Olivia Carville is an investigative reporter with the NZ Herald.

Chinese quake parents want lifelong visas to visit their children's graves

Zhi-Ping Lai and his wife, Xiuqing Feng, sent their daughter to New Zealand for a better life. "All of our hopes were on our shoulders," they said. Photo/Mike Scott
Zhi-Ping Lai and his wife, Xiuqing Feng, sent their daughter to New Zealand for a better life. "All of our hopes were on our shoulders," they said. Photo/Mike Scott

Chinese parents who lost their only child in the February 2011 earthquake are pleading with our government to grant them lifelong visas so they can visit their children's graves.

They want the right to enter New Zealand every year to tidy their children's graves as per the Chinese tomb-sweeping tradition where mourners clean gravesites and burn incense to bless the dead.

Their request has been declined because New Zealand's immigration policy does not allow for long-lasting visitor visas.

READ FULL INVESTIGATION: The parents who are afraid to cry together

Nearly half of the 185 victims of the Christchurch earthquake died in a language school on the fourth floor of the collapsed CTV building, including 23 Chinese students.

Last October, the Weekend Herald travelled to three cities in China - Guangzhou, Wuhan and Shanghai - to meet families who lost their only child in the quake.

These parents were the first generation affected by China's one-child policy and they lost their only child in the CTV building, the sole building that completely collapsed on February 22, 2011.

"The pain is immense," said Zhi-Ping Lai, the father of quake victim Chang Lai, 27. He suffered from a heart attack after his daughter's death, which he said was caused by "sadness and sorrow."

"I would like to ask the New Zealand government whether it's possible to grant us a long-term entry permit or an annual visa exemption for the convenience of tomb sweeping," he said, speaking through a translator in a social apartment complex in Guangzhou.

To these parents, some of whom now live off a $40 a week pension and have been left homeless since their children's death, the bureaucratic visitor visa application process is daunting and the fees are simply unaffordable.

Lai, who can't speak English, has visited New Zealand twice since his daughter's death. The first time, only days after the quake, he didn't have a passport and was granted entry under special circumstances with official reference letters from government officials in Guangdong.

Chang Lai, 27, died in the CTV building collapse. She was studying English as she wanted to work as a dentist in Guangzhou and be able to treat patients from foreign countries. Photo/Mike Scott
Chang Lai, 27, died in the CTV building collapse. She was studying English as she wanted to work as a dentist in Guangzhou and be able to treat patients from foreign countries. Photo/Mike Scott

He returned to China when his daughter's legs were recovered from the rubble of the CTV building.

A year later, Lai flew back to New Zealand when the rest of his daughter's body was discovered. A local Chinese reporter, who could speak English, helped him with the visa paperwork, he said.

"My daughter was buried in a cemetery near Christchurch Airport," Lai told the Weekend Herald.

"To tell you the truth, I have not come back to visit her grave since then. It's partly because of my worsening health situation, but what makes things more difficult is the procedures of entering and leaving New Zealand are troublesome."

Chinese citizens can apply for three-year visitor visas, said Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, but immigration policy "does not allow for exemptions for life-time visitor visas".

This means every time Lai wants to come back to New Zealand to visit his daughter's grave he has to go through the application process again.

"What we wish for is just to mourn our beloved family member," he said.

CTV police investigation

The remains of the collapsed CTV building. Photo/Geoff Sloan
The remains of the collapsed CTV building. Photo/Geoff Sloan

Police will reach a decision on whether to press criminal charges regarding the CTV building collapse this year.

It's been six years since the CTV building pancaked to the ground in the 2011 earthquake, killing 115 people.

No one has been held accountable for the collapse, despite a Royal Commission finding it was caused by multiple engineering, construction and council-related errors.

Detective Superintendent Peter Read said the length of time police had been investigating "reflects the complexity of what we are dealing with and the exhaustive steps we have taken to obtain the information we require."

"The burden of proof in criminal law is 'beyond reasonable doubt' and this is why police must be meticulous in all the information it gathers during the investigation," Read said.

During the six-year probe, critical structures from the building have been reconstructed and tested, opinions have been sought from a wide range of experts internationally and excavation has been carried out at the abandoned site.

The investigation is in its closing stages and is with the Christchurch Crown Solicitor for review.

- NZ Herald

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