Quake count: How China's death toll of schoolchildren adds up

The government said Thursday that 5,335 students died in last year's earthquake – just 6 percent of the total victims.

By , Asia editor

China revealed its long-awaited official count of schoolchildren killed in last year’s earthquake Thursday.

But the modest, eyebrow-raising figure – 5,335 students, of nearly 87,000 dead – is unlikely to satisfy bereaved parents and others who have urged the government to tell the truth about how many children died last year and why so many schools collapsed when surrounding buildings didn't. (Read the Monitor’s coverage about parents’ push for accountability here and here.)

Let’s compare this with other figures the government has put out:

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Some 3,340 schools still need rebuilding, according to the Sichuan Province education department, which also announced the death toll. That means, for every school that fell during the quake, only one or two children were killed – even though a much higher number should have been in class when the quake struck that Monday afternoon.

And with an official overall estimate of nearly 87,000 dead or missing (but presumed dead), that means only 6 percent of people killed last year were schoolchildren. Yet students made up 16 percent of Sichuan’s population as of 2007, according to official estimates cited by Time magazine.

'Far from ... reality'

Skeptics have panned the government’s tally.

“These numbers far from reflect reality,” said Ai Weiwei, one of China's most famous artists who is leading an effort to compile its own list of schoolchildren killed. So far, the team has identified 4,864 victims. "It didn’t give any names or any other information on where they died, which schools or which classes they were in. This is nonsense. This reflects badly on the government’s credibility,” he told MSNBC.

Mr. Ai is doing an independent study “to end the systematic coverup," he told the Monitor in April. "We are really tired of their bureaucratic answers and their way of trying not to acknowledge who is dead."

But critics like Ai aren’t the only ones questioning official statistics. The government itself has recognized its deficit in number-crunching credibility (though not with regard to its quake count). It is “working to improve its much-maligned system,” the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Keeping track of the living

Whether or not the authorities missed some kids while counting the dead, they appear intent on keeping track of those still living in the quake area.

Amnesty International released a report this week documenting cases in which authorities have harassed parents trying to learn more about their children’s deaths. According to other reports this week, local authorities are monitoring some parents who lost children in the quake, paying citizens to guard sensitive sites or roads, and detaining foreign journalists.

You can listen here to the Monitor’s China correspondent, Peter Ford, describe how the authorities tried to warn him off of looking into “quake schools.” (Click on the Play button next to Peter’s head shot.)

The government is simply looking out for the parents, one local official told him. "The dead are dead, and the survivors must get on with their lives," said Wang Zhen, deputy mayor of the town of Juyuan.

"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.

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