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Without gov't help, bereaved elderly suffer under one-child norm

BEIJING--When Wu Rui's 12-year-old daughter died she lost not just the only child she would ever have but also her source of security and support in old age.

Today the 55-year-old takes care of herself and her own elderly parents on a paltry pension in a ramshackle two-room home, living in fear of medical emergencies she has no way to pay for.

China's one-child policy normally leaves four grandparents and two parents relying on a single caretaker for old age — and bereaved families with none.

An estimated one million families nationwide have lost their sole descendant since the measure took effect in 1980, and another 4 to 7 million are expected to do so in the next 20 to 30 years.

Many, like Wu, will have no one to help them through the frailties or medical costs of old age.

“If I have a big illness then I probably won't have enough,” she says quietly. “For sure there will be difficulties.”

Wu divorced in 1994 and lost her daughter Zhang Weina one year later after a long struggle with epilepsy.

She now spends much of her time at home, knitting sweaters and preparing food in a cramped kitchen — which doubles as her 76-year-old mother's bedroom.

Her 80-year-old father, his hearing failing, sits one bed over in the narrow room they share. Two light bulbs dangle from a rope and cracked paint covers the walls.

Aside from ill health, Wu's biggest fear is that their dingy but inexpensive home will soon be demolished, as many old Beijing residences have been.

The other half of their centrally located neighborhood has already been replaced by modern towers, and if their alleyway is next they may be moved to an apartment that costs more than her monthly pension of 2,000 yuan (US$310).

One-Child Limit Creating

Old-Age Bubble

Since 2001 national law has required local governments to provide “the necessary help” to families who lose their only child, but does not define what that entails.

Regulations vary by area, with Sichuan province allowing families to apply to have another child while Shanghai stipulates a one-time payment of an unspecified amount.

Some local governments provide small stipends, according to state news agency Xinhua, while a Beijing official told local media the capital offers 200 yuan a month and “spiritual” support in the form of visits from young people.

“The rule has always been there but I don't think it's very meaningful,” says Yi Fuxian, a U.S.-based academic and author of “Big Country in an Empty Nest,” which criticizes China's family-planning policy.

Some 4.63 percent of China's 218 million-plus single-child families are expected to lose their son or daughter by the time they reach the age of 25, he says, citing official statistics.

That would mean more than 10 million couples outliving their only child in the next two to three decades, minus a fraction who give birth again.

Yi and other demographers argue that China must not only provide for these families but also abolish the one-child limit immediately.

Its defenders say it has helped prevent over-population and lift vast numbers of Chinese out of poverty.

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