The One-Child Policy encounters an earthquake

Author | Yi Yi

Translator  |  Jennifer•S•Lin & Yoyo

Editor |  Lianchao Lan



I was born in a city where the one-child policy was very strict. I remember seeing two little red books at home with “Certificate of Honor—One Child” on the front page. The first time I met classmates who had siblings was in senior high school. Family planning officers watched every family, so pregnant mothers had to hide at different places to avoid being caught.


“Certificate of Honor—One Child”

 One of my classmates Zhang Min was the second child in her family and had a brother two years younger than her. “There was a time when my pregnant mum couldn’t stay with our relatives anymore and she went to hide in a cave in the mountains,” she said.

“My dad took me and my sister to hide there as well. When we got home, nothing was left. Our cow had been taken away and our pigs were killed. Even the wok built on the stove was removed together with its lid.”

My first impression of family planning officers was that they were ruthless devils. Back then, I would never have imagined that years later in a mountain area about 500 kilometers from home, I would become one of them–the most hated, inhuman devils as described by my classmates.

My mentor was Old Li, a family planning officer of 20 years. He told me that many years ago, his role was to stop people having a second child at any price. Now, it’s not that simple.

On my first day, another experienced officer, Old Chen, introduced me to the job. He smiled as he put a USB and a ring of keys on the table. His smile warm and nothing like a devil. “This is the secure USB for logging on to the family planning system,” he told me. “The username is the pinyin of the full name of the department, all in lower case. The password is our office phone number. All the records are kept in that cabinet and this is the key.” He pointed to the big mahogany cabinet behind me.

“From today, you will oversee an honorable yet difficult mission,” Old Chen continued. “Remember: do not force anyone to have an abortion. You must be nice and gentle.” Old Chen squinted his eyes and breathed in deeply. He smiled, and I smelt his old smoker’s breath. 

Old Chen had been relocated and was soon to be leaving when I was appointed to this small mountain township in Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County. Before a road was built, people had to walk through the mountains to get in and out. I became Old Chen’s successor as a family planning officer. 


Before made the tunnel, the way to Beichuan Guannei

Thinking of Zhang Min’s description, I imagined myself as a typical female comrade: two braids, a checked shirt, dark blue pants, and a pair of gumboots.


After the Beichuan Earthquake, families want more children

The first couple I served were in their forties and had passed the best fertility age. The husband was Jing Jiagui and the wife was Tian Yuxiu. They just had their second child, a daughter, who had put them at risk of breaking the limit of children they could have. They, came to the regional family planning office to get approval for their daughter to be registered with their household.

Back then, according to the family planning policy of Beichuan government, they were not qualified to have more than one child. Theoretically, Beichuan was a regional area where local people should have been allowed to have a second child. 

However, the policy also required both parents to be registered as belonging to farming households or to ethnic minority groups. Yuxiu was from an ethnic minority, but she changed her household type from farming to non-farming years before having children.

Jiagui, on the other hand, was registered as a farming household but he was not from an ethnic minority. Families like them, where one parent is qualified and the other is not, were called a “half-qualified household.”

Many of those families lost their only child in the earthquake and became Shidu families, a term for parents who have lost their only child.

Blushing and without words, Jiagui rubbed his hands and walked around the office. He wanted to say something, but nothing came out. Feeling out of place, he squatted down outside of the door and started to smoke cigarettes, one after the other.

Yuxiu sat on the stool and pulled up her shirt to feed the baby. I could see a scar from recent caesarean, red and crooked.

Yuxiu looked at me and then her husband. “Cadre, we don’t want to break the rules. But, so many children died in the earthquake. I’ve seen many parents lose their children and living alone. It’s heartbreaking. In some families, the mum and the dad died and left the only child alone. We thought having another child would be good for us and for our children. One day when we are not there for them, they can still look after each other.”

I nodded and said we could all understand her feelings and concerns. 

Yuxiu continued talking. “Our oldest is 14 already. We were going to send him to the school in Beichuan town but we had to postpone this because he got sick last year. We were lucky. If he went, he might not be with us. Only 40 something kids survived in that school.”

As we were talking, another couple walked in. They looked a few years older than Yuxiu and Jiagui.

“We are coming to ask about IVF,” the woman approached me timidly. Yuxiu saw her and gently pulled on her shirt, “Hi, Sister Chen.” 

