Before Han Shengxue became a family planning officer, he was an excellent writer.
China’s broken families, destroyed by the one-child policy
In a small rural county where most people were illiterate, this precious skill gave him a front-row seat to the unfolding of China’s one-child policy.
Introduced in the early 1980s, the policy allowed couples in cities to have a maximum of one child. Those in rural areas could have two only if the first child was a girl.
At the height of a national campaign enforcing this policy in 1992, the then 30-year-old Han joined a county-level family planning unit. He was made an officer and placed in charge of writing policy briefs and propaganda.
He recalls vividly when the campaign engulfed the entire county like “thunder and rainstorms.”
The one-child policy was ruthlessly enforced. A popular slogan at the time went “obey in three minutes or a tornado will come.”
Some families had their houses demolished if they failed to comply with the policy. Others had their cattle taken away. There were cases of forced abortions and sterilizations.
“It was like a revolution for us,” Han says. “There was a lot of conflict but few checks and balances. Some officials even attacked people.”
The more, the merrier
Traditional Chinese family culture values the idea of bearing more children, to ensure that there are offspring to care for the elderly.
And in the countryside, many families won’t stop having kids until they’ve had a boy as they need manpower for hard labor.
This made the work of family planning officers like Han very difficult, but what made it even harder was the pressure from above.
Officials could be stripped of their titles or blocked from promotion if they failed to meet family planning targets for areas under their watch.
The side effects
The one-child policy was considered a huge success. From 1980 to 2000, China cut its population growth by an estimated 250 million.
After 2000, Han said the campaign softened its tone. It rewarded those who obeyed more than it punished those who disobeyed.
But the country had started to feel the far-reaching effects of an iron-fisted policy.
One problem Han noticed was the many families who had lost their only child. They were left childless – and helpless.
“They came in with tears flowing from their eyes,” Han remembers of a couple who begged for his help after their only child had died. “There wasn’t a trace of life in their faces.”
Han came across more families like this in his county, but he soon realized it was only the tip of the iceberg.
The phenomenon is known in China as shidu – literally, “bereavement of the only.”
Government figures show that in China there are at least one million shidu families in China, and the number grows by 76,000 every year.
In 2005, Han embarked on a 12-year project to document the struggles of more than 100 shidu families. He later published them in a book, Chinese Shidu Families: An Investigation.
From the mother who spends 20 hours a day messaging her late son’s social media account to the couple who treat their dog like their child, the stories deeply struck its readers, many of whom had faithfully abided by the one-child policy.
The book was well received by Chinese media and the internet, and Han was praised for his critical reflections on the one-child policy.
Although these families lost their only children in various ways, Han says there’s no doubt that the state policy contributed to their tragedies.
As China ages rapidly, many families struggle with finding caretakers, and suffer from medical and mental health problems.
In 2015, hundreds of angry parents from across China staged a protest in front of the National Family Planning Commission in Beijing, demanding compensation from the Chinese government.
“Call for legal protection for shidu families,” said one of the many white banners the protesters held, white being a color used in Chinese culture to mourn the dead.
Currently, China gives shidu families $55 per month as “special assistance.” It also promises medical support for those who want to try for another child, and faster access to subsidized housing for those in need.
Han thinks that the help should have come sooner, and that there’s a lot more the state can do to help these families.
But instead of dwelling on the past, Han would much rather look forward.
“Every coin has two sides and no policy can be completely perfect,” Han says. “China benefited from family planning, but the stride we took was too long.”
He thinks one of the most pressing problems China faces now is how rapidly its people are aging.
In 2016, the nation switched from a one-child policy to a two-child policy, to encourage its citizens to have more babies.
The effort has not been successful, however. After a 7.9% increase in newborns the year it was implemented, last year the number of new births dropped 3.5% to 17.23 million.
To this day, Han still works for his local family planning unit as a researcher. But instead of being at the forefront of a revolution, they provide health services and fertility assistance.
It’s only a matter of time before China fully opens up its population policy, Han says.
Perhaps then he won’t have to interview so many broken families.