China Quake Victims’ Parents Sue
DEYANG, China — A group of parents whose children were among the 127 killed in the collapse of an elementary school during the May earthquake that devastated western China have confirmed that they filed a lawsuit against government officials and a construction contractor. The lawsuit is the first filed by grieving and angry parents who say shoddy construction cost the children their lives.
Radio Free Asia reported the lawsuit in early December, but China’s official news media have not mentioned it. This weekend, the parents confirmed the filing in telephone interviews. They said the court has yet to tell them whether it will hear the case.
The lawsuit was filed on Dec. 1 in a court here in the city of Deyang, in Sichuan Province, the region hit hardest by the May 12 earthquake, which left 88,000 people dead or missing. Up to 10,000 schoolchildren were killed as some 7,000 classrooms and dormitory rooms collapsed across the quake zone, according to government estimates.
In the following weeks, parents took to the streets in towns across Sichuan to demand that local officials investigate the construction of the schools.
In some cases, crying parents were taken away by riot police officers. Later in the summer, local governments promised compensation payments to parents if they signed agreements stating they would no longer demand investigations or complain about school construction.
The parents who filed the lawsuit on Dec. 1 are the fathers and mothers of children who died in the collapse of No. 2 Primary School in the town of Fuxin, where at least 127 students were crushed to death. Many of them signed the compensation agreements, but some decided in the fall to go ahead with the lawsuit. The lawsuit names as defendants the town government of Fuxin; the education department of the nearby city of Mianzhu; the school principal; and the company that built the school.
Chen Xuefang, one of the plaintiffs, said that the parents were demanding compensation equivalent to $19,000 per child. Over the summer, the local government had offered parents the equivalent of $8,800 in cash and several thousand more dollars in postretirement pension payments if they agreed to drop the issue of the collapsed schools.
Zheng Rongqiong, whose 10-year-old daughter was among those killed at Fuxin No. 2, said that parents of 57 children were taking part in the lawsuit.
Officials from the city of Deyang, which oversees the administration of Mianzhu, have been pressing the parents to drop the lawsuit, she said, but the parents have refused.
Some parents have declined to join the lawsuit because they believe there is little or no chance of winning, and money spent on lawyers will be wasted, said Ms. Zheng, 35. The plaintiffs have contributed nearly $150 each to help pay for the travel expenses of a lawyer from Shanghai who has agreed to represent them.
Over the summer, many and possibly all of the parents now involved in the lawsuit signed the local government’s agreement demanding silence in exchange for compensation payments, Ms. Zheng said. At the time, some parents expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome and said they might file a formal petition with the central government in Beijing despite having signed the agreement.
“We hope that once we win this lawsuit, it will point out all the people responsible for the deaths of our children,” Ms. Zheng said.
An official at the Mianzhu Education Department said Monday that he was aware of the lawsuit, but declined to discuss it over the telephone. A woman at the offices of the town government of Fuxin said by telephone that she had no immediate response to the lawsuit.
In legal cases that involve politically sensitive issues, judges and lawyers in China often come under great pressure from government officials to keep the cases from going forward.
One parent said a court official met with several parents on Dec. 8 to say that the court would not accept the case. But the court has yet to give the parents a formal answer.
In similar legal action, parents in three provinces filed lawsuits this fall against dairy companies after tens of thousands of children across China fell ill and at least four died from drinking milk and baby formula tainted with a toxic chemical called melamine.
Although local officials had been involved in covering up the poisonings, judges have so far declined to hear any lawsuits. After the earthquake, the central government assigned a committee of experts to look into the school collapses, but the committee has yet to issue a final report. In September, an official from the committee, Ma Zongjin, said at a news conference in Beijing that a rush to build schools during the Chinese economic boom might have led to shoddy construction that resulted in the student deaths. He said more than 1,000 schools had one of two major flaws — they were built on the earthquake fault line or they were poorly constructed.
Government officials at all levels have tried to suppress discussion of the school collapses. A documentary that asks tough questions about a school collapse in the rural town of Muyu, in northern Sichuan, has attracted intense scrutiny from the central government.
The director, Pan Jianlin, showed the film, “Who Killed Our Children?” at the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea in late October. Afterward, he told Reuters, people contacted his relatives and friends to tell them to press him to stop his work.
China Unblocks The Times’s Web Site
BEIJING — The Chinese government unblocked the Web site of The New York Times on Monday, allowing Internet users in mainland China to view the site after access had been stopped for more than three days.
Chinese authorities began blocking the site on Thursday night without giving any explanation. The Chinese government usually blocks access to Web sites that it deems to have sensitive information, including sites with information about Tibet, Taiwan and Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement.
During the Summer Olympics in August, the government lifted bans on some sites, such as the Chinese-language site of BBC News; it then reimposed the bans in recent weeks, affecting the BBC site and other sites such as the Chinese language versions of Voice of America and Asiaweek, before lifting them again last week.
Government employees reached by telephone on Monday said they did not know why the site of The New York Times was blocked in recent days.