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For Chinese parents, few answers on quake deaths one year later

Officials have intimidated citizens trying to find out why so many schools collapsed or to compile a list of all the children killed.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 2009

Ai Weiwei, one of China's most famous artists and outspoken government critics, stands in front of a list of names that he and volunteers are compiling of children killed in last year's earthquake. The government has hindered their efforts, fearing the sensitive subject could unleash popular anger.

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor

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Juyuan, China

Last June, a crowd of infuriated parents clambered over the collapsed wall of the municipal government compound in this quake-stricken town. At a noisy meeting, they wrung from their local Communist Party chief a promise.

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"We will give people a response as soon as possible," pledged Zhang Bin to parents who wanted to know why their children's school had collapsed, killing some 300 of them, when all the surrounding buildings had withstood the quake.

Today, the compound wall has been rebuilt, but the officials who work behind it have told parents nothing: Allegations of shoddy building practices and corruption go unanswered; the dead remain officially unnamed, despite private efforts to identify them; parents who have pressed their right to know have been beaten and imprisoned.

"No level of government has given us a response about the investigation," says one bereaved parent who asked to remain anonymous to avoid official retribution for talking to a foreign journalist. "That's what we want most. Parents are desperate."

"This society is so dark," adds another father, who also asked that his name not be published. "Ordinary people have no place to speak out. After all the horrible experience we went through, the government is still torturing us."

A report this week by the human rights group Amnesty International has documented cases of government intimidation and urged it to stop "harassing" quake survivors looking into their children's deaths.

Local officials deny any bad intentions and say that the provincial government is now in charge of reporting on the school's construction. They insist that they cannot allow parents to dwell on their loss.

"The dead are dead, and the survivors must get on with their lives," explains Wang Zhen, Juyuan's deputy mayor. "When there's a car crash, the rest of the traffic cannot wait for the two drivers involved to resolve their argument. The police should move the two cars aside and deal with the problem later, slowly. The traffic must pass."

Officials: shoddy schools not at fault

Fifty miles northeast from here, Xiong Yonghao, whose daughter was killed when the Fuxin Elementary School collapsed, says he has also been banging his head against a wall of official indifference.

"I gave up several months ago," he says, despairing that he will ever learn why his daughter died. "It is pointless, meaningless. There has to be a truth, but until there is an authoritative report there can be no truth."

Though some officials suggested soon after the earthquake that the student death toll would have been lower if schools had been better built, such voices have been silent recently in light of the government line. Sichuan's deputy governor, Wei Hong, announced in March that expert studies had concluded that "the high magnitude and intensity" of the quake "are the main reason for the collapse of schools."