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Parents Blame Poor Government Oversight for Childrens’ Deaths in China Quake

June 11, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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The government of China fears a popular movement of parents of children killed by collapsing schools in the recent earthquake in Sichuan Province. Lindsey Hilsum of ITN's Channel 4 News reports on the outcry over perceived government corruption that led to shoddy construction and the parent's plea for accountability.

GWEN IFILL: Now, the grief and the anger for thousands of Chinese parents who lost children in the earthquake five weeks ago. We begin with a report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News. She traveled to the town of Jiandi in Sichuan province.

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITN’s Channel 4 News Correspondent: A few weeks ago, they had their school photos taken. They should have been sitting their high school exam this week.

Fifty-six children died at Jiandi Middle School. The parents who built this shrine were initially overwhelmed by grief. Now they want government officials to answer their questions.

Wang Zhen Fu shows us his 15-year-old son, Wan Bin (ph).

WANG ZHEN FU, Parent (through translator): When I arrived less than 20 minutes after the earthquake, the whole building had already collapsed. We tried to dig the children out of the rubble. The survivors told us it had crumbled in less than a minute. My son died right away. He was in his chemistry class.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Zhao Yuan Zhi’s son, Wu Shao Yang (ph), also perished.

ZHAO YUAN ZHI, Parent (through translator): We all have just one child. We want the government to give us justice so our children should not have died in vain. The government officials never came to see us, so we’ve been to see them.

Schools were poorly constructed

LINDSEY HILSUM: The characters on the banner mean "Truth." The building which collapsed was hastily erected in 1992. Local people told us that, while the classrooms which withstood the quake were built under proper license in the 1980s, this contract was given to a local man who hired cheap, unskilled labor. It was what they call a tofu dregs building, as weak as bean curd.

What makes the parents so angry is that they can see how poor the construction of this school was. The bricks are made of what seems to be crumbly sand; the concrete blocks are almost hollow; there's hardly any steel.

I've just read a banner outside which reads, "A natural disaster is irreversible. A manmade disaster is inexcusable."

We joined the parents assembling outside the municipal government office.

PARENT (through translator): Local police and soldiers accused us of rioting, and they're trying to stop us organizing.

PARENT (through translator): When volunteers came to join us for the children's memorial, they were taken to the police station.

LINDSEY HILSUM: These are farmers with little education. They're not quite sure how to deal with the government. Officials told them to elect five representatives. All the while, cameramen from the public security bureau filmed us, so we filmed them.

After a while, to the anger of the parents, we were thrown out.

As we drove back to Jiandi, a white vehicle followed us. When we tried to interview more people about the school collapse, policemen pulled them on one side to tell them not to talk, but the people said this was the first time they'd seen any official since the quake. They felt neglected and wanted to talk, whatever the police said.

Wang Zhen Fu and his wife took us to see Wan Bin's (ph) grave at the edge of their paddy fields. She said last night she dreamt of her son. At 37 and in ill health, she thinks she's unlikely ever to have another child.

YANG TING HUI, Parent (through translator): We can rebuild the house we lost. But now I've lost my son, I don't know what to do. I had nothing except this child.

My husband and I worked very hard. We put all our money into this one child. It hasn't been easy, and now he's gone in less than a minute.

If it were a natural disaster, we would accept it, but it is not. You must have seen how the other school buildings are standing, all except for this one.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Wan Bin (ph) was one of some 9,000 children who died in school buildings which crumbled in the quake. Officials fear the parents may form a mass movement, so they're trying to stop protests and petitions, brushing aside the grief and wrath of those who've lost everything.

9,000 children dead

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Brown spoke with Lindsey Hilsum earlier today. She was in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Lindsey Hilsum, tell us more about the protests. How organized are they and how widespread at this point?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, about 9,000 children died in school buildings which collapsed during the earthquake, so that means there are many thousands of parents who are very angry and who want answers.

As yet they don't seem to be organized as a movement. What we're seeing is parents from the individual schools getting together, some of them trying to hold protests, holding memorial services, going to the officials in their local area.

But I think one of the things that the government wants to do, and the reason why these protests are being curtailed, is that they're very worried about all these different parents from different schools getting together, because that would be really be a parents' movement, and that's the kind of thing the Chinese government really will not tolerate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, you said in your piece that the officials fear the parents may form a mass movement. Now, is that what they're telling you? And why do they think that?

