China's bereaved parents push for accountability
Furious, they are pressing local officials to explain why so many schools collapsed in the May 12 quake, killing their children, when surrounding buildings stayed standing.
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The mood is very different in Juyuan, where a rowdy meeting between bereaved parents and local officials in a tent on Monday ended in pandemonium. When the town's Communist Party secretary, Zhang Bin, declared that local children's deaths were "a small thing," according to one participant, a furious father ripped a gaping hole in the tent wall with his hands and raced away, pursued by some of the many policemen who had been standing by.Skip to next paragraph
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"We want to know who built the school and who was responsible for supervising the construction," said Chen Lin, one of the angry parents. "They won't tell us."
Juyuan's local government appears to be widely despised. "Wen Jiabao [China's prime minister] came here a few hours after the earthquake, but our mayor was nowhere to be seen," spat Zhou Xinyong, who lost her son when his school caved in.
"We believe in the [Communist] Party and in the State Council [the cabinet]," added Li Dechang. "But we definitely don't believe in the local government. We trusted them, and our children died."
Frustrated by local officials' apparent indifference, Juyuan Middle School parents have turned to a lawyer in the provincial capital, Chengdu. "The local government hasn't talked to them, so they are going to sue," explained Yue Ming, the lawyer.
Representing 250 families, Mr. Yue said he will lodge a lawsuit against the school demanding "justice and damages" with the People's Court in the nearby town of Dujiangyan on Tuesday. The suit will be based on a 2002 Ministry of Education regulation holding school authorities responsible for injury or death sustained as a result of substandard school construction.
"I don't know whether the court will accept the suit," he said, adding that if it does, the case is likely to take six months.
Yue, who said he is working pro bono on the parents' behalf, appeared anxious during a phone interview not to give the impression that he is acting against the government, worrying that the case "may not be good for the government's image.
"But there is no better solution, because the government is not giving [the parents] answers," he said. "If they don't sue, who will protect their interests?"
In China's judicial system, where local Communist Party officials exert great influence over court decisions, Yue acknowledged he is not certain of success. But he is counting on pressure from above. "I think the court will try this case in a very fair way because the central government's attitude is very clear. They want this case investigated to the end," he said.
"The Chinese legal system is not independent," added Hu Xingdou, a professor of politics at Beijing Technical University. "But right now, the whole of Chinese public opinion is focused on these schools, so the court will not dare make a wrong judgment. A fair judgment depends on public and media scrutiny."
How close that scrutiny will be, however, remains unclear. Chinese journalists said privately that their editors received a directive from the Communist Party's central publicity department late last week ordering them to refrain from reporting on the way so many schools collapsed in the earthquake.
[Editor's note: The original version misspelled the name of the town Juyuan.]
• Zhang Yajun contributed reporting to this article.