MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm joined by NPR's Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn to talk about how the Chinese government has responded to this volatile issue of school collapse. And, Anthony, today there was at least a partial response from the government -just days before the earthquake anniversary.
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. And for the first time, they released a tally of the schoolchildren killed in the quake: more than 5,300.
Now, some notable critics, including the Beijing-based activist Ai Weiwei, have said this number is too low and that 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-plus range. But, of course, they point out correctly that this is partial because the names of these children have not yet been released.
BLOCK: 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?
KUHN: Well, you remember, though, that right after the earthquake, education ministry officials said that there would be a thorough investigation. And anyone found involved in shoddy construction would be punished. But 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 here, 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 for them to express their grievances.
BLOCK: And it's not just parents getting harassed, Anthony. There have been a number of activists who have been detained, as well.
KUHN: 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. And then there was another one who we mentioned, the 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 paid for it.
BLOCK: And Anthony, this volatile issue of schools and what happened to these children, it's a politically sensitive issue in a politically sensitive year here in China.
KUHN: 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.
And 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.
BLOCK: Anthony, thanks very much.
KUHN: Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Beijing correspondent, Anthony Kuhn, who's here with me this week in Sichuan, China.
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SIEGEL: And that, of course, is our colleague, Melissa Block, who has been reporting for us from Southwest China all this week. Melissa's earlier stories, as well as the blog that Melissa and producer Andrea Hsu have been keeping, can be found at npr.org.
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