China reneges on pledge to say why schools fell in quake

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 12, 2008 


Xue Tianxiu holds a photo of her 11-year-old grandson, Wu Cang, who died in the earthquake in China's Sichuan Province last May.

TIM JOHNSON — Tim Johnson / MCT

LUOSHUI, China — In quake-wracked Sichuan province, temporary settlements of row houses throb with activity. Excited noise flows from schoolrooms. Rebuilding efforts are at full throttle as the government puts all its heft into fulfilling pledges to recover quickly from the May 12 disaster.

But there's one promise authorities have failed to keep: They've refused to point the finger at anyone responsible for the collapse of hundreds of schools that fell on and crushed 10,000 or more children under heavy rubble.

Pledges punish those responsible for shoddy school construction have gone unfulfilled. Instead, officials have urged grieving parents to move on with their lives and quit pressing for explanations.

"Government officials explained to us that if they sent all those people who are responsible to the firing squad, it still wouldn't bring back our children," said Zhang Xiaoping, a 34-year-old mother who lost her only daughter in a collapsed school here.

Many parents believe initial probes turned up too many culprits who profited from slipshod construction — ranging from suppliers of materials, to architects and on to local education bureaus and government offices. The state may have realized it couldn't move against all those who cut corners or profited from cheap construction.

"Too many people are involved," said Tang Shiliang, whose granddaughter died in the collapse of the Luoshui No. 2 elementary school, now just a field of rubble at his feet.

"It's the cement, brick and steel companies. All of them were involved in the corruption," he said.

The death toll from the earthquake stands at nearly 70,000. Officials decline to say how many schoolchildren perished, but they readily offer a litany of facts about reconstruction efforts, down to the 210 billion bricks that will be needed and the 3,400 miles of railway that must be rebuilt. Officials only acknowledged for the first time earlier this month that poor construction may have played a role in the collapse of schools.

Ma Zongjin, a government scientist who led a commission of experts assessing the damage from the quake, said at a Sept. 4 news conference that some schools contained insufficient columns for the floor area, a structural woe exacerbated by the use of poor-quality concrete or steel.

"Often they want to build classrooms with a large roof span, but then the earthquake resistance of the beams is quite weak," Ma said. "In some schools the rooms were too big, and materials used were not the most suitable, so you may have these (collapses)."

Regional authorities have taken measures, such as financial inducements, to ensure that anger over shoddy schools does not boil over into broader rage. Compensation to parents of dead school children has been speedy, averaging 90,000 yuan (roughly $13,000) a child.

At the same time, authorities have dispersed protests by angry parents, most recently barring placard-waving parents from confronting Premier Wen Jiabao at the Sept. 1 opening of a temporary school for victims displaced to the city of Mianyang. Officials also have leaned on lawyers to file no lawsuits and sent police to pull anguished parents away from courthouses.

"We think the compensation is pretty good," said Tang, the grandfather.

Bulldozers razed the collapsed elementary school where his granddaughter, a fourth grader, died in the quake, leaving only a scattering of broken brick and impeding any inquiry.

"It was a 'tofu' building," Tang said, using an analogy to describe a structure with inadequate reinforcement. "We family members of the dead children want the results of the examination of construction materials, but they won't give them to us."

China's single-party state has governed under the slogan "put people first" in recent years, and the scandal over collapsed schools has marred a largely effective campaign in which Premier Wen and President Hu Jintao have repeatedly arrived in the quake zone to offer hands-on oversight of relief and recovery efforts.

In the initial days after the quake, as the domestic media was given a largely free rein, photos of collapsed schools were widely disseminated, drawing pledges of an inquiry.

"We will definitely carry out a thorough investigation," Han Jin, a senior Education Ministry official, said then, promising "strict punishment" for anyone found culpable. "We will not tolerate or forgive anyone. We will give the public a satisfactory explanation."

Since, however, Chinese media have been told to sharply limit coverage of the issue.

Authorities have never said how many schools collapsed, referring instead to the loss of between 7,000 and 11,700 classrooms in the magnitude 7.9 Sichuan quake, the worst natural disaster in three decades in China.

Employees in provincial offices for the Sichuan education bureau and cadres in the regional office of the Communist Party's disciplinary committee refused to say if any state or party functionary had been punished for shoddy school construction.

Parents of perished school children face a broad array of social pressures — sometimes even from within their own families — to halt complaints and get on with their lives, including trying to bear another child to replace the one lost. Some mothers fear they are too old.

"If I can, I definitely will have another child," said Chen Youxue, a 37-year-old who lost her sixth-grade daughter in the quake. "But I don't know if I can."

Officials implemented an exception to China's strict "one-child policy" that will allow couples who lost a child in the quake to have another one.

As Chen spoke to a visitor about the collapse of the local school, describing the anger that led some parents to put up posters of complaint around the town, her father loudly intervened to tell her that she should stay silent. He sought to shoo a journalist away.

"You're just going to make bad publicity for the government. That's what all foreign media do," said the father, Ma Xingquan. "I think the government did fairly well."

Back at her home at one of the temporary settlements that house the 5 million people left homeless by the quake, Zhang Xiaoping said her neighbors are grumbling that parents still protest over the schools.

"A lot of people think we have already gotten too much money, but we still complain. (They say) we are holding up reconstruction with our complaints," Zhang said.

"When I go on the streets or take the bus, people talk without knowing that I am a mother who lost a daughter. I hear what they say. When I hear this, I feel really, really bad."

(McClatchy special correspondent Hua Li contributed to this article.)

More from McClatchy:

China's quake survivors cling tightly to orphans

Angry parents protest collapse of China's schools

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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