Bereaved parents from across China are stepping up pressure on the government for a change in the country's draconian one-child policy, which has left more than a million people with scant financial support in their old age, activists said on Wednesday.
Hundreds of elderly people gathered outside the Ministry for Health and Family Planning in Beijing this week to protest at the lack of state support for couples who complied with the one-child policy out of a sense of public responsibility.
According to one tweet from the scene, the demonstration wasn't well received.
"A bereaved parent from Tianjin was having a heart attack, and a bereaved parent from Jiangsu knocked on the window of a police vehicle to ask for help from the police officers inside," wrote one Sina Weibo user.
"Not only did the police not give her medical assistance, but one young officer launched into a tirade at the bereaved parents, cursing at them," the tweet said.
"This prompted strong criticism from the bereaved parents."
Numbers grow steadily
Hunan-based activist Zhu Qingguo, who runs a home for elderly people whose only child has died, said the number of people over 50 who have lost an only child has grown steadily over three decades of the one-child policy.
"The main issues are about who supports the elderly, and their medical care," Zhu said. "The family planning and civil affairs bureaus give some social assistance, but it's woefully inadequate."
"It varies from place to place, but overall, it's about 200 yuan (U.S.$32) a month."
He said he has become a carer for more than 20 elderly couples.
"But many people can't manage elder adoptions for material and psychological reasons," Zhu said. "Too much care is involved, and only a small proportion really form strong attachments with each other."
"Family is still family, and outsiders will never be as good as one's own children."
Hu Liying, a bereaved parent from Anhui, said she had heard about the protest.
"It's seven years exactly since my son went," she said. "Every day, life is painful to me."
"I am sick and old, but I am still mobile. I just take one day at a time," Hu said.
Quotas 'brutally enforced'
Government figures estimate that elderly people who have lost their only children now number more than a million, a number that is currently growing by about 76,000 each year.
China collects 28 billion yuan (U.S. $4.4 billion) a year in fines and charges from enforcing the one-child policy, as population controls have spread around the country.
Only 15 percent of families had only one child in the late 1970s, compared with around 60 percent of families today. The huge increase will likely mean a huge increase in the number of elderly bereaved parents in the next few years.
Activists and rural communities say family planning quotas are often brutally enforced at local level.
While many of China's political and financial elite can afford to pay the fines necessary to have more than one child, people without money or connections are routinely forced to terminate even very late-term pregnancies.
However, authorities in the eastern city of Wuxi said this month that they are investigating top film director Zhang Yimou, amid online allegations that he has fathered seven children.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.