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.

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
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.
Elizabeth Dalziel/AP
In this photo from April 6, 2009, Rubble blocks the entrance to a primary school in Beichuan, China that was ruined in last May's earthquake.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

"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"This society is so dark," adds another father, who also asked that his name not be published.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."

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.

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."

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