"I can't get out. My legs are stuck under concrete." It was a Tuesday morning in Guangzhou, southern China, when Zhi-Ping Lai answered his daughter's call. "Dad, there's an emergency. An earthquake," she said. READ MORE: • Quake parents seek visas to tend graves Chang Lai, 27, was calling home, as she'd done every day since she moved to New Zealand seven months earlier. But this time she was buried alive. Trapped in the dark, pinned beneath tonnes of mangled concrete. "It's hard to breathe," she said. Zhi-Ping Lai started pacing in his small one-bedroom unit. His daughter was 9561 kilometres away. He told her help was coming. "Nobody can help," she said. He told her not to panic; he said it was all going to be okay. "Daddy, I think I'm going to die," she cried. Then the phone went dead. • • • Xiling Han was a fiercely independent little girl. She wouldn't let her parents walk her to primary school in Nantong, preferring to discover different routes on her own. She grew into a model nursing student who earned the praise of patients and tutors in Shanghai. In late 2010 when she decided she wanted to study English in New Zealand, her parents let her go, but not without asking the 25-year-old about the earthquake that had struck Christchurch a few weeks earlier in September. It's okay, she said. The principal of the language school she was going to study in had told her New Zealand buildings were a lot stronger than those in China. • • • Hui Yun Tu's body was reported as one of the first to be pulled from the wreckage of the CTV building on Madras St, Christchurch. The 22-year-old was found just a few metres from the front entrance, her parents were told. She almost made it out. The possessions she was carrying at the time of the quake were sent back to her hometown of Wuhan. Her brown leather wallet, full of New Zealand cash and ANZ bank cards, still feels damp all these years later. The notebook, full of Mandarin to English translations, is slightly burnt and smells like ash. • • • The parents of Chang Lai, Hui Yun Tu and Xiling Han are now shidu parents. Shidu is a Chinese word that translates to "lost only one". That is not to only lose one, but to lose the only one. China's need for such a word is poignant, given it's the only country in the world that has ever enforced a one-child policy. This 35-year-old law ended on the first day of 2016, leaving "shidu" to define a generation of parents who lost the only child they were ever allowed to have. Shidu parents have been left childless in a country with weak social welfare systems and a strong tradition of filial piety; children caring for their parents in old age. For some, the injustice doesn't end there. Zhi-Ping Lai and his wife Xiuqing Feng lost their daughter, Chang Lai, 27. A small group of shidu families lost their only child in the only building that completely collapsed in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. It's been six years since the quake but no one has been held accountable for the failure of the CTV building, which claimed 115 lives, despite a Royal Commission highlighting numerous engineering deficiencies with the building. To these families, New Zealand embodied a progressive, safe, First World country with world-class health facilities, strictly enforced building regulations and a firm rule of law. They cannot understand how justice has not been served. Late last year, the Weekend Herald travelled to China to meet the shidu families. "We sent our children to [a] Western country to study and work. Our hopes were destroyed," said a disabled father who has been left homeless since his daughter's death.
"The pain is immense," another father sighed."In a democratic and legitimate country like New Zealand, shouldn't the government be taking responsibility?" cried a mother.
