One-Child City in Crisis Foreshadows China’s Aging Problem
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2016-07-27 12:30:33

The pile of paperwork on Zeng Rong’s desk is nearly a meter high and won’t stop growing. She works at the family planning bureau in Li County, in central China’s Hunan province, and is responsible for the financial assistance given to those affected by the one-child policy.

For some three decades, the county’s strict adherence to China’s now-defunct one-child policy was a source of pride. Now, it’s a source of misery. Schools stand empty, nursing homes struggle to meet demand, and there are so many people in need of monetary support that the county finances are running a deficit. “We used to do a great job, but now it has become a burden,” Zeng says.

A family planning slogan warns residents not to have more than the allowed number of children, Li County, Changde City, Hunan province, July 2016. Zhao Meng/Sixth Tone

A family planning slogan warns residents not to have more than the allowed number of children, Li County, Changde City, Hunan province, July 2016. Zhao Meng/Sixth Tone

For its family planning performance, Changde City, which administers Li County, was ranked among the top of the province for 30 consecutive years, and Li County has been awarded the title of “National Advanced Unit” four times. But the zeal of Changde’s family planning officials is now coming back to haunt the city.

Baby Bust

Teacher Wang Tieqiao, 53, still remembers when the classrooms at Linan Middle School, a combined primary and junior middle school in Li County, were packed to the brim. When student numbers were at their highest, “You had to walk sideways,” he says. The total number of students at the school today is less than half of what it was in 2003. Much of the school stands empty, something Wang finds difficult to adjust to.

Wang started teaching at Linan Middle School in 1981. China had started to promote couples having just one child the year before. This soon became more than a suggestion, as measures such as the “social maintenance fee” — a fine for parents who had more children than they were allowed — were implemented. Out on the street Wang would often encounter slogans warning of the consequences of exceeding the one-child limit, such as forced abortions or vasectomies. Gradually, these messages entered the workplace. Each time there was a staff meeting, the school’s leaders would remind everyone that “the one-child limit is a line which must not be crossed.”

Vice Principal Liu Zhengjin believes that the main reason for the sharp fall in student numbers at Linan Middle School is a policy that stipulated that a government official’s work performance meant nothing if family planning targets weren’t met. Changde was the birthplace of this policy, rolling it out as early as 1983.

A funeral home construction site near Linan Middle School in Li County, Changde City, Hunan province, July 2016. Zhao Meng/Sixth Tone

A funeral home construction site near Linan Middle School in Li County, Changde City, Hunan province, July 2016. Zhao Meng/Sixth Tone

It is impossible to precisely quantify the reduction in births that has resulted from the policy. But in 2010 Cao Ruguo, then vice secretary of the Changde municipal party committee, said in a speech to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the family planning policy that “births in Changde have been reduced by 2.51 million.”

Worldwide, about one-quarter of all people are under the age of 14. According to statistics from China’s last national census in 2010, the national average in China is 17.3 percent and in Hunan it’s 16.6 percent. Just 13.2 percent of Changde’s population are under 14.

This has implications for the size of the future workforce, but it’s already affecting the city’s primary schools. There were a total of 662,700 primary school pupils in the city in 1988, a figure which fell to 499,000 by the year 2000, and dropped even more by 2010, down to 275,200. The primary school population had been reduced by half in the space of 22 years. “Things are not like they once were,” sighs Wang Tieqiao as he gazes out over Linan Middle School’s empty sports grounds.

The decline in student numbers has been followed by school closures. The Li County government originally planned for Linan Middle School to merge with another school nearby. However, the plan was shelved following opposition from students and parents.

Many other schools in the area have closed their doors, some to be turned into nursing homes, some to stand in disrepair. The once-familiar sound of students reading aloud at Liyang Number Seven Primary School in Li County is a distant memory. After nearly 10 years of disuse, the school gates are covered in rust, the sports ground is overgrown with grass and weeds, and an estate agent’s sign now hangs over the school motto: “Unity and Solemnity.”

Elderly residents rest outside a nursing home that used to be a school, Li County, Changde City, Hunan province, July 2016. Zhao Meng/Sixth Tone

Elderly residents rest outside a nursing home that used to be a school, Li County, Changde City, Hunan province, July 2016. Zhao Meng/Sixth Tone

Senior Boom

Che Liping joined the Changde family planning committee in 1997 and worked there until 2012, making him a firsthand witness to the city’s demographic changes. He tells Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper that the city’s high number of one-child families has led to a higher rate of population aging compared with both the national and provincial averages.

Population aging is a drain on government finances. On the one hand, Che says, the workforce cannot sustain economic development — already there are early signs of a scarcity of farmers and manual laborers. 

On the other hand, pensions are a growing expenditure. The county pension fund has been running a deficit since 2011, meaning the government has had to take money out of other parts of its budget not to miss payments. The shortfall has grown rapidly, from 950,000 yuan (about $140,000) in 2011 to 30 million in 2014.

