At 9 PM on December 1, 2015, Han Shengxue landed at Beijing Capital International Airport, his flight delayed by half a day due to the city’s serious air pollution. Prior to his arrival, more than 700 parents who had lost their only children had gathered in front of the Beijing headquarters of the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) for a whole day, demanding compensation from the government for having restricted them to a single child.
Director of a regional family planning office in the city of Huaihua, Hunan Province, Han heard after he arrived in Beijing that four people from his city had joined the petitioners, and that they wanted to see him. They sent a message to Han to reassure him that they had not come to Beijing “to criticise the local government.”
Han replied that nor was he in the capital to “persuade them to come back.” Han was in fact in Beijing at the invitation of Peking University, which was to convene an academic seminar on December 3 to discuss the recent adjustment of China’s Population and Family Planning Law that would allow all married Chinese couples to have two children.
Han was invited in his capacity both as a local family planning official and for his activism on behalf of China’s so-called shidu parents – those who have lost their only child. China is home to over a million such families, with an estimated 76,000 couples nationwide experiencing the death of their only child every year, according to Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) data published in 2013. CASS has also predicted that the total number of shidu families in China will reach 2.7 million by 2030, and 11 million by 2050.
The day before the seminar, Han met with several bereaved parents in his hotel to accumulate material for his ongoing investigation into the problems faced by shidu families, an issue he has been observing for more than 10 years. Over the years, he has formed a habit of interviewing shidu families, experts or volunteers assisting bereaved parents whenever he has free time during business trips. Since Han published a report on shidu families in the November issue of Woodpecker, a Chinese literary magazine focussed mainly on legal issues, a growing number of bereaved parents across the country have come to him for help.
Qing Er, a shidu mother from Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, met Han the evening before the Peking University seminar. Qing Er, 62, lost her only daughter to illness in 1995. Four years later, at the age of 46, she gave birth to a second daughter. The new birth brought her both hope and fear – she had to bring up the child on her meagre pension because her husband died when their second daughter was only one year old, depriving the family of its main source of income.
“I can hardly think of my life after retirement, and what is always on my mind right now is how to raise this child,” she told China Report.
Starting in 2013, the NHFPC announced that local governments would provide monthly subsidies to parents aged 49 or over who had lost their only child – 340 yuan (US$53) for urban families and 170 yuan (US$26) for their rural counterparts. The pledge added that this financial assistance was considered a form of charity, not a formal part of the country’s social welfare system.
China’s Population and Family Planning Law, however, stipulates that these subsidies are only available to “families whose only child is disabled or dead as a result of an accident, and that did not bear or adopt another child.” Qing Er, consequently, is ineligible for government aid.
“I will try my best to convey your pleas at the conference,” Han told Qing Er during their meeting. “It may not work, but it is better than doing nothing.”
Formerly a teacher, Han was transferred to his local family planning office in 1992 and remains one of the few staff members in his workplace with a university degree. There, he witnessed local government officials punishing families who were found in violation of the One Child Policy by confiscating their property or tearing down their houses; the alternative, Han told our reporter, was demotion or even dismissal. This led to tensions between some local residents and family planning officials – the middle school-aged son of one of Han’s colleagues in Huaihua, he said, was even murdered in an apparent revenge attack.
A former devotee of the Malthusian theory of exponential population growth, now largely discredited in the West, Han told China Report that he never questioned the national family planning policy, particularly after witnessing the hard lives of rural families who had given birth to five or six children.
Han described himself as “content” with his only daughter, and disagrees with the Chinese prejudice in favour of boys in the interest of continuing the family line. It was only when he began to receive thanks from bereaved families for “speaking up for their rights” that Han began to comprehend the reasons why some people wanted to have more children.
More than 20 years ago, Han was an avid reader and also wrote poetry and fiction. However, while still working as a teacher, Han turned his hand to journalism, reporting on the murder of the daughter of an old woman in Huaihua, a case which was only resolved when Han’s story was printed on the front page of the local newspaper. Han was shocked by the power of the media to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged people.
In the late 1990s, Han began to write occasionally for various magazines on the subject of population control and family conflict in China based on his first-hand experience working for the family planning authorities. In 2004, Han began to write his first novel on China’s gender imbalance in China, titled Don’t Cry, Girls, which awakened him to the looming social problem of shidu families who had begun to assemble in ever-greater numbers to demand compensation from his employers.
“It made me sad after hearing their tearful complaints. If they were allowed to have a second child, the situation would be totally different,” he said.
In 2014, Han successfully secured a stipend from the Hunan Writers’ Association to cover shidu families. For a family planning official to touch on such a topic in writing was viewed with suspicion, and Han kept his work secret from his colleagues and employers. He also concealed his identity as an official when interviewing shidu families.
Han began by interviewing acquaintances and local families, who in turn introduced him to new interviewees. He also joined online forums for bereaved parents to broaden the scope of his research. After conducting many interviews, Han’s real identity was exposed, and he was shocked to find that virtually all his interviewees expressed understanding of what he was trying to do.
“I inform my interviewees in advance that I am the father of an only daughter. I tell them: ‘If an accident happens, your sufferings will be my sufferings,’” Han told China Report.
Amiable and approachable, Han has interviewed more than 100 bereaved parents so far. His interviewees included a woman who went to Africa to find solace by helping local children after her only daughter died. In another case, a bereaved mother went to Inner Mongolia and helped to plant over 2.5 million trees in the space of 13 years.
“Some of [my interviewees] were surprised to find that a family planning official would like to speak for them,” Han told our reporter. “I have never harmed any of my interviewees and I feel no guilt… But I can never forget their eyes. A miserable world is buried deep within them.”
Han once interviewed his former classmate He De, who is also a county-level family planning official in Huaihua. Over the years, He has been involved in more than 1,000 sterilisations, which saw him praised by the government as a “model worker” for several years in a row. However, when He’s only daughter died in an accident, this former enforcer of China’s family planning policy also joined the ranks of petitioners outside the NHFPC headquarters in Beijing in early December.
“My pet phrase used to be: ‘The national family planning policy benefits the nation and the public as well as each individual family,’” He told ChinaReport. “Now I have to suffer in silence. Every single-child family is walking a tightrope and the loss of that only child is nothing short of a catastrophe.”
Even though Han sent away his last visitor at 11 PM on December 2, he rose at 4 AM the next morning to prepare for his speech. From the gender imbalance in newborns and the plight of shidu families to concealed illegal births and the difficulties faced by local family planning officials, Han spoke at the seminar for more than 20 minutes, despite a 10-minute limit.
“I came to Peking University to discuss the issue [of shidu families], Han told our reporter. “This is not a place for clichés and unsubstantiated lies. I believe experts also want to hear the truth from a local family planning official.”
On October 29, during the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of Chinan Central Committee, China announced the end of its controversial One Child Policy – opening the way for all Chinese married couples to have two children. However, as most of the shidu families interviewed by Han are already too old to have more children, he will continue to raise awareness, though he admits his work will have to be modified to fit the new conditions.
“Administrative interference was the main job of local family planning offices, but in the coming years, these offices will move towards serving the public,” Han said. To those who mock the perceived irony of a family planning official also serving as one of the country’s most high-profile advocates for shidu families, Han has a curt response: “It is not a joke, and there is someone speaking for them.”
Han has already written over 150,000 words in his report on shidu families, and plans to publish his findings in book form early next year.
“I will try to expose the pain of bereaved parents, and, most importantly, appeal to the government to stop treating them simply as a disadvantaged group or a target for ‘stability maintenance,’” he continued.
“If my writings can be a reference for the authorities when formulating population policies in the future, it couldn’t be better.”