Earthquake-affected families in Sichuan find hard to bond with second child
Most of the heart-broken couples who lost their only child in the devastating Sichuan earthquake have chosen to have a second child with the government's financial support, although experts warn the recourse may have “side-effects”.

Govt financial support

For a couple from Beichuan, one of the worst-affected regions during the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, all that matters is that their eight-year-old daughter grows up well. Ten years ago, the family lost their 19-year-old son in the earthquake that left over 80,000 people dead or missing in southeast China's Sichuan province.
 
Mother and her child born under government's support program Photos: ThePaper.cn

The families with their child killed or disabled in the catastrophe were encouraged to have a second baby with local government covering all involved medical expenses. Wang Shuyun and Liu Hongying's daughter Tingting became the first “test tube” baby under the policy, reported newssc.org, a local news portal.

The National Health Commission, formerly known as the State Family Planning Commission, which was responsible for the implementation of the one-child policy, devoted 100 million yuan to launch the project in July 2008, not long after the disaster struck, and under which, over 140 medical institutions, 58 genital health experts, and 2,800-plus civil servants were recruited to assist the bereaved families with their efforts to have a child, reported the news portal.

“The new births have brought the distressed couples great relief and enabled their lives to go on through making their families once again complete.” By now, 3,542 babies have been born under the government-sponsored program.

Based on data released by the Sichuan provincial government, a total of 5,335 school kids got killed or missing in the quake.

Wang Shuyun, then 43-years old, underwent vasal sterilization—the main method for male birth control in China—many years ago. He had assumed it was unrealistic for him to have a second child and his wife Liu Hongying, then 40-years old, suffered from severe depression till the day when local “family planning” officials visited and told them they could have a test-tube baby, with the government covering all medical expenses.

With a panel of medical experts working out specific treatment, the wife got pregnant soon and gave birth to Tingting on December 18, 2009. “I was half awake in anesthesia and when I heard my baby cry, I burst into tears,” Liu Hongying was quoted by the media.

Now, the little girl is attending a primary school in Beichuan county. “We're thankful for those who helped us and all we want now is for our daughter to be happy and healthy, and grow up well,” the couple said.

Belief in reincarnation

“5,335 school kids died in the violent earthquake. And most of the devastated families decided to have a second child,” Fan Jian, producer of To Live, a documentary featuring the story of Zhu Junsheng and Ye Hongmei, a couple belong to this group, told the Southern Weekly. According to Fan, some of the woeful parents believe the soul of their dead child would come back along with the new baby.

Zhu and Ye, who lost their only daughter in the quake, were anxious to have a second child and they desired to have a daughter. “If it was a son, I would feel I lost my daughter forever,” Zhu Junsheng said.

When Ye gave birth to a son later, her husband Zhu just murmured, “Oh, it's a good thing.” However, when the couple brought their new-born back home and accidentally saw their deceased child's photo, the father could not help burst into tears, moaning “my daughter, you'll never be back.”
 
 
In December 2009, Fan Jian brought the trailer of To Live to the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival. The video clip caught the attention of NHK, Japan's national broadcaster.

“The Japanese have similar beliefs that the souls of dead children may come back with their plaintive parents' new-born,” Fan Jian said. Later, NHK and Al Jazeera, a state-funded broadcaster in Doha, Qatar, became a co-producer of the documentary film, which ended up winning the festival's Special Jury Prize on December 5, 2011.

Factors behind the push

The Phoenix Weekly ran an article analyzing reasons behind the government’s decision to push the birth of new babies among the bereaved.

Those families who lost their children in collapsed teaching buildings had asked for the local governments to investigate thoroughly and find out if the quality of construction was behind so many deaths. The controversy made national headlines, while also catching foreign media's attention.

According to Fox News, the Sichuan quake destroyed almost 7,000 classrooms during a school day, with newspaper photos focusing on piles of dusty book-bags and small hands emerging from the debris.
 

Several research institutions surveyed the damaged buildings, reaching a conclusion that “structures in severely affected areas could hardly sustain such a mega-earthquake, so the collapse was inevitable.” On May 7, 2009, the Sichuan provincial government released a statement, claiming that “till now, no case of collapse connected to the quality of construction was found.”

Many grief-stricken families found the conclusion hard to accept, feeling guilty for not being able to claim justice for their deceased school kids. Wrathful residents often rallied to appeal to the higher authorities for help. In a bid to pacify the angry parents, the Sichuan provincial government resorted to the initiative to encourage and fund the parents to give birth to the second child. Ironically, local family planning authorities reversed their responsibility from limiting childbirth to pushing childbirth.

According to a reporter who was assigned to cover the news at the time, the government seemed to be a little bit too hasty. “The parents were organized to go to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, for physical examination, while most of them were not in the mood. They seemed to be dumbfounded and were not having sex at all.”

Liu Meng, a psychotherapist who founded the Family of Moms, a psychological rescue organization helping bereaved mothers, told the Phoenix Weekly that in his view, the emotional trauma could be cured if the heart-broken mothers have babies again. “Normal people would look forward or focus more on 'now', while the mothers who lost their children tend to be immersed in the old days, and think and talk about their departed children on all possible occasions. If the mode of thinking could not be reversed, no remedy would be effective.”

Side-effects

Some experts expressed dissenting views. Chen Liyun, director of the Center on Behavioral Health, University of Hong Kong, said that based on the age and financial situation of the parents, it's hard to make sure giving birth once again is feasible. Meanwhile, she worried that the growth of the babies who were meant to be psychic 'painkillers' for their parents may be affected in negative ways.

According to the Phoenix Weekly report, Gilbert Kliman, former chairman of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Fan Fumin, vice director of Tsinghua University's psychological department, along with some other experts all voted against the program for bereaved mothers to give birth again.

Many families hoped the newborn babies were of the same sex with the one they had lost, thinking that the dead child would get reincarnated in a new body. Not all families had their wish fulfilled, and even for those who had, they finally realized the new kid may not be the one they lost.
 

Zhang Minxiang gave birth to a daughter as she had wished, but she insisted the one she lost was the most perfect. She repulsed her baby girl's sound of crying and could only find peace and solace sitting in front of her first kid's grave.

Liu Meng thought the biggest problem was how to reconstruct the families' emotional bonding. “They refused to let the departed children go and that compromised their love and care for the living kids. And they couldn't help but compare the two kids in many respects, so the new kids are left to fight parental love with their nonexistent brothers or sisters,” he said.

In some other cases, parents instead tend to spoil their kids born later. They're afraid to lose them once again and so attach themselves to their children all the time, resulting in the minors' over-dependence.

Another issue is some distressed mothers tried many times but still failed to have a baby again. Fu Hong had a miscarriage in 2009 and since then, her mental state has remained disturbing. Despite that, whenever asked if she would want a baby, she always said, “yes,” without hesitation.

Fu Hong failed to gain access to systematic treatment, and she is not the only one who got traumatized in the process of trying to have a baby again. The government-backed program has brought rebirth to some families but also propel some deeper into the abyss. 
 
 

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