LINDSEY HILSUM: I think that the Chinese government is well aware of how deeply these parents feel. We're talking about a society where you have a one-child policy.

And this means that those parents who've lost a child who was 15 years old or 16 years old, whatever the government offers -- they're talking about reverse sterilizations for women so they can have another child, they're talking about monetary compensation -- that doesn't help the parents who are in their late 30s or 40s who've lost everything.

And so, although the parents themselves at this point are not organized, they're not talking about forming a mass movement. In fact, they really don't know really what to do.

I think the government is well aware that all of these parents in these different towns and villages have exactly the same grievances, are going through exactly the same experience, and so, if they did get together, that would be a very powerful movement.

More than that, I think it would be a movement which would have a lot of support across China, because there's been great coverage of this earthquake and the disaster which has befallen the schools all across the country.

And, of course, as would happen in any country, the people watching from other towns, they feel tremendous, tremendous sympathy for the bereaved parents.

The government fears a movement

JEFFREY BROWN: As to the specific charges from the parents, can you tell whether the government is, in fact, investigating the shoddy building practices and the reasons for the schools' collapsing? And are there any signs that the government is prepared to go after people who might be responsible?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, the government says it is conducting investigations, but I think that one of the problems that they face is many of these buildings were constructed 10, 15, even 20 years ago.

The officials who were involved in endorsing those buildings, in saying that they were all right, or enforcing out the plans, and so on, are now retired. Many of the contractors who've built those buildings, they've now moved into other fields of work. Maybe they've even left the area.

So in many cases it's quite difficult to track them down. And I think that the government is also, as ever, always very wary. They don't want to be blamed for anything; they just want people to keep quiet.

They want to give people money and get them to shut up, because what they fear is that there can be some kind of movement which challenges the authority of the party. That's what China fears more than anything else.

JEFFREY BROWN: The government did just announce that it was disciplining a number of officials for poor performance in the aid and rescue effort. What can you tell us about that? And should it be seen in the context of the protests?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Yes, definitely. The government, certainly the senior leaders, the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, the president, Hu Jintao, they're well aware that local government is at times corrupt, often self-serving, frequently inefficient.

Now, our impression is that the initial rescue effort was pretty efficient, that the army did a very good job. I was here. I saw them doing a good job.

But now the local officials are back in charge, and they're the ones who the people are very suspicious of, and they're the ones at the moment who are being criticized. Some have been demoted or even sacked for failing to do their duty and really help people.

Now we're going to get quite a lot of aid coming in, including foreign aid, and so there's a great danger of corruption. I think that what the government, the senior government leaders are hoping, is if they manage to control that, to deal with people who are potentially corrupt now, that that will dissipate the more difficult problem of what to do about corruption in the past, which led to what these parents call the tofu dregs building.

JEFFREY BROWN: The initial openness of the reporting of the earthquake, both by foreign and local press, was widely noted and discussed, but your report and others suggest that's changing.

LINDSEY HILSUM: This is an unusual situation. Previously, the Chinese government didn't allow such open reporting. When there was an earthquake in 1976 in Tangshan, they didn't allow foreign reporters in for seven years.

So the opening up that we saw was unprecedented. And I think that the Chinese government saw that it could be beneficial, because we reported what we saw. And what we saw was the government and the army doing a good job, particularly in contrast to what was happening in Burma, particularly in contrast to what we saw in America with Hurricane Katrina.

The Chinese government came out looking very good. But now the stories are changing, because now things are coming out which don't show the Chinese government in such a good light. So that, I think, is why we're seeing the window closing.

JEFFREY BROWN: So are the stories of the parents and their protests being seen in Chinese media?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Oh, yes. There's a tremendous discussion about this on the Chinese Web sites.

Chinese journalists have been forbidden by the government now from reporting on the collapsed schools. They've been told that this is a taboo subject.

But some brave reporters are carrying on. Some of the newspapers are still doing a good job. I've read several reports where they've really investigated individual cases and gone and challenged the people who were responsible.

And in the blogosphere -- which is very, very important in China, because it's much more difficult for the government to censor there -- we're seeing tremendous debate on this subject, blog postings every day. But we're also beginning to see now arrests of certain activists and people who are taking this up as a cause.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Lindsey Hilsum talking to us from Chengdu, China, thank you very much.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Thank you, Jeff. Good night.