Immediately after the Sichuan earthquake last month, the authorities were overwhelmed with offers from across the country and abroad for adopting those orphaned by the disaster. While the government has made it clear that first the real parents must be located, it has started a temporary adoption programme in which foster parents can take in a child for two months. This is in absolute contrast to what happened after the last massive earthquake in China. In July 1976, Tangshan, just 200 kms from Beijing, was struck by an earthquake measuring 7.28 on the Richter scale. It killed 2,40,000.
That was a different era: Mao was still alive. Pictures of Tangshan reprinted now show how much the country has developed. Black and white photographs show lean rescuers and People’s Liberation Army soldiers running towards the site of the disaster with just spades and shovels, dressed in ordinary workday clothes; or carrying an old woman in their bare hands. No cranes or sophisticated machines, no protective headgear, not even overalls or masks!
About 4,200 children were orphaned then. At that time however, there was no rush to adopt. The Communist Party controlled every aspect of a citizen’s life. Perhaps people were unsure about whether they would be allowed to adopt. Standards of living were much lower. Most importantly, no official death toll was published. Foreign journalists weren’t allowed into Tangshan till 1983, after the ‘opening up’ of China.
About 2,000 Tangshan orphans were adopted by their relatives, and the Communist Party decided to adopt the remaining. They were brought up in State-run orphanages, and those too little to know their own names were given new names such as “The Seedling Fostered by the Party”, “Revolutionary Redness Fostered by the Party” and “New Generation Fostered by the Party”. Like all students then, everyday they sang songs in praise of the Party.
The orphans were given few chances to meet other children. Such contact, it was rightly feared, might lead to talk about families and make the orphans feel sad that they had none. They were encouraged to study and go to college, and then to Tangshan to work.
Some of the Tangshan orphans have done very well for themselves. A few head industries; others are in leading positions in public sector enterprises.
Last month, the Tangshan orphans were in the forefront, offering to adopt, raising money. Zhang Xiangqing, owner of a steel group, and a Tangshan orphan, was among the first to donate 100 million yuan. Their greatest success however, has been as counsellors at rescue shelters. “I first tell them I come from Tangshan,’’ said a medical professor. “Quickly they feel closer to me, start to listen and calm down.’’
A debate has now sprung up — would it be better to follow the Tangshan model of State adoption or allow individual families to adopt? Some Tangshan orphans brought up by relatives feel a State-run orphanage is better as all children are treated equally there and support one another. No one feels like an outsider, or burdened by gratitude — which happens in a relative’s family.
But there’s a great difference between the relatives who adopted in 1976 and those offering to do so now. Apart from the drastically higher level of affluence, today almost everyone has just one child, compared to the two or three kids people had back then. China was very poor then, but say Tangshan survivors, the government spared no effort to help them, and they themselves made sure that no one was left out. “We had true communism,” one survivor told China Daily, “and shared all of the important resources, from the food we dug out of the debris to the water we got from a small pit across from the tent.”