A Thwarted Search for Information

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 26, 2008

JUYUAN TOWN, China -- Li Shanfu met local Communist Party authorities last week, seeking information about his missing daughter.

He got a lecture instead.

"The harmony of the whole nation outweighs a family's loss," a local legislator from another province told a semicircle of mourning parents in this devastated area. "You must be strong and let go of your suffering."

Li, a farmer, peeled away from the crowd and resumed his search for 15-year-old Li Yi, his only child in a nation whose government limits many families to just one.

Li's search has taken him into morgues brimming with bodies, teeming hospitals and makeshift offices in tents where teachers help families with the grim task of identifying dead children through photographs. Along his journey, he has bumped up against a Communist Party that is extending the paternalistic control it exerts over citizens in life to the way millions behave in confronting death.

Thousands of children died in the May 12 Sichuan earthquake; 33 percent of the 3,069 dead in Dujiangyan, the city that includes Juyuan town, were students. In hard-hit Beichuan county, 21 percent of the 8,600 dead were students. More than 7,000 classrooms across Sichuan province collapsed, according to state media reports.

The loss has been particularly hard because of China's limits on family size, a nearly 30-year-old policy designed to curb population growth and reduce poverty.

"If my daughter is alive, I just want to find her. If she is dead, I want to find her," Li said, his mobile phone ringing with good wishes but not good news. "Now, I'm nearly 43, and there's no way to have another kid."

Li Yi was pulled from the rubble of Juyuan Middle School about 3 p.m. on the day of the quake. Her mother, Huang Qionghua, 44, put her into an ambulance, unconscious but breathing. "I saw her, I took her to the ambulance myself," she said.

But officials forbade her and another relative from riding along. The vehicle, after all, had been full of injured students.

Yi's parents haven't seen her since.

Li now spends his days at the middle school waiting for party officials to arrive with news, or in a rescue tent to see if teachers have identified his daughter in a photo.

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