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.

nir elias/reuters
Pressure: Parents protested quietly Sunday outside the government office in Mianzhu, Sichuan Province, over schools that collapsed in the May 12 earthquake and killed their children.
Peter Ford
Bereaved: Mothers carried photos of their children, killed when their school collapsed in the quake, to mark Children's Day on June 1.
Peter Ford
Probe: Lan Xuyou, who sits on the official committee probing the collapse of his child's school in Wufu, inspects its foundations.

Stung by their grief and anger, parents of children killed in two schools that collapsed in the May 12 earthquake are testing the limits of "people power" in China, challenging normally secretive authorities to give them an honest explanation of why their children died.

In Juyuan, where nearly 300 students died when their middle school crumpled, parents fed up with stonewalling by local officials plan to file a lawsuit against the school on Tuesday.

In the village of Wufu, where 129 elementary school children died, protesting parents have won a promise from the local government that some of them will be allowed to sit on the official committee investigating the disaster and monitor its work.

Skeptics in both communities doubt that either strategy will give them satisfaction. But the pressure of public outrage gives some observers hope. "If they win," says Liu Junning, an independent political analyst in Beijing, "it would be very important progress in establishing the rule of law in China."

The schools in Juyuan and Wufu collapsed when all surrounding buildings stood firm. "This was a tofu-dregs project," said one father at the Fuxin No.2 school in Wufu, using a popular Chinese term for substandard work. "We are peasants, we know nothing about construction, but look at the evidence," he added, gesturing at the ruins of his son's school. "Local officials made money off this."

Officials estimate that 7,000 schoolrooms collapsed during the 7.9-magnitude earthquake, which struck in the afternoon while classes were in session, killing thousands of schoolchildren.

When parents from Wufu staged a protest march over the children's deaths last week, a top party official in the nearby town of Mianzhu dropped to his knees before them, pleading with them not to take their complaints to his superiors. Ignoring him, they won an audience with the deputy vice mayor of Deyang, the regional seat of government.

"He promised they would investigate in a fair and open way," said Liu Yiguo, one of three representatives chosen by his fellow parents. "He said that, if it turns out this happened because of bad work by a government department, that department will have to take responsibility."

When a government expert came to the site last week to take samples from the ruins for examination, Mr. Liu said, "We checked that he took real samples from this school and that he sealed the bags. When they open the seals, we will be there, and we will check the whole process of inspection."

Some parents are dubious. "These local officials care about nothing but their position," complained Chen Yu, whose son died at Fuxin No.2. "They say the investigation will take a month. They just want to take as much time as possible."

It will take that long, claimed Zhang Qing, deputy head of a neighboring county government and a member of the investigating committee, "because we need to track back 20 years through the files to find out everything about this school's construction, the budget, and quality inspections."

"If need be, the people responsible will be arrested and sentenced," she added. "And if the parents are not satisfied with the results, we cannot rule out that they will file a lawsuit."

Ms. Zhang's regular presence at the site where the school stood, and where parents gather daily to grieve, appears to have contributed to the mood of relative calm in Wufu since last week's protest.

"I've been coming here for 10 days," she said. "These parents need officials to be with them so they can see we really care about this case."

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.

"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.

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