HONG KONG Chinese travel far and wide to join their families for the Lunar New Year holiday, but for 60-year-old Xie, whose only child died seven years ago, China's biggest holiday is a reminder that she faces old age with little in the way of financial support.
Her daughter, Juanjuan, was 29 when she died, leaving her parents in the ranks of China's more than a million "shidu" families, or those who have lost their only child, in a country where parents have traditionally relied on their children to look after them in old age.
"We Chinese always consider the child as the most important thing. If the child is gone, the whole family breaks down," said Xie, a retired senior technician living in southeastern Jiangxi province, who declined to give her full name to protect her family's privacy.
Many shidu parents are victims of China's strict family planning policy, which since the late 1970s has restricted most families to one child, and have stepped up calls for compensation.
China says the policy has averted 400 million births, preventing the population from spiralling out of control. But now it plans to ease the restrictions, fearing that they are undermining economic growth and contributing to a rapidly ageing population the country has no hope of supporting financially.
On Thursday, the National Health and Family Planning Commission announced an increase in compensation for shidu couples - although it failed to raise much cheer ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, or Spring Festival, at the end of January.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Couples in which the woman is 49 or older will get 340 yuan per person each month if they live in a city and 170 yuan if they live in the countryside from next year. Shidu parents had demanded 3,150 yuan per person each month.
Couples are currently entitled to 135 yuan a month, based on rules set in 2012, although some provinces give significantly more, in some cases up to 1,000 yuan.
The compensation falls far short of expectations in a country where there is little in the way of welfare or health benefits. And some shidu couples have further needs.
"We want to live in an old people's home with other people like us," said 50-year-old Shi Hui, whose only son died in January last year of cancer. "We don't want to live in an ordinary old people's home. When other people's children come to visit... we wouldn't be able to take that."
More and more shidu parents have travelled to Beijing in a bid to have their voices heard. In May, about 400 people staged a sit-in outside the National Health and Family Planning Commission's headquarters.
One of their strongest arguments is that the compensation on offer pales in contrast to the huge fines paid by parents who break the one-child rule, proceeds of which amounted to 20 billion yuan from 24 provinces in 2012.
Xie did not think of having a second child when she was young because that would have meant she and her husband, who both worked at state factories, would have lost their jobs.
"At the time, the slogan went that 'birth control is good, the state will look after the old'. I hope the government shall do what it says," Xie said.
"My biggest fear is that some day I might die at home and no one will know."
Shidu couples believe their case is different to other disadvantaged groups as theirs is a direct result of national policy.
"All I want is for someone to call and visit us when we fall ill," said 53-year-old Xu from northeastern Liaoning province. "What we want is not assistance or charity, but the government to be responsible."
For graphic on China's population, click link.reuters.com/pur74v
(Additional reporting by Li Hui in Beijing; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie)
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