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POPULATION-CHINA: Quake Shakes One-Child Policy

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, May 28 2008 (IPS) - Almond-shaped eyes; a young face of poignant beauty reminiscent of Hu Die – the Shanghai film star of yesteryears. The impression is helped by the stark, retro-like monochrome photo. But the leap of imagination is clipped almost immediately by the black ribbon draped around the photo and the grieving man clutching it.

Bi Yuexing would have been a great beauty. But the sixth-year grader did not live to blossom. She was among the 127 children who died when the walls of their school collapsed almost instantaneously, shattered by the Sichuan earthquake on a Monday afternoon.

Cradling the framed portraits of their dead children from Fuxin No.2 primary school in Mianzhu city, grieving parents have been holding vigils and prayers among the debris of the former school. They have been besieging local leaders with questions about the shoddy quality of school buildings and demanding justice for their dead children.

But on Sunday their grief turned to anger. They ignored the pleas of the local party chief who got down on his knees to beg them to entrust the investigation of the deaths of the children to his authority. The parents shouted at him and marched to meet vice-mayors from Deyang, which oversees Mianzhu.

“We need justice from the government,” Xu Jun, one of the bereaved fathers, told the Southern Metropolis News.

The challenge mounted against the authorities – a rare display of civil disobedience in a country that frowns on protests, shines light on the depth of loss that thousands of parents in this city and other quake-stricken areas have suffered. More than 10,000 were killed in Mianzhu, and officials say at least 2,000 of the dead were children and teachers crushed when 11 primary schools collapsed.

The official death toll from the magnitude 8 – quake, China’s worst in more than 50 years, rose to more than 68,000 on Thursday. State media reported that nearly 10,000 children and teachers are among those that perished.

Many of the parents lost an only child. For the last 30 years China has practiced strict population control policy, limiting couples to having one child and meting out tough punishments for those who violated the one-child rule.

But with so many families bereaved by the quake, local officials have moved quickly to soothe tempers by announcing relaxations of the policy for all parents whose children were killed or disabled by the disaster.

Early this week the Chengdu population and family planning commission – in the capital of quake-stricken Sichuan province, announced eligible families can come forward to obtain a certificate for having another child.

The new regulation promises an annual allowance of 600 yuan (85 US dollars) to parents over 50 years of age whose only child was killed or seriously disabled by the earthquake. In addition, punitive charges for families who had violated the one-child policy would be suspended if their children were injured or disabled, or if their house had been seriously damaged.

“The adjustment is in consideration of so many losses suffered by people in the quake area,” an unnamed official from the national population and family planning commission told the ‘China Business News’. “We have to think of the people and how to rebuild the broken families.”

It is arguably the first time that the government has announced a relaxation of the largely unpopular policy on humanitarian grounds. The existing rules allow for exceptions to the strict one-child rule only if the parents are from ethnic minority groups or if they are rural families where the first-born is a girl. Since early 2000, urban couples where both husband and wife were born as single children were also allowed to apply for a permission to have a second child.

The policy is credited with keeping the Chinese population from exploding by preventing as many as 400 million births. The family planning commission has its own propaganda teams that praise the one-child policy as a way of improving the quality of nation and ensuring better education and healthcare.

But in recent years the policy has been under attack for exacerbating China’s greying population problem and for creating a dangerously imbalanced sex ratio. In rural China where the traditional preference for male heirs who can till the land and look after the family runs strong, countless families have aborted their female foetuses in hopes of getting boys.

Local officials eager to meet population quotas have frequently been accused of forcing women to submit to abortions or sterilizations to keep the birth rate down. The tough enforcement of one-child rules has led to violent protests, most recently in southern Guangxi province where thousands of farmers rioted against population control fines they said were imposed arbitrarily and brutally.

In Sichuan where the deadly force of nature killed thousands of children, the tragedy appears amplified by the limitations imposed on families by the state policy. In the worst quake-hit towns like Mianzhu and Beichuan, the majority of parents were migrant workers and farmers working long hours to better the future of a sole offspring.

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