The only ones: how China's single-child policy doubled the agony of parents

The woman had brought pyjamas and a change of clothes for her only child, a student at the Hanwang Technical College, devastated by the earthquake two days ago which left thousands of parents childless. "My son is studying in this school and I'm waiting for the police to dig him up. I still hope he's alive," she said at the gate of the college, where soldiers in camouflage fatigues brought out bodies of the young victims of the quake and laid them in front of the gates. When the school director broke the news that her son had died in the quake she shook with grief.

Outliving your offspring is an unbearable prospect, but the death of a child takes on an especially horrific dimension for many of the parents of child victims of the Sichuan earthquake, an edge of intolerable cruelty.

Under the one-child policy, imposed in 1979 as a way of reining in population growth already running at dangerously high levels in the world's most populous nation, most families are limited to one child. The worst natural disaster to hit China in 30 years has brought the spotlight to bear on one of the country's most controversial policies of social engineering, and highlighted how this policy puts unbearable pressure on many families in contemporary China.

Overworked rescuers all around Hanwang were besieged by frantic parents, begging the soldiers and volunteers to dig out their relatives. One mother banged on the chest of a People's Liberation Army (PLA) officer – not something done lightly – saying, "Rescue my child". Clearly struggling to maintain composure, the rescuers said they had to focus on digging for survivors in areas where hundreds had been lost, and didn't have the resources to look for individual children.

Such was the extent of her grief that when parts of a building's front started to rain down on the street in which we stood, forcing dozens of us to run for cover, she remained outside the house, wailing uncontrollably.

What clearly struck a chord with the PLA officer, and made his tough decision almost intolerable, was when the parents said: "This is our only son." In a country where couples are largely confined to having one child, this entreaty is particularly hard to ignore.

Last night, as help began to arrive in some of the hardest-to-reach areas, some victims trapped for more than two days under collapsed buildings were still being pulled out alive. Doctors and nurses were treating survivors in the street because hospitals had been flattened by the disaster, as helicopters hovered overhead, dropping food and medicine to isolated towns as part of the mobilization of 100,000 troops and police for the relief effort.

The Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted government officials as saying that rescuers in the city of Yingxiu in Wenchuan county - the epicenter of the quake - found only 2,300 survivors in the town of about 10,000, with another 1,000 badly hurt. And the official death toll rose yesterday to 14,866, the news agency said, but it was not immediately clear if that number included the 7,700 reported dead in Yingxiu.

At the Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan, rescue workers let off firecrackers every time the body of a youngster was identified among the 700 victims, sending the child's soul home and warding off evil spirits, but also marking the death of hope for hundreds of parents.

Li Chunyan, 16, was one of the victims and her mother's grief is all the more poignant because the One Child Policy means that she, and many of the thousands of dead students in Sichuan, were the only children. And, being teenagers, means that for many families, there will be no more children. Chinese leave it late to have babies because they want to welcome their offspring into a stable environment. When your teenage children die, you are left alone.

The children of the One Child Policy era are cosseted and adored like youngsters nowhere else, because entire generations have their ambitions focused on the single child. Boys are known as "Little Emperors" and are generally surrounded by swooning aunts, uncles and grandparents, all of whom are ready to spend their life savings on giving this one child the best possible education and anything else he desires.

The earthquake struck at 2.30pm on Monday afternoon, when most of Sichuan's children were at school, which means that when the final death toll finally emerges, many will be children of the One Child Policy. Many of them were taking a nap when the quake shook the province. One boy was found still holding a pen.

One family's personal tragedy was recorded by a photojournalist in Hanwang, who took pictures as rescuers painstakingly removed the rubble from around a teenage girl, Yang Liu, trapped under the ruins of her school. She had survived since Monday thanks to food and water from the workers who protected her with a white helmet. But it was too dangerous to move her for medical care, and so the journalist and the girl's mother were rushed to hospital. There, after doctors had studied the photographs, her mother was told that Yang would have to lose her legs.

Travelling through Sichuan one is struck by the numbers of boys on the streets, almost as if the girls have been hidden. The policy has led to boy children being preferred over girls and is blamed for an alarming rise in the male-to-female ratio.

Even though ultrasound tests to determine the baby's gender are technically illegal, underground ultrasounds and gender-selective abortions have resulted in there being 118 boys born for every 100 girls, potentially threatening social stability as more men have difficulty finding wives. In most Western countries, more girls are born than boys.

As in many developing countries, farmers prize sons because they believe they are better able to provide for the family, support their parents and carry on the family name, powerful enticements in a country with little by way of a social security blanket.

Raising a girl in rural areas is known as raising crops for someone else to reap. Prejudices run deep.

And there are many exceptions. People in the cities can have a second child if husband and wife come from one-child families, and farm couples are allowed to have another if their first was a girl. Many ethnic minorities are allowed to have two children, and there are no restrictions on the number of children Tibetans can have. Also, children of the One Child Policy are allowed to have more than one baby.

The One Child Policy is often viewed in the West as an attack on human rights, but there is growing debate about the policy in China too. The Beijing government reckons that since the policy was introduced, more than 400 million births have been prevented. The government says it has successfully slowed population growth to about 10 million people a year and there is now an average birth rate of 1.8 children per couple in China, compared to six children when it was introduced. In a country where famine is still in living memory, there were fears that the ever-rising birth rate would put too much strain on already-stretched resources.

Demographics experts have warned of looming problems from an ageing population and a growing gender imbalance stemming from aborted or abandoned baby girls. Many also say the increasing mobility of China's population make family planning policies more difficult to enforce.

There is a feeling among the rural poor especially that there are double standards about the policy, that the rich can afford to buy their way out, while the poor are forced to endure the wrath of the state. And it is true that many of the new rich in China's cities merely choose to pay the fine and have the extra children.

There are no signs that the Communist Party is prepared to get rid of the policy any time soon. Zhao Baige, vice minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, suggested this year that China could slowly change the One Child Policy and that family planning had "become a big issue among decision makers". But the commission came out with a staunch denial of the report.

So seriously does the Chinese Communist Party take the policy that family planning officials in the central province of Hubei expelled 500 cadres last year for breaching the rules. Some of the breaches by cadres were spectacular: one lawmaker had four children by four mistresses.

"More party members, celebrities, and well-off people are violating the policies in recent years, which has undermined social equality," said Yang Youwang, the director of the planning commission. In Hubei alone, 93,084 people breached the policy last year, including 1,678 officials, clear evidence of the policy's unpopularity.

In an effort to win people around to the idea, China has sought to soften the tone of the propaganda slogans it uses to promote the One Child Policy to make the calls to have fewer babies more on-message and less offensive. Slogans such as "Raise fewer babies but more piggies", "Houses toppled, cows confiscated, if abortion demand rejected" and "One more baby means one more tomb" have, unsurprisingly, been declared crude and counter-productive in the efforts to quell the number of births.

These propaganda messages are painted on walls and houses all over China, but the National Population and Family Planning Commission believes they are coarse, poorly worded and occasionally damage the government's image. "If such low-quality slogans, which may cause public complaint and resentment, are not corrected and remain where they are, the country's family planning efforts in the new era will be hindered," a commission report said.

Instead, the commission has come up with 190 less alarming slogans, such as "Mother Earth is too tired to sustain more children". In an effort to change the boys-only mindset, one new slogan says, "Both boys and girls are parents' hearts". Even this softly, softly approach is unlikely to win much sympathy in post-earthquake Sichuan. The parents here don't care about the gender of their children. They just want them back.

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