“Hi,” said the woman. “Our child is gone and we want to have another one.”

Sister Chen’s name was Chen Zefen and her husband was He Shulin. Zefen pulled out a folded plastic bag from her pocket and opened it carefully. Inside the bag was a One-Child Certificate of Honor.

Holding the certificate, her hands were trembling. “We can’t find my son’s ID card or his student card. His household registration has been cancelled as well. This is the only document we have left.”

Yuxiu pulled on her shirt again and pointed to a chair next to her with her chin. “Sister Chen have a seat and tell us your story. Have a seat, Brother He.”

I stood up and poured some tea for them. Sister Chen carefully put the One-Child Certificate of Honor back to her pocket before taking the paper cup. Shulin He had a sip and finally broke his silence. 

He sighed and said: “We’ve been trying for two years but can’t get pregnant. I know we are a bit old, but…”

Jiagui walked in and gave Brother He a cigarette. Jiagui spoke for the first time.

“This is my cousin,” Jiagui said, pointing at Brother He. “We watched their child grow up. He was such a nice kid and was very good at studying. When he went to the high school in Beichuan, who would have known that he would never come back.”

Shulin He tried his best to control his emotions and Sister Chen quietly wiped her eyes with a tissue.

I inserted the secured USB and searched for He Shulin and Chen Zefen. Their only son He Wei had died on the 12th of May 2008.

This was the day when the earthquake struck. My heart shrunk in pain.

I didn’t know how to comfort these parents. Any word would sound so weak to people who went through the pain of losing their children.

Sister Chen tried to hold back her tears. “We just want to have another child. It doesn’t matter if it is a girl or a boy.”

I gave Sister Chen an application form for having another child. “You are qualified to have another child in your circumstances. You can apply to have IVF done in Chengdu and it will be free. However, I do have to warn you—the procedure can affect your health and we can’t guarantee it will be successful.”

Sister Chen started to smile as she read the form. She knew they had some hope. The problem was that neither of them were well educated and it would be difficult for them to complete the form on their own. I asked them to try to fill in as much information as possible and come back to me if they had any questions. 

Sister Chen and her husband left my office with smile on their face. However, Yuxiu and her husband were still in my office worrying about their situation. Yuxiu started to talk again. First, she said how sad she was about what happened to her husband’s cousin, and then she turned to me, “I believe our situation is understandable as well, right?”

This really made me feel uncomfortable. “I understand how you feel. However, this is really against the regulation. Even though the new policy is coming out soon, you did give birth to your second child ahead of it. This is going to cost you a certain amount of your social support fee.”

Suddenly Jiagui jumped up and yelled at me. “What social support fee? This means fines, doesn’t it? There is no way for us to pay the money! No way! You are even not a local and you know nothing about this place! Who told you we can’t have another child?”

I was so surprised that quiet and timid Jiagui could have such a dramatic reaction.

He took his wife out of my office and wouldn’t stop shouting at me. “Let’s go! I don’t believe there is no way to get our child registered!”

I sighed. At that time, to get a household registration you had to obtain permission from the local family planning department. The rule was very common across the whole country and people had various ways to get around it. For instance, one of my classmates registered his child as his cousin’s child. I didn’t know what kind of strategy Jiagui had in mind, but I knew that regulations had become increasingly harsh. The chance of bending the rules was minimum.

After Jiagui and Yuxiu left my office, a colleague from the local area told me about the situation in this region. Many couples were in similar circumstances. They were worried that when they were gone there would be no one to take care of their child, or if their child passed away, they were going to be lonely for the rest of their lives.

I met a few couples later and they were indeed all like what my colleague described. They believed that having a child meant having hope again. They would pay the fine or do anything if they could have another child. Although financial constraints were a big issue, it was no longer the most important.

The earthquake-scarred the local families. Having another child became the common goal, for both shidu families and single child families. 


Visiting the village

The next day, I decided to visit Yuxiu and Zefen’s village, Qingshui Village. 

To get to Yuxiu’s house, I got a lift from my colleague in a rundown government car, before riding on the village director’s motorbike for another 8 minutes or so.


 photo by Jingshuiliushen

The house was built brand new after the earthquake. A traditional couplet was hanging each side of the front door. The poem means the Communist Party brought the Spring and happiness back to their lives.

