Mourning ceremonies have turned into protest events in recent days, for parents whose children were crushed to death in their classrooms during the earthquake in Sichuan Province.
The protest forced officials to address a growing political backlash over shoddy construction of public schools.
10 000 children are estimated to have lost their lives in the quake, and their parents have grown so angry that they overcome their usual caution about confronting Communist Party officials.
Many are especially upset because some school for poor students crumbled into rubble, while government offices and more elite schools not far away survived the quake largely intact.
To commemorate their children, an informal gathering of parents took place on Tuesday, during which they gave way to unbridled fury. Liu Lifu, a quarry worker from the fathers in attendance, grabbed the microphone and began calling for justice. His 15-year-old daughter, Liu Li, had died during a biology lesson, along with her entire class.
“We demand that the government severely punish the killers who caused the collapse of the school building” he shouted. “Please, everyone sign the petition so we can find out the truth.”
It made the crowd grow more agitated. According to some parents, for years local officials had known that the school was unsafe, but refused to take action. Others recalled that before rescue workers showed up two hours passed the earthquake, that they stopped working at 10 p.m. the night of the earthquake, and did not resume the search until 9 a.m. the next day.
Even though there is no official casualty count, parents said that only 13 of the school’s 900 students came out alive.
Trembling with emotion
“The people responsible for this should be brought here and have a bullet put in their head” said Luo Guanmin, a farmer who was cradling a photo of Luo Dan, his 16-year-old daughter.
In several towns in northern Sichuan, began sharp confrontations between protesters and officials. Hundreds of parents, whose children died at the Fuxin No.2 Primary School in the city of Mianzhu, staged a rally on Saturday, and surrounded a female official. She tried to assure them that their complaints were being taken seriously. They screamed and yelled in her face, until she fainted.
The next day, the Communist Party’s top official in Mianzhu came out to talk with the parents and stop them from marching to Chengdu, the largest city in the region, where they were looking for prevailing on higher-level authorities to investigate.
Jiang Guohua, the local party boss, even dropped to his knees and said “please believe the Mianzhu party committee can resolve the issue” . But the parents shouted in his face and continued their march.
Later, as the crowd turned into the hundreds, some parents clashed with the police, leaving several bleeding and trembling with emotion.
So far, the government is trying to promote its response to the quake as effective, and to highlight heroic rescue efforts by the People’s Liberation Army. 150 000 soldiers have been dispatched to the region. The protests threaten to undermine these attempts from the government.
Detailed reporting of school controversy from the state-run media have been blocked by censors, but a photo of Jiang Guohua, kneeling before protesters has brought attention to the incident as it has become a sensation on some Web forums.
In its latest issue, the business journal Caijing, one of China’s boldest magazines, used its main commentary article to call on the government to step up investigations of faulty school construction.
The official news agency, Xinhua, also issued a commentary, saying a speedy official response was warranted.
In Beijing, the delicacy of the issue seems to be recognized by the authorities. Wang Xuming (photo), a spokesman for the Education Ministry, promised on Monday a reassessment of school buildings in quake zone. He added that those responsible for cutting corners on school construction would be “severely punished.”
The pressure also made local officials bowed accross Sichuan.
The collapse of a middle school that killed 1 300 children in Beichuan will be investigated, officials said.
“We are not officially investigating the quality problems in school buildings, but we definitely will, after we finish the temporary lodging for refugees” said Tian Liya, the party secretary of the Sichuan Construction Bureau’s emergency department.
But judging by the outbursts of recent days, any delay will only embolden infuriated parents. The vice secretary of the Mianzhu city government has been encircled by the parents who called her a liar for her report on the destruction of the Fuxin school. The report failed to mention that 127 had been killed.
‘A satisfying result’
After a struggle that left several parents bleeding, when the police tried to intervene, the marchers agreed to board government buses. It brought them to Deyang, the county seat where they met with the vice mayor, Zhang Jinming. He promised he would start an investigation the following day.
“I hope you can be free from this mood of sadness” said the vice mayor, before sending them away. “The government will make a research team and give you a satisfying result.”
The parents who lost their children at Juyuan Middle School say they have yet to hear from Dujiangyan officials. A few of them said teachers proposed them about $4 500, several time the average annual income in this area, to compensate their lost. To get the money, they have to stop their increasingly vociferous public campaign.
“We don’t want their money, we just want this corruption to end,” said Luo, the farmer, as others nodded in agreement. Many parents said they felt insulted that no one from the school or the government had come to offer condolences.
A pair of tanker trucks, full of disinfectant, arrived just at the start of the ceremony. They were the only official presence at Tuesday’s gathering in Dujiangyan.
Told to group themselves accordoing to their children’s classes, the parents exchanged stories of loss. “When they pulled my boy out he kept begging for water, but then he died,” said Wang Chaoping, holding a passport-sized photo of his 16-year-old son, Wang Tinghai. “He wasn’t the best student, but he loved sports.”
“I put all my hope in my one child” said Li, who has been unable to work because of chronic liver disease. “They were supposed to support us in old age.” He started to well up but then stopped himself. “We’re not asking the government for money” he said. “We just want them to tell us why they died.”