Furthermore, the medical, nursing, and other care requirements of China’s growing ranks of seniors pose a major challenge, and the situation in Changde is particularly acute. According to the national census of 2010, Changde’s 65-and-over population of 653,200 people stood at 11.5 percent of the total, a proportion that again outpaces numbers for the province (9.8 percent) and for the country as a whole (8.9 percent). The 65-plus demographic is growing faster in Changde, too. People aged 60 and older accounted for 1.15 million people in 2013.

A statistical report published by the Hunan Provincial Committee on Aging in 2013 said that there were 264 nursing homes in Changde, with a combined 19,000 beds. Compared with the city’s number of seniors, this tally suggests nursing homes are far from equipped to handle the growing need for elderly care.

Elderly residents sit in the cafeteria of the Yitianyuan Senior Service nursing home in Li County, Changde City, Hunan province, July 2016. Zhao Meng/Sixth Tone

Elderly residents sit in the cafeteria of the Yitianyuan Senior Service nursing home in Li County, Changde City, Hunan province, July 2016. Zhao Meng/Sixth Tone

Li County now has 35 elderly care institutions. Apart from two privately operated nursing homes, the rest are state-run homes for the elderly, which don’t charge their residents. They are mostly housed at former village party committee buildings or primary schools, and are poorly equipped, poorly staffed, and underfunded. Staff usually have to resort to creative ways to keep the homes operating.

The nursing home in the township of Linan houses on average between 30 to 40 residents, most of them solitary seniors. The facility lacks even a single full-time nurse. Its director, Gong Defu, told The Paper that he had to rely on his own initiative to keep the home operational. First, he built a pigpen on site and then turned a stretch of land in front of the care home into a vegetable patch.

The biggest nursing home in Li County is Yitianyuan Seniors Service. It has been in operation since 2011 and is privately run. Residents capable of managing their own affairs must pay monthly fees of 900 to 1,040 yuan. Director Zhang Yushan told The Paper that although the nursing home receives annual government subsidies, it is still a difficult operation to maintain. These days, a 2,000-yuan monthly salary will not attract young people, meaning many of the nursing staff are drawn from laid-off workers aged 40 and above. 

Yitianyua’s client base has grown from just 80 senior citizens when the home first opened to its current figure of 180, and 50 of these just arrived this year. The number of vacant beds is now critically low, and plans are underway to construct a new building that will more than double the nursing home’s capacity.

The construction site of nursing home Yitianyuan’s expansion project in Li County, Changde City, Hunan province, July 2016. Zhao Meng/Sixth Tone

The construction site of nursing home Yitianyuan’s expansion project in Li County, Changde City, Hunan province, July 2016. Zhao Meng/Sixth Tone

Bereaved Parents

After nearly three decades of strict and sustained enforcement of national family planning policy, the 2010 census found that 54.2 percent of families in Changde had only one child. This high number has contributed to an unprecedented surge in the proportion of families who have lost their only child — shidu families, as they are known in China. Proportionally, no city in Hunan counts more such families than Changde.

Yang Shanjun is head of the Changde Health and Family Planning Commission’s publicity department. He told The Paper that nine years ago he invited a professor of population studies to deliver a lecture on the topic of shidu families. When he had lunch that day with three colleagues, they talked about the lecture and realized that three of the four of them had a family member or other relative who had lost an only child.

The Paper obtained a copy of the 2015 financial records of Li County’s family planning fund. They show that during that year there were 1,465 households in receipt of support from the fund due to death or injury of an only child.

Liu Huiqiong, 53, receives 340 yuan every month in support after the death of her daughter eight years ago. Since then, she has attempted in-vitro fertilization many times, each without success. She now has cancer and has completely given up her plans to try for another child. Her biggest hope now is that the state will increase the payments.

Most couples who have lost an only child in the years since 1980 are now nearing retirement age. The older they grow, the greater issues they will face in terms of daily life struggles and care needs.

Seventy-one-year-old Huang Xiuping is a bereaved single-child parent. When she fell ill for eight months last year, she had to rely on support from her younger sister in Changsha — who is in her sixties herself — since her husband had already passed away.

A friend of Huang, Gong Pingru, also lost her only child. She hopes the government will shoulder the responsibility of supporting childless elderly people like her. Gong is in her seventies and in relatively good health, but Huang’s unfortunate predicament gives Gong pause: “Her today is our tomorrow.” 

(Gong Pingru and Wang Tieqiao are pseudonyms. They would not disclose their full names, the former out of concern for privacy, the latter out of concern for professional repercussions.)

A Chinese version of this story first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.

(Header image: A man stands in front of a desk at his home in Changsha, Hunan province, June 4, 2015. He lives alone and is hoping to find a roommate to live in his apartment, rent-free, in exchange for company. Chen Yunjiao/VCG)