The Chinese government has released the first official tally of children killed in last year's devastating earthquake: More than 5,300 died, mostly in schools that collapsed. NPR's Melissa Block spoke with Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn about how the government has responded to the volatile issue of school collapse.
Melissa Block: Today, there was at least a partial response from the government just days before the earthquake anniversary [on May 12].
Anthony Kuhn: That's right Melissa. This morning here in Chengdu, we saw several top Sichuan provincial officials give a press conference that was clearly intended by its timing to head off public criticism on this matter. For the first time, they released a tally of the schoolchildren killed in the quake: more than 5,300.
Some notable critics, including the Beijing activist Ai Weiwei, have said this number is too low and the figure is not reliable. However, it's very close to what Ai has tallied so far and what another activist, Tan Zuoren, found —also in the 5,000 range. Of course, they point out correctly that this is partial because the names of these children have not yet been released.
At the same time, Sichuan authorities are saying there will be no investigation into why the schools collapsed. So when you think about the parents, like we just heard from Juyuan Middle School, what recourse do they have? Will there be any accountability ever for what happened at these schools?
You'll remember though that right after the earthquake, Education Ministry officials said there would be a thorough investigation, and anyone found involved in shoddy construction would be punished. Since then, the government has said that they have not discovered any cases of shoddy construction.
The provincial legal authorities have said that the courts cannot accept cases that they do not approve in advance. The media, the domestic reporters know that they report on such things at their own peril. And for the most part, with a few notable exceptions, they have not reported on it. And those few parents who have dared to go to Beijing to petition the central government authorities say they've been blocked, detained and harassed. So I don't think that leaves many other channels to express their grievances.
And it's not just parents getting harassed, Anthony. There have been a number of activists who have been detained as well.
That's right. Several activists who have led the movement to get accountability have run into trouble. And they've been Sichuan people. One was Huang Qi, who was detained last summer and accused of illegally possessing state secrets. He had tried to help the parents and put some of their material on the Web. Another one who was mentioned, Sichuan environmental activist Tan Zuoren, who did his own investigation and has been accused of subversion. So these are the people who have stuck their heads out and have paid for it.
This volatile issue of schools and what happened to these children is a politically sensitive issue in a politically sensitive year here in China.
It sure is: The whole calendar is full of sensitive anniversaries. You've got the 10th anniversary of the banning of the Falun Gong spiritual movement; 20 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre; 50 since the uprising in Tibet; and 60 since the founding of the People's Republic of China
The government's watchword this year is maintaining stability, and they have set up stability maintenance committees at all levels of government from the central level on down. But their job is to ensure accountability from those at the bottom to those at the top. And they expect that any citizens who rock the boat and any officials who let the situation get out of hand will be held to account and be punished.