Fri, May 30, 2008 - Page 20 News List

In China, parents’ grief turns to anger

Raw public outbursts have been taking place across northern Sichuan Province as grieving parents call for investigations into why so many school buildings collapsed during the May 12 earthquake

By Andrew Jacobs  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DUJIANGYAN, CHINA

The authorities in Beijing appear to recognize the delicacy of the issue. On Monday, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, Wang Xuming, promised a reassessment of school buildings in quake zones, adding that those responsible for cutting corners on school construction would be “severely punished.”

Local officials across Sichuan have also bowed to the pressure.

In Beichuan (北川), officials announced an investigation into the collapse of a middle school there that killed 1,300 children. Reached by phone on Tuesday, two provincial officials in Chengdu vowed a vigorous response, although they suggested that full-scale investigations should take a backseat to the needs of survivors.

“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.

Gauging from the outbursts of recent days, any delay will only embolden infuriated parents. In their confrontation with Communist Party officials last Saturday, the parents encircled the vice secretary of the Mianzhu city government and called her a liar for her report on the destruction of the Fuxin school that failed to mention that 127 students had been killed.

“Why can’t you do the right things for us?” they shouted. “Why do you cheat us?” For the next 20 minutes they yelled and screamed in her face until she passed out and had to be carried away by an aide.

The next day, the parents directed their ire at Jiang. When his answers proved unsatisfying, they began their march to Chengdu. Jiang dropped to the ground several times and begged them to stop. “Please believe the Mianzhu Party committee can resolve the issue,” he said. They kept walking.

Three hours later, the police tried to intervene. During the ensuing struggle, the broken glass from the pictures of dead children left several parents bleeding. After a tense standoff, the marchers agreed to board government buses that brought them to Deyang, the county seat. There, they met with the vice mayor, who promised he would start an investigation the following day.

“I hope you can be free from this mood of sadness,” Zhang Jinming, the vice mayor, said 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 parents said they had been approached by teachers and told they would be well-compensated for their loss — about US$4,500 per child — if they would 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 their condolences.

The only official presence at Tuesday’s gathering in Dujiangyan was a pair of tanker trucks full of disinfectant, which arrived just at the start of the ceremony. As the parents began lighting candles and incense, a worker directed his hose at the mountain of rubble. The strong smell of bleach drifted over the crowd. Then, perhaps sensing the potential for confrontation, the workers drove away.

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