MIANYANG, China – The children's faces stare in somber black-and-white photos from newspapers and scribbled posters at relief camps, seeking their parents. Many will never find them.
As the first estimate of orphans — more than 4,000 — emerged Thursday from last week's deadly earthquake, thousands of Chinese are rushing to offer their homes.
"My husband and I would really like to adopt an earthquake orphan (0-3 years old)," Wang Liqin wrote on popular Web site Tianya.com in a forum that was already three pages long.
The high interest is another sign of China's tremendous post-quake outpouring of sympathy, buoyed by rising prosperity. And it's a surprising turnabout in a country in which government red-tape, poverty and traditional attitudes long combined to discourage adoption.
The new enthusiasm also means that Americans and other foreigners wanting to adopt may not have a chance. Officials estimate that the number of Chinese wanting to adopt the earthquake's orphans may outnumber the orphans themselves.
"Every day, my ministry receives hundreds of calls," Jiang Li, China's vice minister of Civil Affairs, told reporters this week. At the Civil Affairs department in Sichuan province, the heart of the disaster area, calls reached 2,000 a day, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said.
Some Chinese, reached this week by phone, said they want to adopt because they are unable to have a child of their own. Some see a chance to have a rare second child despite China's strict one-child policy. And some, like Wang, whose own baby didn't survive childbirth this year, understand loss and want to help.
"We saw how fragile life can be and have been wanting to adopt a child," Wang, who works in a clothing export business in the southern city of Guangzhou, said by telephone.
The true number of earthquake orphans will take a long time to know, with an estimated 5 million homeless and more than 29,000 missing in the mountainous region.
Officials are first trying to reunite orphaned children with other relatives. Newspapers in Sichuan run the names and photos of children, asking the public for help. Dozens of similar pleas are posted at the sports arena in the city of Mianyang, now a relief camp for thousands of survivors.
Authorities are trying to protect the children from too much attention, moving into orphanages and university dorms, and refusing media requests to interview them.
"We've received many inquiries about adoptions, but at present it's simply too early since we're still in the rescue and recovery stage," said Wang Jun of the Chinese Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, a government-backed group that was put in charge of orphan issues in the city of Deyang just outside the earthquake zone.
When two students from the shattered county of Beichuan were brought onstage during a nationally broadcast earthquake gala Sunday night, they cried as presenters explained they had not heard from their families.
Interviewed that night on TV, one of the girls, Liu Yixue, gave her parents' names. "I want to hear their voices," she said. "I hope you're safe. When I go back to Chengdu tomorrow, we'll reunite."
Much attention has focused on the large numbers of children who died in the May 12 earthquake, crushed when their schools collapsed, and on their parents' pain. But days of vivid earthquake coverage on state-run TV left many Chinese wanting to do more than donate money, moving many to offer to adopt.
Wei Ningzhong, a 47-year-old furniture salesman, wants to adopt a girl. His offer was inspired in part by teenage memories of China's deadliest earthquake in modern history — one that killed at least 240,000 near his home in northeastern China in 1976, when Chinese were much poorer.
"Life then and now, you can't compare," said Wei. "Then, we could only take care of ourselves. We had no resources to help others. And the news wasn't clear, so people didn't really know what had happened. Now television and radio don't stop reporting the earthquake news. We see it every day and can't stop crying."
Some Chinese wanting an earthquake orphan pointed out their financial stability. Zhao Songlin, who works in information technology in Hubei province, said he makes more than US$14,000 (euro8,900) a year — about seven times the average salary for urban Chinese. Zhao has a son but, like many after the quake, he would like to adopt a girl.
Boys probably are more popular, so "I want to give girls a chance," he said.
Adoption in China is a new trend. In recent decades, government rules made it difficult, fearing that some people would use adoption as a way to get around family planning policies that limit many families to one child. Also, many Chinese thought it shameful to take in a child that wasn't related by blood, and thought adopted children would be discriminated against.
"Adoptive families used to move to another city after adoption, keeping it a secret, but these days they are open about it," said an employee surnamed Ji with the China Center of Adoption Affairs, authorized by the government to handle both domestic and overseas adoptions.
He's seen a "tremendous increase" in adoption interest in the past few years as Chinese earn more money and move from traditionally cramped, state-issued apartments into larger private homes.
China put in place stricter guidelines for overseas adoptions last year to favor wealthier, married couples and free more children for domestic adoptions. It helped slow the number of Chinese children adopted in the U.S. to 5,453 last year, down from a peak of 7,906 in 2005. Some have speculated that China wants to place more of its orphans, estimated at 573,000 last year, with families on the mainland.
Americans also want to adopt earthquake orphans, but "I think the Chinese government will start with domestic adoption first," said Joshua Zhong, co-founder and president of the U.S.-based Chinese Children Adoption International. His group has placed about 8,000 children with Americans over 15 years.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs has said adoption arrangements will be made after the disaster area has been brought under control.
Wei, the furniture salesman, said he can wait. "I want to take a bad situation and make it right," he said.