Skip to main content

China's post-quake baby boom

By Emily Chang, CNN
Click to play
Baby boom in China
  • Over 5,000 children died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many of them when schools collapsed
  • With anger over poorly built schools, government relaxed one-child policy
  • Parents who lost children were encouraged to have a second child
  • Over 2,000 births since quake; government has sponsored reproductive services

Beichuan, China (CNN) -- Meng Shunyou escorts us into the ruins of his old town, his wife clutching their new baby girl on her hip.

"That's our house!" he exclaims, pointing at a pile of rubble. But his excitement belies deep-seated pain. In May 2008, the Sichuan earthquake destroyed their home, their business and the only life they knew. Two years later, Beichuan looks almost exactly as it did minutes after the ground shook. The ruins have been perfectly preserved, now surrounded by gates, guards, and a newly paved road circumnavigating the rubble. Tour buses roll through with passengers gawking at leaning buildings, shattered windows and mounds of debris.

It is a real-life ghost town and a mass grave. Thousands of bodies were never pulled out.

The Meng family ran one of the most popular homestyle restaurants in town, nestled deep in the lush, sweeping valleys of Sichuan province. Their customers would come back again and again, ordering their usual favorites. Over the years their regular customers became friendly faces, if not friends.

Video: New love emerges from earthquake
Video: Quake drills of Sichuan

When the earth quaked on that horrific day, their restaurant collapsed. Meng Shunyou spent the first few hours of the aftermath trying to pull one of the wait staff from the rubble. He would later find out his son's middle school had also crumbled.

From quake ruins, new families form

"That night, I stayed out here, watching the rescuers and waiting," Meng said. "There were so many dead bodies. On the third day, my son was pulled out, but he was gone."

We met the Meng family at their new restaurant in the neighboring town of Anchang that survived mostly unscathed. Smiling, they served us heaping plates of barbequed pork with vegetables, a local favorite.

"Business is hard. Our old customers are gone," they say.

But work is almost an afterthought as they fawn over their 6-month old daughter, who gazes out wide-eyed then snuggles her face into her mother's chest.

"Life without a child is meaningless," says Meng's wife, Yang Shenghong. "After a hard day we go home and see our daughter laugh and cry and it gives us happiness."

But any dose of happiness comes with a little sadness too. Just one photograph of their 15-year-old son survived the earthquake.

"Imagine if you had a son, and he was taller than you and almost all grown-up, and then one day he goes to school and he's just gone," she says.

More than 5,000 children died in the Sichuan earthquake, many of them when schools collapsed. Another Beichuan middle school was completely crushed by giant boulders that rolled down the mountains. Just a single basketball net still stands at the site. No one inside survived.

In the midst of angry questions about poorly constructed schools, the Chinese government relaxed the one-child policy, encouraging parents who lost children to have a second child. Aside from the emotional issues, there are economic considerations as well. Chinese parents traditionally rely on their children to care for them later in life, especially in rural areas.

Born just six months ago, little Meng Xiting is one of more than 2,000 babies that have been born since the earthquake, in part thanks to government-sponsored reproductive services. Family planning clinics across the area now offer fertility treatment, artificial insemination and reverse vasectomies to quake survivors for free.

But with so many women trying to give birth later in life, miscarriages have been more common than usual.

"There are so many people that want to have kids and can't get pregnant," Yang says.

At 38 years old, she found it difficult as well.

"It was so hard to get pregnant," she adds. "I had to take all kinds of supplements and I was bedridden. Luckily the government paid the bill."

But even successful pregnancies can lead to guilt and anxiety, especially if they happen too soon.

"You kind of have the biological clock going up against, you know, their own grieving process which you know may take a few months for some may take a few years for others," says Dr. Ron Blinn, a psychologist at Beijing United Family Hospital.

"If a parent is stuck, if they're unable to grieve and pass through their difficulties, they're probably going to have difficulty attaching to a new baby," Blinn adds. "They may see the baby as a replacement rather than a new person in their own right."

The Mengs seem to realize they have an emotional journey ahead.

"I won't tell her about her older brother all at once," says mother Yang Shenghong. "I hope maybe she will see that picture of us together and then I'll tell her why he isn't here."

And so they count their mixed blessings, treasuring their new baby, running their new restaurant, and mourning what they have lost

During their visit to the Beichuan ruins, they near the resting place of their son.

Yang stays behind with the baby, worried about exposing her daughter to bad luck. Meng Shunyou forges ahead.

As he approaches the site of the collapsed school, he starts mumbling. "We've come to see you, son."

He kneels, lights incense and paper money then folds his hands together. "I'm sending you money, son, you can use it in heaven."

Rising solemnly, he casts one last look at the school, shakes his head and sighs. "When our daughter is old enough, we will bring her here and tell her what happened. Right now she's too young to understand."