Parents whose only child was killed or maimed in China's earthquake would be allowed to have another, officials who administer the country's one-child policy in part of the disaster zone said Monday, offering some solace to grieving couples.
Couples whose only child was killed, severely injured or disabled in the quake can get a certificate allowing them to have another child, said the Chengdu Population and Family Planning Committee, which oversees the policy in the capital of Sichuan province.
The May 12 quake was extra painful to many Chinese because it killed so many only children. The destruction of almost 7,000 classrooms during a school day left China heartbroken, with newspaper photos focusing on piles of dusty book bags and small hands emerging from the debris.
The earthquake has killed more than 65,000 people, and with more than 23,000 missing the toll is expected to rise further. Officials say they haven't been able to estimate the number of children killed.
Specific to quake victims
A Chengdu committee official, who gave only his surname, Wang, said the one child policy rules were being made specific to quake victims. But he described his comments as clarifying existing policy, rather than announcing changes, and he would not elaborate.
Though commonly called a one-child policy, the rules offer a welter of exceptions and loopholes, some of them put into practice because of widespread opposition to the limits.
For example, in large parts of rural China, most families are allowed a second child, especially if the first was a girl. Local officials often have wide discretion on enforcement, a fact that has made the policy susceptible to corruption.
Chen Xueyun is among the parents who could be affected. His 8-year-old son, Weixi, was killed when the family's apartment in Qingchuan collapsed. Chen said he searched three days before finding the boy's body. He wears his son's blue plastic watch, as a reminder.
Chen said Monday's announcement could offer parents some hope — after their grief subsides.
"If they are still sad and depressed, it's impossible to talk about another baby," he said. "But in the future, it could be quite helpful for them."
Monday's announcement affects the city of Chengdu, which has 10 million people, as well as two of the hardest-hit cities nearby, Dujiangyan and Pengzhou. The committee plans to help about 1,200 of the worst-hit families, but that number could change, Wang said.
It wasn't clear whether other cities in the quake zone, including Qingchuan, would make similar announcements. A woman answering phones at the Sichuan provincial family planning office said officials are studying the issue. She didn't give her name, as is common in China.
China's one-child policy was launched in the late 1970s to control China's exploding population and ensure better education and health care. The law includes certain exceptions for ethnic groups, rural families and families where both parents are only children.
The government says the policy 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 announcement offers a glimpse into the strict workings of the one-child system.
Couples who have more than one child are commonly punished by fines. The announcement says that if a child born illegally was killed in the quake, the parents will no longer have to pay fines for that child — but the previously paid fines won't be refunded.
If a couple's legally born child was killed and the couple is left with an illegally born child under the age of 18, that child can be registered as the legal child — an important move that gives the child previously denied rights, including nine years of free compulsory education.
Many Chinese have shown interest in adopting earthquake orphans, and Monday's announcement says there are no limits on the number a family can adopt. A couple that adopts won't be penalized if they later have their own biological child.
Chen said he would like to have another child, but he hasn't spoken about it with his wife.
"She doesn't have good health, and she's afraid it would be dangerous to have another pregnancy, so I don't dare talk about it," he said. "She asked me if we could adopt a quake orphan, but I told her we should talk about it later."