Chinese Parents Organize, Seeking Justice

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 6, 2008

XIANG'ER, China -- Undaunted by new pressure from the Chinese government, grieving parents are beginning to mount organized efforts to seek redress for the collapse of schools during last month's earthquake.

One parent has contacted the family members of about 1,000 students who died May 12 when an estimated 7,000 classrooms crumbled in the quake, often while nearby buildings remained standing. "If the problem is not solved, we will consider going to Beijing to 'watch the Olympic Games,' " said the parent, using innuendo in a country where such a protest would be illegal.

As Chinese begin to organize across schools and districts, their demands for a full accounting of why so many classrooms imploded are emerging as a potent challenge to the government. Officials have emphasized the need to rebuild and move on, but efforts to quiet parents by offering compensation for their lost children or by appealing to the need for social stability have so far not succeeded. An estimated 9,000 students died in the quake.

"The possibility that the government would send the petitioning parents to jail cannot be eliminated," said Liu Xiaobo, a political writer and activist who was jailed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. "For heart-stricken and indignant parents who lost their children -- their most precious and their only hope in life -- they won't care if they will be put in jail. They will make a stand and fight outside the system."

As tensions escalate, police this week moved quickly to break up parent gatherings and discourage foreign journalists from reporting at the collapsed schools. Chinese journalists said they have been warned by the government not to report on the protests.

When 100 parents from Xiang'er, a farming village, attempted to march Monday to nearby Dujiangyan city to complain that shoddy construction was to blame for the collapse of a middle school, armed police turned them back, beating at least one parent. Shen Chaoyang, 37, showed a reporter the dirty boot marks on the arm of his shirt and a purple welt on his shoulder blade after he returned to Xiang'er.

"We parents demand the government carry out a due investigation," said Wang Zuoyu, whose 15-year-old daughter suffocated in the rubble of the school. "We want to get justice for the dead students and teachers."

On Tuesday in Dujiangyan, police blocked 150 parents from Juyuan Middle School from entering a courthouse to file a lawsuit over the school's collapse, in which most of its 900 students died. The Associated Press reported that journalists at the scene were dragged into the courthouse and detained for questioning. On Wednesday, police cordoned off the school, where parents had been gathering to express their grief.

Lawyers have been discouraged from taking parents' cases. "They restricted lawyers from going to the court to provide legal aid for the parents," said Hao Jinsong, a legal scholar in Beijing. "To restrict lawyers doesn't show that we are a ruled-by-law society."

The Sichuan provincial government has sent teams of construction experts to some schools to take samples of the rubble and to gather documents related to the schools' construction and safety inspections. But unlike parents, officials have not assumed school building quality was a factor in the devastation.

"In the affected areas, not only schools collapsed," Qi Ji, vice minister of housing and urban-rural development, said at a Beijing news conference Thursday. "Other buildings also collapsed."

Driving into Xiang'er, about 36 miles west of Chengdu, the provincial capital, the rubble from dozens of buildings lines the narrow country road. Right next to what used to be Xiang'er Middle School, however, a small hospital and a school dormitory remained standing, with little visible damage.

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