Yuxiu was sitting at the front door feeding her daughter. Seeing us coming, she hurried and gestured us to take a seat on the stools.

She was happy to hear that requests like hers could be considered on a case by case basis given enough documents were submitted. “It doesn’t mean that you won’t have to pay any fees, but you may get a discount,” I told her.

Yuxiu seemed to be happy about my answer but her baby suddenly started to cry. She tried to settle the baby while talking to us at the same time. “It’s not that we don’t want to pay. We really don’t have the money. The government gave us some compensation for rebuilding our house but we still paid tens of thousands out of pocket. Now our oldest child will need a tuition fee for his high school. His grandfather is sick and has been in bed for a month…”

As we were talking, Jiagui came back from the field. He became very upset when he saw us. “What are you doing here in my house? Go away!”

He went into the house and slammed the door.

 “Why are you still here? Don’t tell me you are going to take my cows and pigs away. I don’t believe this society is going backward. You are just asking for money! Go away! Tian, come back in! There is no point talking to them!”

Yuxiu’s lips were trembling and she yelled towards the window, “Stop acting like that!”

Jiagui went quiet and didn’t come out until we left.

“Sister Tian, don’t worry too much. For grandfather’s medical costs, you can take the receipts from the hospital to your village office to be verified. Then, you can apply for medical fee assistance. For your child’ school fee, we can provide financial aid. You should also look after yourself. Within the next couple of days, the government will provide a free health check. Remember to come. Your baby is two months old, right? Have you taken her for a check-up?”

It looked like Yuxiu had never heard about the postnatal check-ups. She kept saying thank you as we left.

On the way to Sister Chen’s house, the village director told me that everyone had been thinking about having more children after the earthquake.

“Families like Sister Chen’s are really unfortunate. At their age, they can only try their luck with IVF. There are two more families in similar circumstances in our village. But, they are already in their 50s. The hope is minimal even with IVF. Without any children, they will have to live on their pensions in a few years’ time. No one wants to be like that,” he said. “People who want children can’t have any but the ones aren’t supposed to always do.”

“Who isn’t supposed to?” I asked immediately. As a family planning officer, I became very vigilant.

He was talking about a fifteen-year-old girl named Chen Dandan. She had just given birth to a child but wasn’t married.

Their concern was her having children without being married. However, I felt that having a child might not be her own wish.

When we arrived at Dandan’s house, she had her hair in a ponytail and a straight fringe. Wearing a red jumper and eating a rice stick, she looked nothing more like a young teenager. Her mother was feeding the baby with a bottle.

At 15, she should have been at school. But, she was already a mother.

I took her mother aside and asked about the baby’s father. She pointed to a man feeding the pigs next to the pig pen. He looked in his 30s and had a beard with a few rice grains stuck to it.

I became frustrated.

“Did you know that Dandan had a boyfriend? Have you ever thought about her future when she gave birth to a baby at such a young age? Why isn’t she at school? Is that man married?”

I shot out all the questions at the mother all at once. She was stunned.

“She is not going to school because she was not doing well and hated studying. We knew that she went out but what can you do? It’s her choice. The man is not married and promised to marry her when she reaches the legal age.”

I didn’t know how to respond, or how to mention the social support fee to the mother. I was really worried about Dandan and called the family planning officer in a neighboring town to ask about the man. I was told that the man was indeed single, and that they had met when he came to take a temporary job. All I could wish then was that he would keep his promise and take the responsibility as a husband and a father.

When we left Dandan’s house, a neighbor told me that the reason Dandan had a baby at such a young age was because her family had set up a bad example for her. Her mother had her first child at the age of 16. Her older sister was 22 and her child was already four.  

Another neighbor didn’t agree. “You don’t know anything. The earlier you have kids the better. I think they are all very lucky.”

It was hard for me to understand why the local people believed this. I told them that it was illegal to have children at this age and it was not very good for the mother’s health. They looked at each other and laughed. One of them shook his head while blowing out some smoke. “Young women like you haven’t even been married yet. What would you know?!”

Others followed. “That’s right. You don’t know anything yourself but want to teach us? You are too young to worry about how couples sleep together. Wait till you have your own child.”

