'Talk! Talk! All the Time Talk!'

The town of Yingxiu, in Wenchuan county, China, was close to the epicenter of the earthquake and was completely destroyed. The sides of the mountains used to be filled with trees, but landslides have made them mostly barren.
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 29, 2008

DUJIANGYAN, China, May 28 -- Grieving parents are demanding to know why so many schools collapsed in this month's earthquake in China, confronting government officials with unusual explosions of public anger and refusing to be satisfied with promises of investigations.

"Talk! Talk! All the time talk! If you cannot make a decision, why do you keep us waiting with all this talking?" one father bellowed at an education official Wednesday as he surged from a crowd of angry parents here in Sichuan province. While some in the crowd restrained the man, others pursued Zhang Qing, the Communist Party secretary of Dujiangyan's Education Bureau, with shouts that they wanted action, not more words.

China's government has gotten high marks for its immediate, massive rescue and relief effort following the May 12 earthquake. But parents' rising anger at what they see as the unnecessary deaths of at least 9,000 students in schools with shoddy construction threatens to upend the goodwill that has buoyed the country even as millions of survivors huddle in tents and hundreds of aftershocks rock the devastated area.

In one of the most publicized incidents, the Communist Party secretary of Mianzhu city dropped to his knees on the street over the weekend and begged parents to stop their protest march. The parents refused and eventually met with the vice mayor of Deyang city, which oversees Mianzhu.

On Tuesday, a memorial service for the hundreds of students who died in the rubble of a middle school here was transformed into an emotional rally by parents to pressure the government to punish those responsible for substandard construction.

And Wednesday, more than 300 parents of students from a primary school, also in Dujiangyan, massed at the Education Bureau's earthquake command center to demand an in-depth investigation into why their school collapsed when every other surrounding building remained standing after the quake.

Until now, government-controlled Chinese media have reported gingerly on the allegations that corners were cut in school construction -- especially schools for poor children. Government officials told Web site editors not to post stories or comments publicizing the parents' protests, sources said.

The official New China News Agency reported Wednesday that an initial investigation by Sichuan's education authority identified design defects in aging buildings as a key reason so many schools collapsed. It repeated pledges from national officials to deal severely with anyone found responsible for poor-quality construction. "Many bereaved parents have questioned the construction quality of the schools and asked the authorities to intervene," it reported.

Reporters from at least two government-controlled media were at the Dujiangyan parent meetings Wednesday. It was the third set of meetings between parents and officials since the building collapsed in the earthquake, killing 240 students and leaving six missing. Little progress was made on meeting the parents' main demands: that a timetable be set for the investigation into the quality of the school's construction, that officials pursue whether teachers did enough to evacuate students during the quake, and that the school explain why it had no evacuation route.

Zhang, the party secretary at the Education Bureau, told parents the government still needed to appoint an investigation panel and encouraged parents to volunteer three representatives to join the team.

The meeting, held on the outdoor track of a local school, ended in chaos as parents' raw emotions boiled over. The father who had surged from the crowd began throwing punches and trying to kick Zhang, and an overwrought mother accosted the school principal, wailing about her lost daughter and twisting his shirt so roughly that it ripped halfway down his back as he tried to get away.

Later, at a petition office down the street, parents and others took their case to another official.

"I am a 70-year-old woman," said Liu Lan. "My grandson is gone. Whose heart will not ache?" she said. "All of the rich kids' schools did not collapse. The schools where ordinary families' kids go collapsed. We are determined to find the truth."

"Who will be responsible?" asked Xiang Fangqiang, 43, a maintenance worker at a hotel, whose 10-year-old son, Xiang Xin, was killed.

The official receiving their complaints, Pan Shulong, noted that the government was still concentrated on earthquake relief, such as providing food and water for survivors, and asked for patience. "We will resolve this according to the law and will follow the investigative result," he said.

Zeng Hongyan, 35, retorted, "You speak every sentence with the word 'law,' but my child died." She pulled out a photo of her 9-year-old, Chen Yayuan, who she said still could have been saved when doctors examined her and declared her dead.

Xiang later recalled that the last time he saw his son alive was at breakfast the day of the earthquake. The next time he saw him was more than two days later, when Xiang identified his son's body at the morgue. "It was like thunder breaking on my head," he said. "Every single hope was gone."

Like most parents of his generation, Xiang had only one child, following China's strict policy. At 43, he doubts he could have another. "Families like us, what is the meaning of our future?"

Xiang said his only purpose now is to demand justice from the government. "This was a bad-quality building," he said as he walked through the debris on Xinjian's school grounds.

Frustrated that Wednesday's meetings accomplished little, Xiang vowed to keep pushing. Parents are organizing a June 1 memorial service, and some said they will leave the service to march to Chengdu, the provincial capital, to demand an audience with top officials.

The meetings did yield one result, said Wei Guangquan, 30, the father of a second-grader who was killed. The government promised parents a special place where they could place the ashes together of all the Xinjian students who died.

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company