Quake Parents Sign Deal

Bereaved parents who lost children when their schools collapsed in the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan have vowed to continue their legal battle after officials refused to publish results of an investigation. Many parents have now signed a compensation deal offered by the government.
2008-07-15
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Quake School 300
Residents of Shifang city, Sichuan, in the immediate aftermath of the 7.9-magnitude May 12 earthquake, trying to rescue trapped children and retrieve bodies at the Hongbai township primary school.
RFA

HONG KONG—Parents whose children were killed when school buildings collapsed during the May 12 earthquake in China's southwestern province of Sichuan said they were accepting a revised compensation deal offered by officials, although some vowed to pursue an enquiry into allegations of shoddy construction in the collapsed schools.

In Shifang city, a bereaved parent surnamed Lei said he and many other parents had ended up signing a revised compensation deal offered by city officials which promised each parent an income of 100 yuan ($14.60) a month for life, on top of an existing lump sum of nearly 100,000 yuan (U.S.$14,600) already on the table.

"An additional 2,400 yuan a year will be paid out to both parents, until we die," said Lei, who was among hundreds of parents protesting at the government's refusal to publish the results of an official investigation into construction standards in the collapsed schools this week.

"We will be given the same health coverage as urban residents.  If we have another child, the government will support the child from birth to 18 years of age.  The child’s education and visits to doctors will all be free," he said.

A Mianzhu parent surnamed Zhang said two-thirds of the parents whose children attended the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Mianzhu and died during the quake had now signed the new deal, including him.

"The Communist Party is unreasonable.  They came to our homes in the middle of the night last night  – at 2:00 in the morning – and told us to sign," he said. "If you didn’t sign they wouldn’t let you sleep.  They threatened us." 

Threats from officials

He said government officials had warned the family that they would receive nothing if they hadn't signed the deal ahead of a government-imposed deadline.

"We live in the poor part of the country.  Many people signed because they were afraid they would not get any compensation otherwise.  Only a few dozen refused to sign," he said.

Zhang said government officials had read out what they said was a safety report into school construction, but had refused to allow parents to see it themselves.

"We could not even tell if it was the real report or a fake one. We were told not to pursue it as a man-made incident, that it was simply a matter of the buildings collapsing during an earthquake." 

But he said some parents would continue the legal battle. "We intend to sue, to ask high-level experts to conduct their own investigation. We will sue Zhang Jinming, the deputy mayor of Deyang city, for dereliction of duty. We will submit the lawsuit to the court tomorrow (Friday). If it’s not accepted, we will go to the next level up."

Lei agreed. "When we signed the agreement yesterday we told them that since we were promised economic aid we would drop the matter for now, but that we would continue to pursue it after the Olympics.  As for shoddy construction, we will definitely appeal to higher-ups so that corrupt officials are held accountable."

Noisy protests

Authorities detained at least 10 parents this week after hundreds of bereaved relatives staged rowdy protests outside government offices in quake-ravaged areas.

Several hundred parents staged a sit-in outside municipal government offices in Deyang city Tuesday, calling on local government officials to meet with them. Similar protests were reported in towns across the areas worst hit by the earthquake, in which at least 70,000 people died, an estimated 10,000 of them schoolchildren.

In nearby Shifang city, about 1,000 parents from at least five nearby towns staged a similar protest at proposals by local officials to hand out almost 100,000 yuan (U.S.$14,600) in payouts per household, if parents signed an agreement waiving their right to sue the government over allegations of shoddy construction in school buildings.

Instead of accepting the government's offer, grief-stricken and angry parents across the province have vowed to file lawsuits and continue to call for investigations into construction standards at the schools, a disproportionately high number of which collapsed totally in the 8.0 magnitude tremor, killing hundreds of staff and students in each.

In Deyang, parents were calling on local officials to make good on their promise to publicize the results of an investigation into the collapse of school buildings in the area Tuesday, but no statement came.

The municipal government instead made a similar financial offer of "government assistance," saying it was to be administered by village committees according to circumstances. Here too, parents would have to sign an agreement giving up any legal proceedings against the government.

Claims ignored

"We were told to sign a piece of paper," a bereaved mother in Deyang surnamed Liu said.

"The wording was carefully drafted, saying that children died in the collapsed buildings in the earthquake. It didn't mention that they were dangerous buildings in the first place."

"We think that is misleading, and that it is cheating us. We will not accept it," she said, adding, "We will spend our whole lives seeking justice."

In Deyang city, police detained at least 10 protesting parents, according to several eyewitnesses, during protests outside the municipal government offices.

"They probably arrested at least 10 people, maybe more," a bereaved mother of a high-school student surnamed Yang said. "The parents staged a sit-in in the entrance to the government office buildings, calling on officials to come out and meet with them."

"The police came in and started taking people away. I don't know if they were taken to the police station in Deyang," she said.

Long-running struggle

Meanwhile, the father of a dead student surnamed An said that the several hundred parents who gathered outside government offices felt cheated by the authorities.

"There were around 1,000 police dispatched here today," he said. "No journalists were allowed to get through. The government is refusing to deal with the problem. Now they have all left the building. But this isn't over yet."

"We will carry on waiting here. We are prepared for a long-running struggle. They have already been stringing us along for two months," he said.

An official who answered the phone at government offices in Mianzhu, near Deyang, said: "We have already assigned people to deal with the question of parents who lost their children. I don't know about the parents sitting outside, whether it can be dealt with there."

Asked if the government had any statement for the parents, he said, "I don't know right now. I can't answer that."

An officer who answered the phone at the Deyang municipal Public Security Bureau said he had received no reports of the incident outside the government offices.

'Emotionally unstable'

Local officials have denied media access to parents trying to file lawsuits against the government over the construction of school buildings, saying they are "emotionally unstable."

Some parents say concerns were raised about building safety standards long before the quake hit.

Sichuan officials also say they have invited teams of experts to some areas to assess the ruins of the school buildings to see if the parents have a case against the government, but the parents say the advice of government-appointed experts is unlikely to be objective.

China has promised to relax its stringent family-planning controls in the case of parents who lost a child during the earthquake, sending reproductive health teams to the region to help people who may need sterilisations reversed or help with fertility, official media said.

The Sichuan provincial Population and Family Planning Commission estimates that about 7,000 of the children who died in the quake were the only children of their parents.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao and in Cantonese by Hai Nan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Jia Yuan. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.