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China's one-child policy causes extra pain

For  couples who adhered to China's one-child policy and lost their only child in this week's massive earthquake, the tragedy has been doubly cruel.
China Lost Children
Bi Kaiwei holds a photo of his daughter, Bi Yuexing, who was killed when her schoolroom collapsed in Monday's earthquake in China's southwest Sichuan province. Greg Baker / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bi Kaiwei and his wife, Meilin, stopped having children after their daughter was born, taking to heart China's one-child policy and its slogan "Have fewer kids, live better lives."

For them and other couples who lost an only child in this week's massive earthquake, the tragedy has been doubly cruel. Robbed of their sole progeny and a hope for the future, they find it even harder to restart their shattered lives, haunted by added guilt, regret and gnawing loss.

"She died before becoming even a young adult," said Bi, an intense, wiry chemical plant worker, standing beside the grave of 13-year-old Yuexing — one of dozens sprinkled amid fields of ripened spring wheat and newly planted rice. "She never really knew what life was like."

Yuexing, a bright sixth-grader, was in school when Monday's quake struck, bringing the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School crashing down, killing her and 200 other students. Teachers had locked all but one of the school's doors during break time, parents said, leaving only a single door to escape through.

A couple's only child
Many among the more than 22,000 people killed across central China were students in school. Nearly 6,900 classrooms collapsed, government officials said Friday, in an admission that highlighted a chronically underfunded education system especially in small towns and compounded the anger of many Chinese over the quake.

In Wufu, a farming village two hours north of the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, most of the dead students were a couple's only child — born under a policy launched in the late 1970s to limit many families to one offspring. The policy was meant to rein in China's exploding population and ensure better education and health care.

The "one-child policy" has been contentious inside China as well as out. The government says it has prevented an additional 400 million births. But critics say it has also led to forced abortions, sterilizations and a dangerously imbalanced sex ratio as local authorities pursue sometimes severe birth quotas set by Beijing and families abort girls out of a traditional preference for male heirs. The policy is law but there are exceptions.

'The child is dead'
Farther down the lane from where Yuexing is buried, 10 more graves were laid out, some accompanied by favorite items — textbooks for English and music, a pencil box, a Chinese chess set. At one, a grandmother threw herself to the dirt and wailed as her husband lighted a handful of "spirit paper" believed to comfort the dead in the afterlife.

Another bereaved parent, Sang Jun, stood where his daughter, Rui, is buried, a simple mound of dirt beside his quake-shattered farmhouse. The house is surrounded by burned bushes — a traditional disinfectant.

"The house is gone and the child is dead," said Sang, who wore a T-shirt and plastic sandals. His parents, both in their 70s, looked on with tears in their eyes.

Resistance by ordinary Chinese has forced Beijing to relax its child policies, allowing many rural families to have a second child if the first was a girl. But in Wufu, the family planning committee seems to have prevailed on most families to stop at one child. Slogans daubed on boundary walls and houses all along the rutted country road leading to Wufu call on families to "stabilize family planning and create a brighter future."

Standing in the rubble of the school holding his daughter's ID and a posed shot taken at a local salon, Bi said starting a new family, either by having another child or adoption, is simply imponderable.

"I'm 37 years old and my child was 13. If we were to do it again, I'd be 50 when this stage comes along," Bi said.

Parents who lose children in disasters often feel intense guilt for what they see as a failure to protect them, said psychology professor Shi Zhanbiao. Parents, he said, may also recall their past relationships with their children with regret, thinking they were too stern, did not show them sufficient love or did not interact with them enough.

"They'll think that if they just hadn't sent their children to school that day, they would have been saved," said Shi, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing.

'We have nothing else'
The loss is intensified for those with no other offspring to lavish with care and affection, Shi said. And in China, other, more practical concerns may also come into play because children are generally expected to care for their aging parents.

"They'll be worried about the future, because for the later part of their lives, they'll have no one to depend on," Shi said.

Bi said Yuexing was polite and smart. She had won a coveted place at the county's best high school on the recommendation of a teacher. She was a top student who got better after the family moved closer to school to reduce her commuting time, said Bi, who completed high school but failed the national university entrance exam.

In her pictures, Yuexing, whose name combined the Chinese characters for moon and star, is smiling and demure. The studio shot shows her wearing a bright yellow sweater and looking playfully over her shoulder.

Parents in Wufu said they plan to bring a formal complaint over what they say was corruption and malfeasance in construction of the school. They say officials moved the students from a group of one-story classrooms — all of which survived the quake — into a modern-looking, but unsafe building.

"We have nothing else, no other wish but to win justice for our children," said Sang's wife, Zhao Jing. "We put all our hopes on these kids, and this is the return we get."