Hundreds of parents of children who died in collapsed school buildings in the massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake gathered to lay wreaths on Tuesday's seventh anniversary of the disaster, which killed more than 80,000 people, thousands of them schoolchildren.
Watched closely by plainclothes police, around 200 parents gathered on May 12 at the former site of the Juyuan High School in Sichuan's Dujiangyan city to pay their respects, participants told RFA.
"We are still at the scene, and there are quite a lot of people here today, maybe one or two hundred," bereaved Juyuan parent Zhou Xingrong said.
"We are burning paper money [for the souls of the dead] and setting off firecrackers [to ward off evil spirits]," Zhou said.
"We are using small white flowers as a mourning tribute for our children, and we are getting ready to play some funeral music for the kids," Zhou said.
"We will be carrying out mourning activities for the whole day."
Scene 'more peaceful'
Activists said the scene was more peaceful than in previous years, when police clashed with bereaved parents, dragging them away from similar sites.
"Today, more than 200 people have gathered at the old site of the Juyuan High School to lay wreaths," quake victim Wu Xianjie, one of millions made homeless in the earthquake, said.
"This is the first time in seven years that the police haven't interfered with the laying of wreaths, and we let off a few firecrackers."
"We were evictees from the temporary emergency housing, and we got to know the parents through petitioning [for new homes]," Wu said.
Wu said journalists had also arrived at the site.
"They are interfering with them, though," he said. "They won't let them take photos or shoot video, and they have told them to leave."
The official death toll for the Juyuan High School alone was more than 200, although parents say that closer to 500 people died when the school buildings collapsed.
Call to investigate
Bereaved parents have repeatedly called on Beijing for a full investigation into the deaths of at least 5,300 schoolchildren in the worst-hit areas, blaming local corruption for substandard construction standards in the region's school buildings.
Quake victims—who include parents who lost schoolchildren and those forcibly evicted from their homes in the name of post-quake reconstruction—say they have been harassed, beaten, and detained in their fight to be heard.
Wu said many people in the worst-hit regions of Sichuan are still living in temporary emergency structures.
"My sister Wu Xianqiong is still living in an earthquake hut," Wu said. "We tried to petition in Beijing during the parliamentary meeting [in March], and the officials told us they would sort it out within a month."
"But we still haven't heard anything," Wu said.
Meanwhile, dozens of bereaved parents of children who died in the collapse of the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Sichuan's Mianzhu city said they had held a similar event.
"There are quite a few people here, maybe several dozen," long-time campaigner Sang Jun told RFA.
"Every year, they burn paper money for the children at exactly 2.28 p.m.," he said.
Sang said the parents' bid to win redress over their children's deaths had so far yielded no result.
"My wife went with the others to the municipal government to lodge a complaint relating to the matter of our child," Sang said. "They go there every year."
'An open wound'
Tan Zuoren, a prominent Chinese writer who spent five years in prison for trying to investigate the collapse of school buildings in the quake, was in the quake-hit region of Beichuan on Tuesday to visit with bereaved parents, he told RFA.
He said that while many of them appear to be doing well on the surface, they still prefer not to discuss the past.
"From society's point of view, this is an open wound, which we hope will be able to heal," Tan said. "They talk about the rule of law, don't they?"
"They should deal with this whole issue according to the rule of law."
Tan, who was jailed in May 2009 for subversion in connection with his research into the deaths of Sichuan schoolchildren, said his hopes that President Xi Jinping would clean up the government with his highly publicized anti-corruption campaign had been dashed.
"On the one hand, they are going after corruption, but at the same time they are also going after dissidents," Tan said, adding: "Things are worse than they were 20 years ago."
Tan Zuoren was jailed in May 2009 for subversion after he tried to probe allegations of corruption linked to shoddy construction standards in school buildings in the aftermath of the 8.0 magnitude earthquake, which left more than 80,000 people dead and sparked widespread public anger.
Tan, 60, has vowed to continue his research into the causes of child deaths in the Sichuan earthquake in spite of being warned not to continue with his activism by police following his release last year.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.