Tuesday, June 03, 2008

China - Anger builds over collapsed schools

Protesters outside a court in Dujiangyan

It is now three weeks since an 8.0 earthquake hit Sichuan province in China and most television news coverage has dried up. It remains the top story on CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster, though CNN continues to provide daily updates. The true number of dead may never be known with many people still buried under rubble. The official figure now stands at 69,019 dead, with more than 18,000 people still missing.

However there are still miracles and good news emerging from the quake hit areas. This week two miners who had only survived by drinking rain water after a colleague who had hiked for days directed rescue services to their location. Also this week one of several escaped pandas was spotted roaming through a devastated forest area. It was soon recaptured and was seen on news reports munching sugarcane. There has also been further tragedy after a transport helicopter crashed on Saturday. The Russian built Mi-171 aircraft was carrying 14 injured passengers and five crew when it crashed. The cause of the crash has still not been determined and the wreckage has not yet been found. Troops have continued to work tirelessly to dig channels to siphon off water from so-called quake lakes that threaten to burst and flood low lying areas. According to CCTV-9, the Tanjianshan lake was not expected to overflow until 5th June. Many people have already been evacuated from the path of any potential floods but there are some reports that many residents are not heeding warnings to move to higher ground.

Despite the huge efforts by the People’s Liberation Army and rescue workers to bring relief to the devastated areas of Sichuan, there is now mounting anger directed at the government over the collapse of so many schools. On Tuesday more than 100 parents, many holding pictures of their dead children, were pulled down the street by riot police, away from a courthouse in Dujiangyan. The resort city is situated northwest of the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu. More than 270 students died when one high school collapsed in Juyuan, near Dujiangyan. The Southern Metropolis News quoted a rescuer as saying that rubble from the school showed that no steel reinforcing bars had been used in construction, only iron wire. "Why?" some of the parents yelled outside the court. "Tell us something," they said as the black-suited police wearing riot helmets yanked at them. Many of the parents had been kneeling in front of the courthouse yelling, "We want to sue." Amid the chaos, an Associated Press reporter and two photographers covering the protest were forcibly dragged up the steps into the courthouse by police trying to prevent them from seeing the demonstration [CNN].

There is no official figure on how many children died at the many schools that collapsed in the powerful May 12 earthquake in Sichuan Province. But the number of student deaths seems likely to exceed 10,000, and possibly go much higher, a staggering figure that has become a simmering controversy in China as grieving parents say their children might have lived had the schools been better built. “This is not a natural disaster,” said Ren Yongchang, whose 9-year-old son died inside the Xinjian Primary School. His hands were covered in plaster dust as he stood beside the rubble, shouting and weeping as he grabbed the exposed steel rebar of a broken concrete column. “This is not good steel. It doesn’t meet standards. They stole our children.” As parents at different schools begin to speak out, the question of whether official negligence, and possibly corruption, contributed to the student deaths could turn public opinion. The government has launched an investigation, but censors, wary of the public mood, are trying to suppress the issue in state-run media and online.

Nearly two weeks after the earthquake, Mr. Ma, a decommissioned soldier, keeps returning to the rubble of Xinjian. He smokes cigarette after cigarette and has not changed out of the Che Guevara T-shirt and blue jeans he wore on that frantic afternoon. “That’s where government officials send their children to nursery school,” he said, pointing to the undamaged, yellow-tiled kindergarten. Mr. Ma saved several children the day of the disaster but cannot shake the memory of one girl. Her leg had been pinned beneath a heavy concrete slab. Two small cranes had failed to free her. Her body temperature was quickly dropping. So Mr. Ma told her father, “She can keep her leg or her life.” The father was led away. Mr. Ma used a serrated knife he kept in his jeans. He said the job took three cuts across the girl’s shin. “She will hate me when she is older if she has trouble with love,” he said with a grim smile. He does not know the girl’s name. “I have dreams every night,” he said. “She was very pretty. Very strong.” It is a tragedy that the school buildings were not as strong [NY Times].

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