One child, one building
"It was the only one."The scene of the disaster filled Xiling Han's mother, Wang Lu Xia, with anger and "a lot of questions". "Why? The surrounding buildings were basically unaffected. Why did this building collapse into pieces?" she asks. The Royal Commission of Inquiry answered her questions in 2012. The three families, from Guangzhou, Shanghai and Wuhan, have all read the commission's report, many times over. Each can list the string of failures it highlighted, including the building designer not being competent for the task; the Christchurch City Council irresponsibly handing out a building permit when the design didn't meet the code in 1986; and how three council officials - none of whom was an engineer - green-stickered the building, allowing the public to re-enter, after the major quake in September 2010. Not to mention revelations that the building's construction manager, Gerald Shirtcliff, faked his engineering degree by stealing another man's identity. Engineer Alan Reay, who owns the firm that designed the building, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. During the past six years, police have been investigating whether criminal charges should be laid regarding the CTV collapse. The investigation, described as one of the most complex technical inquiries undertaken by New Zealand Police, is in its closing stages and a draft lies with the Christchurch Crown Solicitor for review. Police anticipate reaching a decision about whether to prosecute sometime this year. Life has changed irrevocably for the shidu parents during this lengthy investigation. Their health has failed, with some suffering brain tumours and heart attacks blamed as being caused by "youlv guodo" - "overwhelmingly sad" feelings. They have had to borrow money from friends and some have been forced to sell the homes their children grew up in. While police investigators reconstructed building materials and called on international experts, the shidu parents woke in the night, teardrops staining their pillowcases, and isolated themselves from society, fearful of an uncertain future. "I hope before my passing away I can see the day when the truth comes out," says Bo Tu, the physically disabled father of victim Hui Yun Tu. • • •
A shidu generationXiling, Chang and Hui Yun were all born in the 1980s. Their parents belong to the first generation subject to China's one-child policy, which came into effect in 1980 as a solution to gross overpopulation. The government enforced the law strictly, with international reports describing Chinese women being forced to have abortions at up to eight months pregnant, sterilised against their will and fined up to tens of thousands of dollars for violating the rule. Chinese authorities have boasted that during the policy's 35-year span, it prevented 400 million births and helped the country claw its way out of the Great Chinese Famine, which killed more than 15 million people in the early 1960s. Shidu families did not start emerging on a significant scale until about 10 years ago, as the first generation of parents started growing too old to fall pregnant again if they lost their first child. The law changed last year and Chinese families can now have two children. But, this has come too late for far too many. Until Chang Lai moved to New Zealand she lived in her parent's one-bedroom apartment in a concrete social housing complex in Guangzhou, sleeping in the open-air loft above the kitchen.
"To tell you the truth, according to the Chinese tradition, the reason we have children is that our children provide some help and support when we get old. Now our daughter is gone, we don't have anyone to rely on."There are more than a million shidu families in China. These parents have to face the economic and social hardships that go hand-in-hand with being childless. They struggle to get operations in hospitals, admission into nursing homes or to secure burial plots in cemeteries without children to act as their guarantors. They are frequently cast out from social circles and blame themselves for ending their family line and failing their ancestors. In recent years, shidu families have petitioned the Chinese government for more financial support, arguing they deserve to be compensated for obeying the one-child law by receiving part of the fines collected from violators of the policy. They've had little success.
'We need help'In north-eastern Shanghai, a university professor wakes up in the night, "teardrops on my pillowcase". He cries as he dreams of his daughter, Xiling Han. Xiling, the model nursing student, grew up in Nantong and moved to Christchurch in late 2010, on the same day as Hui Yun Tu. Her mother and father were both at work when they heard about the quake. They called their daughter's cellphone repeatedly, but she never answered.
"We have been living in deep depression and fear. We need help."The families of Xiling, Chang and Hui Yun, made three pleas to the New Zealand government and the public. First they want, and believe they deserve, some form of financial aid from New Zealand, regardless of the legislative restrictions. They claim as parents they were dependants of their deceased children and believe the Western definition of the term discriminates against Chinese traditions. Second, they want help securing open-ended visas, allowing them an easy passage into New Zealand to visit their children's graves for as long as they are able to travel. "Part of my daughter was buried in a cemetery near Christchurch Airport. To tell you the truth, I have not come back to visit her grave since then," says Zhi-Ping Lai of his daughter Chang. "What makes things difficult is the procedures of entering and leaving New Zealand are troublesome. I would like to suggest the New Zealand government grant us a long-term entry permit or an annual visa exemption for the convenience of tomb sweeping," he says. To sweep the tombs and remove the weeds from graves is a Chinese tradition of respecting the dead. Every April China celebrates the Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, where people visit and tidy loved ones graves, pray, burn incense and offer their ancestors food, tea and wine. On his last visit to Christchurch, years ago, Zhi-Ping Lai spent four days sweeping the abandoned CTV site and it brought him comfort to clean the place of his daughter's death.