For Parents, Justice Elusive In China School Collapse The most politically sensitive story to come out of the earthquake that hit southwest China last May is the question of why so many schools collapsed. Since the earthquake, parents who have demanded accountability for the deaths of their children have been punished. One couple shares their frustration.
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For Parents, Justice Elusive In China School Collapse

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For Parents, Justice Elusive In China School Collapse

For Parents, Justice Elusive In China School Collapse

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. We're in Washington.


And I'm Melissa Block in Sichuan, China, with a report today about justice denied, about parents who've demanded accountability for the deaths of their children and have been punished for it.

I heard the first rumbling of that anger last May soon after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Southwest China. Late that night, I went to Juyuan Middle School outside the city of Dujiangyan. The school had completely collapsed. Hundreds of students were trapped inside. All through the night, workers brought out the gray twisted bodies of children.

The question of why so many schools collapsed has gone unanswered. And parents who have pushed for answers have been threatened, harassed, beaten and detained by local authorities. This is the most politically sensitive story here and it's one the government does not want told. Three days after the earthquake last year, I went back to Juyuan. Angry parents clustered around me, anxious to talk.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: You're saying that the - this building was poorly constructed. You're saying that the person who was in charge of quality control for the building of this school took bribes. And material used was not of good quality.

A man has just rushed over with a little piece of cement from - he says is from a pillar. And he broke it in half with his fingers to show how soft it is and how unable it was to withstand the force of this earthquake. And I just broke it in half with my fingers.

Today we're going to hear from a couple whose 15-year-old daughter was killed when Juyuan Middle School collapsed. As with most of these families, she was their only child. We agreed not to use their names out of concern for their safety.

Unidentified Woman: (Mandarin spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Mandarin spoken)

BLOCK: They came with a few photos of their daughter's short life. There she is at age 3, bundled into a thick red winter coat. At age 8, leaning against a tree. And at 14, in her class photo with a friend's arm wrapped around her shoulders. She dreamed of being a fashion designer. She was beautiful.

Unidentified Woman: (Mandarin spoken)

BLOCK: The dad is quiet. He keeps his eyes lowered. The mom is talkative with a short brushy haircut and a flash in her eyes. Their daughter was pulled from the wreckage at 1:00 in the morning, more than 10 hours after the earthquake hit.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) When her aunt touched her hands, she could feel her pulse. She never answered when we called to her. But her hands were very warm when we touched them. The doctors said they couldn't save her. We stayed with her body all that night in the cold.

BLOCK: They buried their daughter behind their home and planted gingko trees near her grave. There has been no official public count of just how many children died at Juyuan Middle School.

Unidentified Woman: (Mandarin spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) The government told us there were 284 dead, but in reality there were more.

BLOCK: Many more, these parents say, maybe seven or 800 in this one school alone. They're convinced shoddy construction is to blame. They use a term that's become associated with these schools now, tofu dregs construction.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) All the parents said that it's because of the tofu dregs construction.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) The school should've been rebuilt years ago. The quality problems were terrible. Plus, there were too many students there. It was completely overloaded. No wonder it collapsed.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) Instead of building a new school, the officials just painted it over and replaced doors and windows. They made it look as if it were new.

BLOCK: Soon after the earthquake, the parents of Juyuan mobilized. They pooled their money for a lawsuit. It came to nothing.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) It disappeared.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) The government is in charge. Whatever they say is what counts. How can you sue? There's no way to sue.

BLOCK: Are you angry?

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) At the time, we were furious. One day, a few parents charged into the government building and had a scuffle, so they sent in the police. The ones who were leading the charge were arrested and the rest of us didn't dare do anything. So slowly, slowly, a year has passed and things just faded away.

BLOCK: The government made them an offer. They would give the parents from Juyuan 3200 yuan each, that's about $450 for the loss of their children. The parents said no. They tell me the government raised the amount to 160,000 yuan - that's about $22,000. They'd get half now and half later as a pension. The parents took the money and signed.

In English there's a phrase, hush money, which means payments given to people to keep them quiet. Do you think that's what that money is, hush money?

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) They came to each family, and after their visit, the parents were basically pacified. We didn't really know what to say. My husband's a simple man. Everyone else did it, so we did, too. What can one person do? We signed.

BLOCK: They say, we had to take the money, even if we didn't want to. The government told us, your child is dead. She won't come back to life.

Unidentified Woman: (Mandarin spoken)

BLOCK: Last summer, when the debris from the school was to be carted away, a group of parents went to the school grounds. They weren't allowed in. Instead, they were detained. They were put on a bus and taken out to the countryside. This is a common form of detention here in China.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) It was a way to get us out of there for the day. They sent us home in the evening.

BLOCK: These parents say their movements have been monitored. They know phones have been tapped. Some who tried to go to Beijing to petition authorities have been arrested. No one has been held accountable.

What would justice be for you for the loss of your daughter? What do you want to see happen?

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) What kind of justice can we have? There is no way to bring back my daughter. The government did what they did. We just have to go on. Why bother thinking about it?

Unidentified Man #2: (Mandarin spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) The contractors are responsible for these children's deaths, not the earthquake. People said the contractors and corrupt officials should be brought out and put to death. This is the wish of the parents. But who's going to do that? Premier Wen Jiabao came to Juyuan, he knew all about what happened here. Who's going to do it?

BLOCK: As we've been talking, the mother, who is 38, has been holding tight to a new member of their family, a baby boy just a month-and-a-half old asleep in her arms. Soon after their daughter's death, they decided to have another child.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) I thought, I have to have another child. I must have the baby, even if I'm old.

BLOCK: What will you tell your son when he's old enough to know? What will you tell your son about your daughter and how she died?

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) We'll definitely tell him about her. We'll show him her photos. We'll tell him it was the earthquake that took your sister away.

BLOCK: Today, I went back to where their daughter's school used to be. It's an empty field now with weeds growing knee-high.

Here at what used to be Juyuan Middle School, there are about eight little altars that have been set up, made out of the brick and rubble from this collapsed building, little heaps of debris. And people have left bouquets of flowers, calla lilies, gerbera daisies. There's a child's backpack next to one of these altars. People have lit incense and candles and set off firecrackers. Someone has left three mangoes here, offerings to the children who died here at Juyuan.

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