2008年7月18日 星期五


China Quells Parents' Protest

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Riot police were called in to disperse a crowd of hundreds of parents in southwestern China whose children were killed in school collapses during May's massive earthquake.

Police wielding riot shields and batons dragged away more than a dozen of the parents, who had gathered in front of a local government office in the city of Mianzhu in Sichuan province Tuesday morning, witnesses said. The parents were hoping to hear the results of an investigation into the failure of area school buildings in the quake.

No report was forthcoming from officials there, parents said. At about 11 a.m., hundreds of police in riot gear arrived. A woman who refused to leave was kicked repeatedly and knocked to the ground, according to witnesses.

At least some of the people detained were released later Tuesday, parents said.

Police officials in Mianzhu declined to comment, except to say the case is being handled by their 'national security' unit.

Local authorities in China have been stepping up efforts to silence complaints and stifle protests by parents frustrated by the pace of inquiries into why schools weren't sturdy enough to survive the 7.9-magnitude quake -- apparently because they worry the issue will tarnish China's image.

One letter from authorities in Mianzhu last month warned parents to avoid 'doing things hurting the national dignity.' The letter said that 'malfeasant persons at home and abroad' were seeking to use the parents' sadness 'to sabotage the Olympics' and 'ruin China's image.'

Some of the parents in Tuesday's protest said local officials had visited them earlier in the day to offer financial assistance if they would sign a document promising that they would 'never participate in any activities that will affect overall rebuilding efforts.'

Families that agree will receive a one-time payment of about $8,500. Parents would also receive additional funds every month after they retire. Because of Chinese family-planning policies, many couples lost their only children in the disaster, which the government has said destroyed nearly 7,000 classrooms and dormitory rooms.

Parents interviewed by phone said they interpreted the offers as an effort by the government to force them to stop speaking out and pushing the government for an explanation of why so many schools were destroyed in the quake. Many blame shoddy construction and government corruption for the collapses.

'If we sign the letter, it means we will get the money, but the government won't be held responsible,' said one parent. 'We wouldn't be able to do anything or say anything anymore.'

Police have been deployed to break up several parent protests since the earthquake. Human-rights advocates say the government in June detained a local political activist, Huang Qi, who had met with bereaved parents. Local authorities have also sought to bar foreign reporters from areas where schools collapsed.

Xu Feidi, the vice mayor of Mianzhu, said the money was 'not compensation' for the children's deaths, but was 'a payment involving comprehensive considerations.' He said families that lost children had already received a range of other benefits, such as health-care funds, totaling more than $4,000.

In addition, Mr. Xu said, the local government had bought what are essentially annuities for the parents, which would provide them with monthly stipends to supplement their ordinary pensions after they retire. 'The government is doing its utmost to help,' Mr. Xu said.

Mr. Xu, who said he was unaware of Tuesday's confrontation, also said government investigators had basically concluded that the severity of the earthquake was the primary cause of the school collapses.

'It was a natural disaster unprecedented in thousands of years,' Mr. Xu said. 'To separate the quality problem from this cause is very difficult.'

Eight schools in Mianzhu partially or completely collapsed in the earthquake, killing hundreds of students, who were in afternoon classes when the quake struck on May 12.

In the case of the Dongqi Middle School, the classroom structures gave way when many surrounding buildings remained upright. At least 220 of the school's 900 students and 14 teachers were killed. Bereaved parents say they believe official negligence was partly to blame.

Some parents said they felt the government's financial assistance offers were inadequate. The weakness of China's government-sponsored social safety net means that most people need to rely heavily on their children to care for them when they stop working.

'We were so unhappy with' the government's assistance offer, said the mother of a teenage boy killed in the collapse of a high school. 'Our child died, and we raised him for 17 years,' she said.

Parents reached by phone in some other municipalities where schools collapsed said they hadn't received any similar compensation offers from local authorities.

Gordon Fairclough


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Junho Kim for The Wall Street Jounal




Gordon Fairclough