MIANZHU, China — Four months after a massive earthquake upended this region of Sichuan province, child welfare officers scurry to sort out the fate of 532 orphan children.
Countless couples have stepped forward to adopt a "quake orphan" as part of the huge wellspring of charitable concern that the disaster untapped among ordinary Chinese citizens.
So far, only one quake orphan has been adopted into a new home. The rest of the orphans are not tangled in bureaucratic red tape. Rather, they remain in the tight embrace of grandparents and aunts and uncles who refuse to let them go.
The tale of the quake orphans underscores the strength of extended families in the era of China's "one-child policy," the three-decade-old family planning rule that limits most Chinese couples to one child. Most orphans have no brothers and sisters. With parents dead, many grandparents fear the family tree will wither and cling to the orphans as a way of clan survival.
"Generally speaking, the grandparents and the aunts and uncles don't want the child to be put up for adoption," said Wang Hong, deputy director of the office of the Ministry of Civil Affairs in nearby Deyang, the regional capital.
Yet offers to adopt orphans keep rolling in, in some cases from couples whose hopes of adoption were aroused by the disaster.
"Too many people want to adopt these kids," Wang said, adding that his office no longer even writes down the names of those couples who call in. "It's meaningless to register them."
The magnitude 7.9 Sichuan earthquake shook China from east to west, and touched the nation deeply. The official death toll remains at 69,226, with 17,923 missing. Authorities permitted nonstop live television coverage following the May 12 calamity, and volunteers streamed into the quake zone. Other citizens opened their wallets and hearts to the victims.
The story of one orphan, Zhong Andi, a 10-year-old boy, conveys the conflicting family concerns and crosscurrents at play as child welfare officials and family representatives jointly decide whether an orphan is better off with loving, but often poor, relatives, or with adoptive parents.
The boy's parents were crushed in the small snack bar that they operated in nearby Hanwang when the quake hit at 2:28 p.m. Andi survived unscathed at his elementary school.
Zhong Yunxiu, the boy's aunt, stood on a dirt footpath between rice paddies outside the poor mud and brick home that she shares with the boy's paternal grandparents, explaining the difficult and lengthy decision to part with him.
"If Andi were living with us, we could not ensure that he would have a bright future," Zhong said, adding that they would just have enough to buy him food and clothing.
Zhong said welfare officers tried to convince the relatives to see the possibilities for the boy's development, without coercion, promising that he would be allowed to return regularly.
"At first we didn't agree to give up guardianship. But all the schools around here are destroyed. And we considered his future," she said.
They met the prospective adoptive parents, a couple from the nearby provincial capital of Chengdu. The father works in real estate while the mother has a job in a bank. They own a car, an unimaginable luxury for peasant rice and corn farmers like themselves.
The decision opened a rift in the extended family. Andi's maternal grandparents deeply opposed giving him up, but they are in their 80s and ineligible for guardianship because of their age. Two of his mother's brothers also opposed but are too poor to sustain a larger family.
China's adoption law allows eligible grandparents to put a stop to adoptions. Under certain conditions, aunts and uncles can also object, although all prospective guardians must be in good health, mentally competent and have a minimum level of income. As for adoptive parents, generally only couples over 30 can be considered, and preference is given to those without children.
The paternal grandfather, Zhong Wanyou, 76, said the clan had "a discussion for a long time" and that he personally came to the conclusion the adoption would be good for Andi, whom he affectionately described as "naughty."
"Andi had no appetite at home. He was doing poorly in his studies," the grandfather said. "When he stayed at home, his behavior was not good."
Finally on Sept. 5, the papers were signed after the boy visited his prospective home and school in Chengdu and approved of the adoption. Chinese law permits children age 10 and older to have a final say. Zhong Andi took a new name given by his adoptive parents.
Li Boshan, head of the social affairs department in this city, said the adoptive parents maintained a good attitude toward the boy's relatives.
"The child can stay in contact with his grandparents," Li said. "The adoptive parents told him, 'You cannot forget your family roots.' He will go back to see his grandparents regularly."
The tug between relatives and the state means that few of the 532 quake orphans are likely ever to be adopted. Of the total, only 88 have been identified as potentially eligible for adoption. Others are not eligible because one of their parents may be officially listed as missing in the quake debris. Adoption can only occur after police produce death certificates for both parents after recovery of bodies. Thousands of bodies have not been found.
Adding to the complications is a government policy to give each orphan 600 yuan (about $88) a month as a stipend, a generous amount intended to show societal concern about the quake orphans. Officials soon realized the stipend could influence guardianship decisions and that it would highlight a gap with pre-quake orphans, so all orphans were included in the plan.
Since the early 1990s, some 75,000 Chinese orphans, mostly girls age 6 or under, have gone to new homes in the U.S. But the flow of orphans has been cut to a trickle since last year, when China tightened income, weight, medical history and marital status requirements on prospective parents.
As China has grown more prosperous, the stigma attached to adoption has ebbed and more Chinese couples are choosing to adopt, a trend apparently accelerated by the earthquake.
But Li said relatives and the orphans themselves were putting a halt to most adoptions.
"The grandparents don't want to lose their bloodline, to lose their only grandchild," Li said, adding that "a majority of the orphans don't want to be adopted either."
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