In China, Anger Still Simmers Over School Collapses

A photo of a child's hand sticking out of the rubble after an earthquake in China. i i

This photo of a child's hand sticking out of the rubble, still gripping a pen, is on display only at a private museum in Dayi County in Sichuan province. Xie Xiaoyu for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Xie Xiaoyu for NPR
A photo of a child's hand sticking out of the rubble after an earthquake in China.

This photo of a child's hand sticking out of the rubble, still gripping a pen, is on display only at a private museum in Dayi County in Sichuan province.

Xie Xiaoyu for NPR
NPR Earthquake Coverage

A twisted chair, a dusty child's backpack, a crumpled textbook pulled from what was once a classroom.

These are tributes to the thousands of children who died in China's Sichuan province when their schools collapsed during the massive earthquake two months ago. Xinhua News Agency now says 18,000 families lost children in the quake.

They can be seen in only one place: a private museum devoted to the quake at Jianchuan Museum cluster in Dayi county, where music from an earthquake benefit plays. Seven thousand classrooms crumbled during the temblor, and bulldozers have already cleared the ruins of some of the buildings.

As the physical reminders of what happened are swept away, officials are waging a campaign to tamp down on potential unrest among survivors and bereaved parents.

The official media has been gagged on the sensitive topic to avoid fanning unrest. Even the museum's founder, property developer Fan Jianchuan, believes that's the right decision.

"For this exhibition, no one has censored us, but we are censoring ourselves. We all know what happened: The schools collapsed because of construction problems," Fan says. "But if we tried to deal with this, it might cause riots — like in other places — and the government wouldn't be able to work. Now is not the right time. More important problems need dealing with, like resettlement, employment and returning to normal."

'The Pain Is Still There'

In Hongbai village, the survivors are moving into new prefabs and the focus is on the practical. Here, 159 children died; officials gave parents an initial payment — "condolence money," as they called it — of about $4,000 per child. Hongbai official Wen Xiaogui says the parents have been offered counseling and other forms of assistance.

"We also offer job training, so they can channel their grief into work," Wen says. "Around 200 or 300 parents have enrolled to learn skills like electric welding, machine tooling, using a computer and driving.

But for the survivors, just processing what happened is difficult.

Fan Quanhuang, 14, lives in Leigu tent city. She looks like any other fashion-obsessed teenager, but she isn't.

"I might look strong, but the pain is still there," she says. She was in a politics class when her world literally collapsed. The earth shook, the blackboard fell down, cracks cleaved open the walls and, in an instant, her school was a pile of rubble. Her legs were buried, and she was pinned down by a classmate who fell on top of her.

"I inched my hand through the rubble to touch my classmate's hand," she says. "Then I saw another classmate calling for me who was also buried completely. She was having difficulty breathing. I felt her hand getting colder and colder. She didn't answer. Then I turned my head to see the classmate on top of me, who wasn't answering either. She'd just passed away, but I didn't dare touch her as her body was covered in blood."

Fan was one of the lucky ones. She was pulled out of the rubble after 20 minutes, and came away with only scratches. In her hometown of Beichuan, four schools collapsed, killing hundreds of students. She has nightmares about it, but she's getting help.

"I'm not angry. Lots and lots of volunteers and psychologists from outside have told me — and I understand their thinking — that it was a natural disaster and you can't blame anyone for what happened," she says.

Allegations Of Corruption Persist

The parents who lost children disagree.

One bereaved father presented a horrifying photo showing the bowed, dust-covered body of his 10-year-old son buried in the rubble of his school. The man, who did not wish to be identified, says he believes local government corruption was at the root of the problems. He says shortcuts were taken in the school's construction to save money, and that the official investigation after the quake was cursory. When parents asked for explanations, some were detained by police and others were visited at home by as many as 10 different groups of officials.

"They sent officials to tell us it's impossible to look into who's responsible for the building's collapse," the man says. "I believe all the government departments, developers, education ministry and even the discipline bodies have very big problems at every level."

Museum founder Fan Jianchuan has a different perspective, formed by his experience as a property developer and a former government official. The apartments he built in Dujiangyan were unscathed by the earthquake. He blames the school collapses on financial shortfalls, not corruption.

"There was too little funding," he says. "For example, when we build flats in Dujiangyan, we use the equivalent of $150 per square meter, but the schools' budgets is quite tight so they might cap costs at, for example, $85 per square meter. I want to say one thing: Corruption wasn't the main reason these buildings collapsed. That's for sure."

Bereaved parents might not believe that. And in the past week, the local government attempted to buy their silence.

After attempts to protest at government offices, many parents were offered additional payments. They were given the equivalent of $8,800 for each child, plus around $5,500 of pension money over 15 years per parent. The condition: They must sign an agreement vowing to stop protesting.

"I'm just an ordinary person," said the man who lost his 10-year-old son. "I can't continue to stand against the government."

Another parent said he'd taken the money but would never give up his rights.

China's government may have bought a short-term reprieve, but stability might not be so easily bought.

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