Chinese Seek Answers In Student Quake Deaths Nearly a year after the deadly May 12 earthquake in southwestern China, the government has not released figures of the number of children killed in collapsed schools. Some parents allege shoddy construction. Activists continue to investigate the deaths, despite the efforts of authorities to block them.
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Chinese Seek Answers In Student Quake Deaths

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Chinese Seek Answers In Student Quake Deaths

Chinese Seek Answers In Student Quake Deaths

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Just under a year after an earthquake struck China's Sichuan province, we're going to look back at a fierce debate over how to remember the deaths. The Chinese government still has not released figures for how many children were killed in collapsed schools. Some parents say the schools were shoddily built.

In a moment, we'll hear from NPR's Melissa Block, who visited a school shortly after its collapse last year. We begin with NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who reports from Beijing that activists continue to investigate the deaths despite the government's obstruction.

ANTHONY KUHN: The artworks scattered around the courtyard of Ai Weiwei's suburban studio are a mix of classical Chinese and rebellious avant-garde. The son of a famous poet, Ai is on a personal mission: documenting the schoolchildren killed in the earthquake.

He says that this is getting harder, and that police in Sichuan province have detained several of his volunteers.

Mr. AI WEIWEI (Artist): (Through translator) The police confiscate your materials and give you no receipt. They send you back to Sichuan's capital, Chengdu, by car, and tell you, don't let us see you again. You have broken the law. When the volunteers ask what law, the police say, you will find out.

KUHN: In Ai's office, spreadsheets on the walls show the names, ages and schools of more than 5,000 children killed by collapsing school rooms. The lists were censored last month from Ai's blog.

Others have been less fortunate. Sichuanese environmental activist Tan Zuoren, who conducted a similar investigation, was arrested on March 28 on suspicion of inciting subversion. Ai Weiwei began his investigation in December by calling about 200 government offices and asking how many schoolchildren were killed. He says he got three standard answers.

Mr. AI: (Through translator) First: This is a state secret. We can't possibly give it to you. Second: You are an individual; what do you want this information for anyway? Third: You are hurting the parents' feelings. They are suffering and don't want to discuss the issue.

KUHN: He says he will continue calling his government to account until he gets a satisfactory answer.

Mr. AI: (Through translator) Our political system has always covered up the truth and failed to take responsibility. It conceals all problems related to the political system. So, this kind of calamity will continue to occur in future.

KUHN: China's government has pledged to release the names of all earthquake victims as part of its first human rights action plan. Sichuan's vice governor, Wei Hong, said in March that while the government was still working on the final tally, it had already reached a conclusion about why so many schoolrooms collapsed.

Mr. WEI HONG (Vice Governor, Sichuan Province): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The earthquake was of a great magnitude and intensity, he said. This was the most important reason for the damage that our schools and other facilities sustained.

Some citizens, though, have found otherwise. Chengdu resident Wang Xiaodong, for example, investigated the collapse of the Beichuan County Middle School that killed hundreds of students. He alleges that the school's construction boss sold off some of the steel that should have been reinforcing the school's concrete. Wang obtained copies of the school's blueprints, which he says prove his point, and mailed them to anti-corruption officials in Beijing.

Speaking by phone from southern Guangdong province, Wang says he is not afraid of retribution from local officials.

Mr. WANG XIAODONG: (Through translator) If I could trade my life to bring back one of the dead students, I would not hesitate. Officials' threats and dirty tricks are useless against me. Because if this issue is not resolved, life would be too painful anyway.

KUHN: Wang says he has dreamt he saw the souls of the dead children, and he remains haunted to this day.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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