MIANZHU, China — Just 45 days old and swaddled in pink, Sang Ruifeng already has a purpose in life: to bring to justice those responsible for the death of his 11-year-old brother.
Ruifeng will have to ensure, his father said, that the Chinese government gives a full accounting for why thousands of students died in school collapses during the earthquake that devastated southwest China one year ago. The brother that Ruifeng never knew was among 126 students crushed to death in Fuxin No. 2 Primary School outside this lush farming town.
“I don’t feel happy at all,” the father, Sang Jun, said about the birth of his new son as his wife bounced the baby up and down in a neighbor’s home. “I was telling my wife today, if we can’t get justice, we’ll have our son carry on the quest for justice. This issue will be a burden on this child.”
One year after the earthquake in Sichuan Province killed about 70,000 people and left 18,000 missing, mothers across the region are pregnant or giving birth again, aided by government medical teams dispensing fertility advice and reversing sterilizations. Because of China’s policy limiting most families to having one child, the students who died were often their parents’ only offspring. Officials say they hope a wave of births will help defuse the anger that many grieving parents harbor over the fact that so many schools collapsed on May 12, 2008, while nearby buildings often remained standing.
But the wounds have festered, in part because the Chinese government, wary of any challenge to its authoritarian rule, has muffled the parents and quashed public discussion of shoddy school construction. As attention focuses again on Sichuan during the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, the government has intensified its campaign to silence the parents and the media, resorting to harassment by police and threats of imprisonment.
“The government says, ‘Since you have a second child, why are you still asking about this?’ ” said Mr. Sang, a former factory worker who was detained by the police in January when he tried to take a train to Beijing to file a formal complaint. “We tell the government: ‘This is your responsibility, this is your fault. So why shouldn’t we question this?’ ”
The Chinese government has refused to release the number of students who died or their names. But one official report soon after the earthquake estimated that up to 10,000 students died in the collapse of 7,000 classrooms and dormitory rooms.
Last year, officials in the central government announced that it would investigate the school collapses, but no results have been released. In March, a provincial official from Sichuan told reporters in Beijing that the force of the quake rather than poor construction led to the collapses.
On April 4, during Tomb-Sweeping Day, when Chinese honor the dead, groups of parents tried to gather at the sites of collapsed schools to mourn their children. Plainclothes police officers quickly surrounded them.
Propaganda officials recently ordered Chinese news organizations to report only positive quake-related stories, and the Sichuan government has explicitly prohibited media organizations from reporting on miscarriages by women in temporary housing camps. Some quake survivors say they fear that the miscarriages may have been caused by high levels of formaldehyde in the prefabricated housing.
“So many pregnant women are having miscarriages,” said Ms. Ren, a woman in a camp in Dujiangyan who gave only her surname for fear of government reprisal. Her grandson was among the hundreds who died at Xinjian Primary School. Her daughter-in-law got pregnant late last year, she said, but had a miscarriage.
“The room in Dujiangyan People’s Hospital was full of women with this same problem,” Ms. Ren said as she wept.
The central government began sending fertility specialists to the earthquake region last year. The Sichuan Daily, an official newspaper, reported on Feb. 29 that nearly 1,000 women in the quake region had gotten pregnant, citing the Sichuan Province Family Planning Commission. Family planning officials in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, declined requests for an interview.
One of the expectant mothers is Liu Li, whose brown corduroy overalls stretch across her swollen belly. She said “there were complicated feelings involved” in finding out she was pregnant this past winter.
“There was nervousness, happiness and also some guilt, because it was so soon after the death of our first child,” said Ms. Liu, 35, as she filled a plastic basin in the Dujiangyan camp.
Like most parents whose children died, Ms. Liu took a payment of about $8,800 from the local government and a guarantee of a pension in exchange for silence.
But many parents, even those expecting another child, have refused to quiet down.
Here in Mianzhu, women in more than half of the 126 households that lost children in Fuxin No. 2 Primary School are pregnant or gave birth recently, according to several parents. One father, Bi Kaiwei, praised the free health care the government had provided for his wife, now more than four months pregnant. But the pregnancy is no substitute for justice, he said.
Every day, the two visit the grave of their dead daughter. They have kept all her belongings, including a stuffed white puppy and a light blanket now on the parents’ bed. Framed photographs of the girl are displayed throughout their prefabricated home just a few hundred yards from the site of the Fuxin school.
“I feel this is the return of our daughter,” Mr. Bi’s wife, Liu Xiaoying, said as she patted her belly. “But even though I’m comforting myself, telling myself this is her, I still don’t feel cheerful. I’m very depressed.”
Ms. Liu was among a group of parents from Mianzhu who secretly traveled to Beijing in January to file a petition with the central government. Officials there told them to file with the Sichuan government.
But officials in Sichuan are trying to break the will of the parents. Mr. Sang, the father with the 45-day-old son, said the police had threatened him with further imprisonment.
A man answering the telephone at the Mianzhu police station declined to comment.
On the edge of a wheat field here, Mr. Sang has built a new home to replace the one that crumbled during the earthquake. In one corner is a bedroom for his dead son, Xingpeng. Neatly stored inside are a framed photograph of the boy and his most treasured possessions — a fishing rod, white dancing shoes, a glass fish tank.
The new son will not sleep here.
“We’re going to keep this forever,” Mr. Sang said.