In China, Quake Survivors Must Swallow Grief and Anger

One year after a powerful earthquake caused devastation in the region, residents of China's Sichuan province are slowly rebuilding their homes and lives. Video by Jill Drew/The Washington Post, edited by Francine Uenuma/
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 3, 2009

JUYUAN, China -- After last May's massive earthquake buried her son under tons of shattered concrete at his collapsed school, Han Xuehua, numb and disbelieving, boiled spicy water every Friday for weeks to prepare hot pot, his favorite dish. "I didn't want to accept that my child wasn't coming home," she said softly. "I still cannot accept it."

Han and dozens of other parents have pressed their town government to acknowledge that the school was shoddily built, to prosecute those responsible for its construction and to allow families to grieve at the site. Their demands have been rejected. Officials and local police have warned them against speaking openly or petitioning at higher levels. The parents are under constant surveillance, their phone calls monitored and their movements restricted.

Xiong Yonghao, a wiry man with close-cropped hair and a quick, nervous laugh, also was consumed by grief and fury after his 11-year-old daughter died in a school collapse several miles away, in the city of Mianzhu. He led a parents' protest campaign in the months after the quake, but he decided in October to move on and began bidding for contracts to rebuild destroyed houses.

"I have to accept reality," Xiong said. "I cannot live just waiting to die."

These are the faces of the survivors of the Sichuan earthquake, which ripped through this mountainous province in southwestern China on May 12, killing about 80,000 people and leaving millions homeless. Although the central government is eager to rebuild and has spent huge amounts erecting new, soundly constructed neighborhoods throughout the quake zone, it has also flattened dissent. Thousands of police and public security officials from all over China have poured in to suppress any signs of anger and protest.

President Hu Jintao has praised the rebuilding efforts as proof of the superiority of China's socialist system, with its central command structure and enforced national unity. Indeed, money, materials and government volunteers from all over the country deluged Sichuan after the quake, and officials here say most projects can be completed within two years, much less time than they originally estimated it would take to restore normalcy to the 46 million people in the province affected by the disaster.

But normalcy seems a long way off, perhaps impossible, for people such as 37-year-old Han. On a recent day, her eyes, set in a round, sun-baked face, had a mournful, lost look. She tried to have another baby, she said, after China relaxed its one-child policy for parents who had lost a child in the earthquake. But she miscarried at five months.

"It's hopeless. I'm just getting older and older," she said, standing in front of the tarp-covered shack where she spent the winter. "What will happen to me?"

Enforcing Calm

On April 4, a holiday known in China as tomb-sweeping day, when people pay tribute to the dead, the tensions in Juyuan erupted into the open.

One parent, Li Shanfu, set out at 8:30 a.m. for the Juyuan Middle School grounds to publicly mourn his daughter, a 16-year-old student who had been pulled from the building's ruins and later died of her injuries.

Li, a 44-year-old construction worker who used to sell his blood plasma to raise money for his daughter's school fees, said nearly 2,000 special police officers had surrounded the site, now just a fenced-in field of weeds with four rusty basketball hoops. Before he reached the cordon, Wang Zhen, a town vice governor, approached him and asked him to stay calm. If Li would go home, Wang said, he would be given 1,000 yuan, or about $145. If he kept quiet until after the May 12 anniversary, he would get another thousand yuan.

Li, a stocky man with a cellphone attached to his belt and a squint from long days spent working in the sun, said he refused and kept walking. Wang then reportedly signaled three other officials to surround Li. "Don't go to the middle school," Li said one official told him. "It will only bring back painful memories. Come have some tea."

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