Bereaved parents whose children were crushed to death in their classrooms during the earthquake in Sichuan province have turned mourning ceremonies into protest events in recent days, forcing officials to address a growing political backlash over shoddy construction of public schools.
Parents of the estimated 10,000 children who lost their lives in the quake have grown so enraged about collapsed schools that they have overcome their usual caution about confronting Communist Party officials. Many say they are especially upset that some schools for poor students crumbled into rubble even though government offices and more elite schools not far away survived the quake largely intact.
On Tuesday, an informal gathering of parents in Dujiangyan (都江堰) to commemorate their children gave way to unbridled fury. One of the fathers in attendance, a quarry worker named Liu Lifu, grabbed the microphone and began calling for justice. His 15-year-old daughter, Liu Li, had died along with her entire class during a biology lesson.
“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.”
The crowd grew more agitated. Some parents said that local officials had known for years that the school was unsafe but refused to take action. Others recalled that two hours passed before rescue workers showed up; even then, they stopped working at 10pm the night of the earthquake and did not resume the search until 9am the next day.
In the end more than 200 bodies were recovered from the school. “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 her 16-year-old daughter, Luo Dan.
Sharp confrontations between protesters and officials began over the weekend in several towns in northern Sichuan. Hundreds of parents whose children died at the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in the city of Mianzhu staged an impromptu rally on Saturday. They surrounded one female official who tried to assure them that their complaints were being taken seriously, screaming and yelling in her face until she fainted.
The next day, the Communist Party’s top official in Mianzhu (綿竹) came out to talk with the parents and stop them from marching to Chengdu, the largest city in the region, where they sought to prevail on higher level authorities to investigate. The local party boss, Jiang Guohua, dropped to his knees and pleaded with them to abandon the protest, but the parents shouted in his face and continued their march.
The protests threaten to undermine the government’s attempts to promote its response to the quake as effective and to highlight heroic rescue efforts by the People’s Liberation Army, which has dispatched 150,000 soldiers to the region. Censors have blocked detailed reporting of the schools controversy from the state-run media, but a photo of Jiang kneeling before protesters has become a sensation on some Web forums, bringing national attention to the incident.
One of China’s boldest magazines, the business journal Caijing (財經), used its main commentary article in its latest issue to call on the government to step up investigations of shoddy school construction. Xinhua, the official news agency, also issued a commentary saying a speedy official response is warranted.