety, mandates children to support their aging parents, a safety net that is non-existent for parents bereaved by the loss of their only child.

Over the past decade, bereaved parents have sought redress from the Chinese authorities, advocating for financial support and access to affordable elder care facilities.

In response, starting in 2013, the government initiated several programs, including a monthly allowance, hospital care insurance, and subsidized nursing home care for bereaved parents in some regions. However, many parents express that these measures fail to adequately address their elder care needs.

The legacy of China’s one-child policy is intricately woven into the fabric of contemporary Chinese society. While the policy is now a part of history, its echoes reverberate through the hallways of homes devoid of children’s laughter, in the silent tears of bereaved parents, and in the ongoing dialogue about governmental responsibility and social safety nets.

The future narrative will undoubtedly be shaped by how the Chinese authorities address the residual impacts and navigate the complexities left in the wake of the one-child policy.


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