In China, Anger Still Simmers Over School Collapses As the physical reminders of the massive earthquake that killed thousands of school children are swept away, Chinese officials are waging a campaign to tamp down on potential unrest among survivors and bereaved parents.
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In China, Anger Still Simmers Over School Collapses

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In China, Anger Still Simmers Over School Collapses

In China, Anger Still Simmers Over School Collapses

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, campaigning in cyberspace.

But first, in Sichuan, the ruins are mostly gone - school buildings that collapsed and killed thousands of children during the massive earthquake two months ago. But while the physical reminders of what happened are beginning to disappear, officials continue to wage a campaign to tamp down unrest among survivors and some of the 18,000 families who lost children in that quake. NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

LOUISA LIM: A photo shows a child's hand sticking out of the rubble, still gripping a pen. There's a twisted chair, a dusty child's backpack, a crumpled textbook pulled from what was once a classroom. These tributes to the children who died when their schools collapsed can only be seen in one place: a private museum devoted to the quake at Jianchuan Museum cluster in Dayi, Sichuan, where music from an earthquake benefit plays. The official media has been gagged on this sensitive topic to avoid fanning unrest. Even the museum's founder, property developer Fan Jianchuan, believes that's the right decision.

Mr. FAN JIANCHUAN (Founder, Jianchuan Museum): (Through Translator) 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. But if we try 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.

LIM: Up 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 around $4,000 per child. Hongbai official Wen Xiaogui says the parents have been offered counseling and other help.

Mr. WEN XIAOGUI (Hongbai Official): (Through Translator) We also offer job training so they can channel their grief into work. Around 200 or 300 parents have enrolled to learn skills like welding, machine tooling, using a computer and driving.

LIM: But for the survivors, just processing what happened is difficult. I meet 14-year-old Fan Quanhuang in Leigu tent city. She looks like any other fashion-obsessed teenager, but she isn't. I might look strong, she says, but the pain is still there. She was in a politics class when her world literally collapsed. The earth shook, the blackboard fell down, cracks cleaved opened the walls, and in an instant, her school was a pile of rubble. Her legs were buried. She describes being pinned down by a classmate on top of her.

Ms. FAN QUANHUANG (Earthquake Survivor): (Through Translator) I inched my hand through the rubble to touch my classmate's hand, and then I saw another classmate calling for me, who was also completely buried. 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 just passed away, but I didn't dare touch her as her body was covered in blood.

LIM: Despite this, Fan Quanhuang was obviously one of the lucky ones. She was pulled out of the rubble after 20 minutes with just scratches. In her town, Beichuan, four schools collapsed, killing hundreds of students. She has nightmares about it, but she's getting help.

Ms. QUANHUANG: (Through Translator) 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.

LIM: The parents who lost children disagree. I met one bereaved father I'll call Mr. Chun. He showed me a horrifying photo: the bowed, dust-covered body of his 10-year-old son buried in the debris of his school. Mr. Chun believes local government corruption was at the root of the problems. He alleges shortcuts were taken in the school's construction to save money. For example, an extra story was added to the building several years later. He says the official investigation after the quake was cursory. When parents asked for explanations, some were detained by police, others visited at home by as many as 10 different groups of officials.

Mr. CHUN (Resident, Chichuan Province): (Through translator) They sent officials to tell us it's impossible to look into who's responsible for the building's collapse. I believe all the government departments, developers, the Ministry of Education and even the disciplinary bodies have very big problems at every level.

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

Mr. JIANCHUAN: (Through Translator) There was too little funding. For example, when we build flats in Dujiangyan, we spent $150 per square meter. But the school's budget is quite tight so they might cap costs at, for example, $85 per square meter.

LIM: The bereaved parents might not believe that. But in the last week, the local government has tried to buy their silence. After attempts to protest at government offices, many parents have accepted additional payments. They were given $8,800 for each child, plus around $5,500 of pension money over 15 years for each parent. The condition: They sign an agreement vowing to stop seeking justice.

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

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