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.
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He also promised that the number of schoolchildren who died in the 7,000-plus schoolrooms that collapsed would be published, but declined to say when.Skip to next paragraph
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Names of dead prove too sensitive
In the absence of an official report, one of the country's most famous artists and most outspoken government critics, Ai Weiwei, has launched an effort to draw up as complete a list as possible of the earthquake's child victims.
"Our purpose is really to end the systematic cover-up," says Mr. Ai. "We are really tired of their bureaucratic answers and their way of trying not to acknowledge who is dead."
Teams of Ai's volunteers, numbering about 60, roaming the earthquake zone, interviewing families, visiting mass graves, and attending memorial services have so far identified 4,864 child victims. (The total death toll has been set at 69,227, with 17,923 people still missing.)
But "they have really met resistance" from the local authorities, who have harassed, detained, and expelled them, complains Ai.
"I was a bit frightened," confesses Zhao Ying, one of Ai's young volunteer researchers who was arrested twice during her two-week trip to Sichuan in March and had all her notes confiscated. "I had never seen the inside of a police station."
"The police thought ... we were disturbing the mood of local residents and introducing unstable elements into their areas, so they did not want us around," explains Ms. Zhao.
Putting a lid on parents' resentment
The government's fear that popular resentment might get out of hand is palpable in Juyuan, where parents were forbidden from gathering at the site of the collapsed middle school at last month's Tomb Sweeping Festival, when Chinese remember their dead.
"We were worried that parents would be very sad, which is not good for their health," especially when many mothers are trying to get pregnant, explains Deputy Mayor Zhang.
"We were also afraid that the situation could not be well-controlled; if Falun Gong [a banned religious sect] or other illegal people attended, it would be difficult to handle the situation, and it would become more big national news," Zhang adds.
Meanwhile on Ai's popular blog, the victim lists that he has compiled keep getting deleted by censors. He keeps reposting them. "Why the names of the dead can cause so much fear?" he wonders aloud.
He answers his own question, though. "If you don't know who died, you don't know how many died, or where, or why," he points out. "If you do know who, many other facts can come out."
Those facts, he suggests, might point to "a lot of wrongdoing about construction. It's not a matter of a few builders; it was a regional or nationwide policy on construction methods when there was very little money and very fast building. It's really a policy failure," Ai argues.
For Zhao, however, the project she has helped with has a more sentimental purpose. "The police kept asking what the list was for," she recalls. "I told them that our goal is very simple: just to collect names, nothing else.
"We want to commemorate these kids," she goes on. "They are dead, and all they left to this world are their names. That's all they had."