When Qu Di left for the United States in 2007 for a PhD program, her mother was certain that she would return. Qu, a 25-year-old math major, dreamed of being a university professor in her home province of Liaoning, in northeastern China, and obtaining a degree overseas was the last step in earning the teaching qualification.
She never made it home.
Qu's mother, who only gave her last name, Jiang, said she and her daughter used to chat everyday on QQ, a Chinese instant messaging service, when Qu studied at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Then one day in May of 2008, Jiang was unable to get ahold of her daughter. She scrambled to reach out to Qu's friends, who, despite having already seen the report of Qu's death at the school's office, were reluctant to tell her mother. This task was left to the local police, who attempted to reach Jiang with the assistance of a Chinese interpreter. But Jiang refused to answer the phone. Instead, she asked a relative to confirm the news that she couldn't bear to hear herself: her only child was killed in a car accident, along with two others, on a road trip back from the Grand Canyon.
"It was over," Jiang said, sobbing uncontrollably. "I was never afraid of any difficulties because we had a child and she was our hope. Now everything has lost meaning to us."
Jiang, 59, gave birth to Qu in 1983, making her part of the first generation of parents subject to China's one-child policy, which came into effect in 1980. Jiang was then an office worker at a state-owned steel factory in Benxi, a city 650 miles east of Beijing, and a place where the policy implementation was so strict, she was not even allowed to return to work after maternity leave without a certificate proving that she had been inserted with an intrauterine device for effective birth control.
She never thought about violating the policy and having another child, even though she heard some people willingly paid a fine -- usually a matter of at most a couple thousand dollars -- to get past the quota. Jiang, until now, firmly believed what the government had told her: the country's prosperity depended upon reining in population growth. However, deep down, she knew her family was taking a risk. In a life full of uncertainty, Jiang and her husband had made only one single bet.
"I felt like a soldier in the battlefield," she said, "You know there will be bullets ahead of you, but you can only proceed."
Today in China, there are about one million such "shidu" families, the term for parents that have lost their only child, a number that grows by about 76,000 each year. Yet demographers said this is only the beginning of the real problem, because the percentage of one-child families across China has exploded in the past three decades as fertility restrictions spread from big cities to every corner of the country.
A 2005 survey on the Chinese population, the most recent year available, showed that the country then had 210 million only children -- most of whom on the younger end of the spectrum. For the population group aged 25 to 29 (born between 1976 and 1980), only 15 percent were only children. However, for the generation born 25 years later, the percentage of only children nearly quadrupled.
"In the future, tens of millions of Chinese people will be affected by this phenomenon," said Yi Fuxian, a University of Wisconsin scientist whose book A Big Country in an Empty Nest describes the damage of China's family planning restrictions. "Parents will lose hope and when they get old, nobody will take care of them. Because every kid is exposed to deadly risks, every one-child family is walking a tightrope."
Alas, the safety net that the Chinese government provides for these tightrope-walking families is full of holes. Since shidu families did not emerge on a large scale until a decade ago, when the first generation of parents affected by the one-child policy grew too old to have children, the regime has not evolved rapidly enough to support them.
China's population and family planning law, implemented in 2002 by the National People's Congress, China's highest legislative body, stipulated that local governments "provide necessary assistance" to families whose only child was accidently injured or killed on the condition that the parents do not adopt or give birth to another one. However, the government neither specified how much was necessary nor clarified its role in such compensation cases. In China, central and local governments budget their finances separately. Therefore, because the central government failed to define its responsibilities to shidu families, childless parents are at the whim of local governments, which often base compensation on their financial resources instead of the family's actual needs.
As a result of the vague wording in Jiang's case, the local government paid her nothing following her daughter's death. And even though the central government issued another directive in 2007, drawing the floor for such compensation at $16 per person per month, the local family planning office didn't send Jiang her deserved compensation until 2010.
"We did what the government said," said Jiang, whose hair turned gray almost overnight after learning of her daughter's death. "If the one-child policy has led to economic prosperity, why can't they take a little money to compensate us for our loss? They can't only take the dividend, right?"
In a country like China where the pension system is weak, parents and even grandparents count on their offspring to support them after they retire. Therefore, losing an only child has a devastating financial effect. The meager assistance that applies to just 10 provinces and cities is the only known form of compensation to shidu families today, and it covers about one-sixth of such families in the country. The amount paid out varies from $16 to $130. Jiang and her husband each gets $22.
Even still, money is not Jiang's top concern. What she wants more is the recognition from the government that she and her peers have made a sacrifice for the country, not unlike families of deceased soldiers. However, Chinese society treats these two groups of families very differently: Families of slain veterans have access to benefits like shopping discounts and priority in applying for government-subsidized housing, both virtually unavailable for shidu families. When Jiang applied for a credit card to access supermarket discounts, she was told by the bank clerk that since she had retired, her best option was to become an authorized user of her child's card. Jiang, who spends 9 to 10 hours each day chatting with fellow shidu parents, turned away immediately.
"We are sacrificing for the entire society," said Jiang, "We are Chinese citizens and now there are bad consequences for us because of national policy. The government should take more responsibility."