I had heard similar comments when I visited villages. They would laugh at me because I wasn’t local. They believed that it was shameful for an unmarried young woman to talk about contraception. They hated me because I was a family planning officer, a government official that just came and collected fines.

Once a man asked me, “You are not married yet. How would you know the way to use a condom?”

I blushed and didn’t know what to say. Hearing the laughter erupting amongst the villagers, I wished there was a gap in the ground that I could jump in.

But after a while, I got used to the comments. Colleagues from other regions told me that it’s a part of our job. You just have to keep a straight face and carry on with your work even when you hear sexual jokes. Eventually, I could talk confidently about AIDS prevention and different contraception options. Sometimes I would also explain what IVF was and Sister Chen was always my example.


 photo by Jingshuiliushen

When I went to visit, it turned out Sister Chen’s circumstance was a lot worse than I had expected.

Sister Chen’s house was rebuilt after the earthquake but looked very plain compared to many other new houses. There was only a table in the front living room with a little shrine on it.

On the left wall, there was a black and white photo of a teenager. I guessed that was He Wei, their son who had died in the earthquake.

Shulin He was concentrating on filling out the form, slowly and seriously, although not with very neat writing.

I asked the village director to put the government stamp on the form straight away and offered to complete the rest of the form for them. I told them that what they needed to do was to look after themselves and wait for the invitation to go to the capital city Chengdu for the IVF check-up. 

Sister Chen kept saying thank you and then she looked at the black and white photo. “Wei, come back and visit mom, please. Bless mom to get pregnant this time!”

Shulin He whispered to me. In the last two years, Sister Chen had thought about ending her life a few times. She visited different doctors to try to get pregnant and tried both Chinese and Western medicine. For a while, she drank six to seven bowls of Chinese medicine a day and she wouldn’t stop even when she threw up. 

“She would do anything to have another child, even at the price of her own life,’ He said.

Walking out of their house, my eyes were stung by the bright sunlight. For most Chinese families, children are their sunshine and hope. When they lose their children, their hope is gone with them. After the earthquake, some families broke up because they couldn’t have more children.


The Future Of the Family Planning Policy 

 Dandan didn’t come to the free family-planning health check-up. But, her mother came and was found pregnant again. Unlike many other women at her age, she never had an IUD inserted. She heard it could be painful to insert and decided not to have one. As a result, she had a few abortions.

An ultrasound showed that Yuxiu had an IUD. She forgot about it and gave birth to her daughter with the device still in. Sister Chen’s result was all normal, which was good news for getting pregnant again.

The free health check was provided once every three months, including a gynecology examination, pregnancy check, and contraception advice. Free services also included birth control surgeries such as IUD insertion and removal, ligation, and abortion. Now, we even provide services to help people affected by the earthquake to have more children, including postnatal and pregnancy check-ups, as well as IVF examination.

I approved the free birth control surgery application submitted by Dandan’s mother. She had a successful abortion in the local health center. When I visited her after the operation, she held my hands and told me that they would pay for the fines for Dandan as soon as possible.

She set a good example for the village. Soon after Yuxiu paid for their social support fee and registered their daughter’s household. Before the registration, Yuxiu came to the office and asked me if the name Jing Xinyu sounded good. I said yes. She also apologized for her husband’s reaction when we visited their house.

Just after Sister Chen received an invitation to go to Chengdu to have IVF (in October 2010), new regulations came into effect. Under the new regulation, any couple whose household has been registered with Beichuan Region for more than two years can have a second child. The change started a wave of having second children in this region.

After three cycles of ovulation induction, Sister Chen got pregnant. More and more couples came to my office to register their interest to have a second child and attend health check-ups.

In March 2018, the family planning department, the National Health and Family Planning Committee, was restructured to the National Health Committee. The change of name meant that China’s strict family planning policy will gradually come to an end as well as the role of the family planning officerMy colleagues have taken on other positions. Finally, we don’t have to try to stop people from having more than one child. I was relieved.

By the time I wrote this story, I had stopped working as a family planning officer for a few years. The person who took over my role told me that Dandan married with the man and had another child last year. Yuxiu’s baby was already eight and a half years old and was a very clever and lovely girl.

On May 12th this year, on the anniversary of the Beichuan Earthquake, I ran into Sister Chen in New Beichuan. Their IVF baby was already seven and apparently looked like his older brother. 


the new Beichuan City


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