BEIJING, Sept. 14 (Xinhua) -- Award-winning author Zhou Daxin was absent from a late August press conference for his new book, a half-biographical, half-fictional account of the memories he has of his deceased son.
Sixty-year-old Zhou sent two of his closest friends to give a presentation and take questions on his behalf, fearing he might break down at the mention of his son's name, Zhou Ning.
Zhou Ning, the family's only child, died of a brain tumor in 2008 at 29 years of age.
The grieving father spent more than three years writing "Peaceful Soul," a novel based on Zhou Ning's life that contains imaginary dialogues between the father and son. Zhou dedicated the book to his deceased son, as well as all parents who have lost their only children.
The pain of losing one's only child, he wrote, was far more than that of a broken heart. "It is an unbearable, desperate feeling that is beyond words and tears you apart from inside," he said.
"The writing was an extremely painful experience," said Hu Ping, a noted literary critic and close friend of Zhou. "He sometimes wrote only a few lines a day and would spend the rest of the time in bed with a bad headache."
Zhou, who became a soldier at 18 and stayed on as a literary officer with the People's Liberation Army, never expressed his grief openly. "He appeared composed even at his son's funeral," Hu said.
But like all parents who have lost their only child and are too old to have another baby, Zhou and his wife dread nights and holidays. They stay away from friends and relatives because well-intended words of comfort always cause pain.
Wang Baoxia died during an operation on her back last month in her home city of Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei province. She was 53 and had no next of kin.
Her son died in 2004 during a fight with the family's neighbors and her husband divorced her shortly after that.
She spent the last eight years of her life troubled by grief, poverty and disease. She could only pour her feelings out to a few people she met online, people who were in the same boat and could share her sorrow.
When her back problem worsened, she talked about her plight with a friend, who went to the local family planning authority for help.
The authority agreed to pay all the medical costs for her surgery and signed her papers, which under normal circumstances have to be signed by a family member.
Though Wang's operation failed, the local authority's move is widely applauded as exemplary, as many elderly people have complained of delayed surgery at hospitals when no blood relations are there to sign their papers, a procedure that has to be completed before operations can be conducted.
A 75-year-old professor at Tsinghua University complained that he had been rejected by several nursing homes because no relatives were there to sign his papers.
Professor Pan was very supportive of China's family planning policy and often encouraged couples to get married late and have just one child. He was 35 when his son was born. When he was 70, however, his son died of acute heart disease.
Pan and his wife applied to move into a nursing home, but were rejected because the home required contact information for their next of kin, as relatives of the home's residents are required to pay bills and take responsibility for them in the event of an emergency or sudden ailment. Pan and his wife, however, had no next of kin.
Traditional Chinese beliefs dictate that families should have as many children as they can, as they are needed to care for their parents when they reach old age. In contrast, the family planning policy that took effect in the early 1980s has limited the majority of urban families to just one child.
When these one-child families lose their grown-up children, however, the pain is unbearable.
Wang Guangzhou, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, defined "deprived parents" as those who lose their only offspring at or after the age of 49 -- the age doctors consider to be too old to have another child.
The exact number of deprived parents is unclear, though the Ministry of Health said at least 1 million Chinese families had lost their only children by 2010, with the figure climbing by 76,000 a year.
"That is a rough and conservative estimate," said Beijing University professor Wei Guangzong.
Most Chinese parents whose children die young are too old to have another child, according to a survey conducted by Wei and his colleagues at the university's institute of demography in Liaoyang, a city of 1.85 million people in northeast China's Liaoning province.
Of the 295 people who died between birth and 30 years old in 2007 and 2008, 66 percent died between the ages of 18 and 30, when their parents were too old to have another child, the researchers found.
Doctor-turned-sociologist Yi Fuxian is even more pessimistic, estimating that as many as 10 million Chinese families have lost their only offspring.
Yi's calculation is based on national census data: 218 million children were born as their family's only child between 1975 and 2010. Out of every 10,000 births, 360 died before the age of 10 and 463 died before 25.
"Statistically, that means 10.09 million out of China's 218 million members of the one-child generation end up dying before reaching 25," Yi said.
PRESSING FOR SOLUTIONS
In June, more than 80 deprived parents pleaded to discuss their grievances with the National Population and Family Planning Commission. Five of them were admitted to a meeting with commission officials.
The parents asked for economic compensation, government-rationed affordable housing and more importantly, the creation of laws, regulations and designated bodies that can act as coordinators to solve problems for deprived parents.
Commission officials promised to work out a framework proposal and set up a communication mechanism within three to four months.
Two weeks ago, southwest China's municipality of Chongqing became one of the first Chinese cities to increase allowances for deprived couples.
Chongqing's deputy chief of family planning Wang Wei said starting from the age of 49, each parent will be compensated 3,120 yuan (494 U.S. dollars) a year for the death of their only child.
The amount was a significant increase from the 1,200-yuan compensation that was set in August 2007, when China launched an aid system for deprived families in eight provinces, including Guizhou, Gansu, Shanxi, Jilin, Hunan, Jiangsu and Shandong, plus Chongqing and the port city of Qingdao.
Frequent exposure of the bereaved families' plight has forced governments in other provinces to take action. Zhengzhou, capital of central China's Henan province, has increased compensation from 1,200 yuan per person a year to 3,240 yuan.
In many provinces, family planning and civil affairs authorities have teamed up with non-governmental bodies to provide community services and counseling for deprived elderly people.
In Beijing, a charity fund for senior citizen care has launched special aid programs for deprived parents.
The Beijing Ruipuhua Old-Age Care Fund, established in Feb. 2011, has raised about 309,000 yuan in donations from individual and corporate donors for deprived elderly people with financial difficulties.
The fund also provides community services for "empty nesters" and plans to build three nursing homes in 10 years.
Chen Rui, secretary-general of the fund, said the government still has a larger role to play in protecting elderly people's rights.8 "The government should ensure that these families' incomes do not fall below the local average level. Meanwhile, the government should cover their medical bills and nursing expenses and preferably, finance their accommodation fees at nursing homes so that they won't have to worry about falling ill with no relatives around to help," Chen said.