Dying alone. It surely is a fear that surely we all secretly harbour. We worry about facing the last days on this Earth without comfort and a friendly face, having to face the fear of death alone and feeling unwanted or unloved. One old man in China, Han Zicheng was scared of dying alone. His wife had died and his two sons were estranged from him (one was living in Canada), so Han decided to ask for help. He told his neighbours that he was lonely, that he was scared of dying and that he didn’t want to die alone. For whatever reason his pleas were not adequately addressed. And so Han wrote flyers on scraps of paper and taped them in bustops and other places around his neighbourhood. The flyers read:

“Lonely old man in his 80s. Strong-bodied. Can shop, cook and take care of himself. No chronic illness. I retired from a scientific research institute in Tianjin, with a monthly pension of 6,000 RMB (USD1344) a month. I won't go to a nursing home. My hope is that a kindhearted person or family will adopt me, nourish me through old age and bury my body when I'm dead.”

Support, spiritual and material help in old age and peace of mind from knowing that the proper obsequies would be performed once he died, this was what Han was seeking. And for many in China, these things cannot be taken for granted in old age. The population pyramid in the Middle Kingdom is becoming increasingly top heavy – at the moment 15 per cent of the population is over the age of 60, but in twenty years’ time that proportion will have grown to 25 per cent.

Furthermore, the enforced population control policies of the last four decades means that often one child will be expected to look after both parents, something that is nearly impossible to do if the child has moved away for work or to get married. Thus, the traditional Chinese familial model of the elderly being cared for by children and grandchildren in their final years is breaking down. So much so that the Chinese government introduced a law five years ago mandating parental visits by children. But in practice the law is often ignored and the rudimentary social safety net for the elderly fails. As was the case with Han.

Han’s pleas to be adopted were seen by a passer-by who put a photo of them on social media and attracted national and then international media attention. As the Washington Post reports:

“Now people were reaching out, showing concern. A local restaurant offered food. A journalist from Hebei province promised to visit. He struck up a telephone friendship with a 20-year-old law student in the south.”

But unfortunately, Han was an old man and he was set on having a family that was not beneath him (a migrant worker who called was hung up on) and was increasingly bitter about being abandoned by his family and by the government. China has, largely thanks to its one child policy, got old before it got rich. Its nursing homes are few and of poor quality, (something Han would tell callers about).

After a few months of national fame and attention from strangers, Han started to receive fewer calls and then again faded into obscurity. Han took to calling a suicide prevention helpline to talk and to vent his frustration and anger. He stopped calling in mid-March of this year. On March 17 he fell ill. He managed to make it to the hospital, where he died. Two weeks after he died, the neighbourhood committee that is supposed to keep an eye on residents was surprised by news of his death. Five neighbours said they had noticed his absence in the hallway, but did not check on him.

One hopes and prays that Han was not alone at the end in the hospital and that he was adopted at the last. 

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...