Parents of China quake victims arrested for protesting shoddy construction

Despite remarkable openness and tolerance of foreign journalists since the quake, public displays of dissent, even by grieving parents, are not tolerated in China.

Independent | Jun 5, 2008

By Clifford Coonan in Beijing

The road to Juyuan Middle School, where hundreds of students perished in China’s earthquake on 12 May, is blocked by police as officers clamp down on potentially destabilising news about the disaster.

Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army are clearing the site but there is a risk of infection, so no journalists, volunteers or villagers are allowed in, said a policeman guarding access to the school yesterday. However, there is another reason why Juyuan School, and scores of others around the quake zone in Sichuan province, has been sealed off.

This week, anguished parents in Dujiangyan, a small city 30 miles (50km) from the provincial capital Chengdu, were taken away by riot police after protesting against officials they claim are responsible for shoddy building work that made the school collapse like a house of cards. Despite remarkable openness and tolerance of foreign journalists since the quake, public displays of dissent, even by grieving parents, are not tolerated in China.

The tremor has so far claimed nearly 70,000 lives, with thousands more missing and five million people homeless. More than 9,000 children died in the quake, many of them in their classrooms as the tremor struck.

Juyuan Middle School was a scene of horror as the bodies of teenagers were brought out of the rubble with appalling regularity, each identification marked with a volley of firecrackers.

It is not clear how many pupils died. The official death toll is 278 but parents insist the true figure is more than 400. Soldiers were reportedly still digging children out of the ruins a day or two ago.

Parents blame poor building standards and flimsy materials for the deaths, because apartment blocks nearby are still standing.

The government has conceded many schools were badly built and promised that all those in the quake zone would be inspected for signs of what the Southern Weekend newspaper referred to as “tofu construction”. It quoted a member of the Ministry of Construction disaster relief team, Chen Baosheng, as saying: “The deaths of so many children ought to make our urban planning officials, architects and structural engineers all reflect deeply.

“Juyuan Middle School’s location, architectural structure, construction process and construction materials all had problems.”

In Dujiangyan, people are much more reluctant than before to discuss the school’s plight. They have reportedly been warned not to talk to foreign journalists.

“This was my school, this was my mother’s school,” said a man selling mobile phones near the Juyuan campus. “We are not experts on the building. How should we know what happened. Many factors caused the school to collapse.”

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