Tangled Blame in Quake Deaths

Chinese Parents Facing Uphill Battle for Redress Over Collapsed Schools

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
Monday, June 2, 2008; Page A07

DUJIANGYAN, China, June 1 -- Tears of grief and anger mixed with smoke from ritual fires lighted on the ruins of Xinjian Primary School on Sunday, as hundreds of parents commemorated the deaths of their children and pleaded for the government to punish those responsible for the building's collapse in last month's earthquake.

But for the parents, placing blame is a complex matter. Most of the dozens of schools that collapsed in the quake, killing an estimated 9,000 children, were built more than a decade ago, with multiple layers of government and private companies involved in their construction. And although government officials have announced investigations, they have emphasized the need to look for lessons learned, not the pursuit of wrongdoers.

Nearly three weeks after the tragedy, Xinjian parents say they are unaware of any official investigating team having visited the site to examine the rubble, still piled in a courtyard surrounded by other buildings, every one of which remains standing.

"Some of the parents have taken samples, but we know they don't have validity in legal proceedings," said a parent who identified himself only by his surname, Yan. "But the site itself is the best evidence. All that collapsed is the school classrooms."

Lawyers said they doubted there would be many criminal convictions, despite the emotions surrounding child deaths, especially in a country where families are generally limited to having only one.

"The legal proceeding could be a very long period without an end," said Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer in Beijing. "To affix both criminal and civil compensation responsibilities is very complicated."

Xinjian was like many schools built in rural China in the late 1980s and 1990s, when local officials rushed to fulfill a central government mandate to provide nine years of compulsory education. There were not nearly enough buildings to house classrooms, and there wasn't nearly enough money to build them.

"On the one hand, the task to meet the [educational] standard was urgent," said Li Yunseng, the retired director of the Dujiangyan education bureau finance department. "On the other hand, we were short of funds all the time. So the school buildings sometimes do not meet the standard of quality control."

Local authorities scrambled to raise construction funds beyond the initial $4,000 to $7,500 per school building provided by the city government in Chengdu, the Sichuan provincial capital, about 35 miles from Dujiangyan. Sichuan still owes banks and developers nearly $590 million from that construction boom, according to an article in Southern Weekend, a Chinese newspaper known for its independent reports.

Parents and lawyers also allege that kickbacks were widespread, further limiting the amount of money available to build the schools according to safety standards that had been bolstered after a devastating earthquake in 1976 in the northeastern city of Tangshan killed at least 240,000.

Often added to the financial pressures was a lack of expertise in current earthquake-resistant designs. "Usually, the township government would give the contract to a local construction team," Li said.

Melvyn Green, a California-based engineering expert, said constructing an earthquake-resistant building might raise total costs between 2 and 10 percent. "But finding the engineering know-how when you get out of the major cities" could be difficult, Green said. "The quality control of construction is also a big issue. Are you getting in construction what the engineers had in mind?"

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