Sichuan Mourns Quake Victims

Chinese authorities boast of aid efforts, but relatives of victims say their claims are ignored.
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Relatives of victims mark the third anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake in Yingxiu, May 12, 2011.
Relatives of victims mark the third anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake in Yingxiu, May 12, 2011.

Three years after the devastating Sichuan earthquake left 87,000 people dead or missing, top Chinese officials have called reconstruction a success, while victims describe a long and painful fight to be heard.

Hailing reconstruction efforts as "a victory," the official Xinhua news agency said 95 percent of reconstruction projects have now been completed.

"Officials say that not only have living conditions improved through the reconstruction process, but the economy has rebounded strongly," the agency said.

But parents of thousands of schoolchildren who died during the devastating quake say they are being harassed by the authorities ahead of the three-year anniversary.

"If you don't believe it you can come and see for yourself," said a bereaved parent surnamed Zhang, whose child was killed in one of the many school collapses in and around Wenchuan and Beichuan counties in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

"As soon as it is light, the plainclothes police come and sit at our door, several of them."

"They follow us everywhere," he said, adding that one parent activist, Qin Lizhi, had been beaten by police recently. "Some of them tried to go to Beijing and petition, but they even followed them there and brought them back."

Another parent, who declined to be named, said: "It has been three years now."

"Everyone in our family feels a huge grief ... We are very angry, and we don't want to watch their self-congratulatory programs."

Parents were angry that promises from two top-level leaders had yielded nothing, he added.

"They are only spouting about their achievements, but they haven't investigated the beancurd buildings."

'Beancurd' buildings

The bereaved families say they want an inquiry into allegations of shoddy construction of "beancurd" school buildings, many of which collapsed while other buildings stayed standing.

Lawyers have been warned off accepting cases linked to Sichuan's child quake victims, on pain of losing their license to practice.

Since the quake, parents have vowed to keep up pressure on Beijing for a full investigation into the deaths of at least 5,300 schoolchildren in the worst-hit areas.

Activists led by detained artist and social critic Ai Weiwei have also campaigned to identify thousands of the children who were killed.

"The thing that makes me saddest of all is that today is May 12, and yet Ai Weiwei has been illegally detained," said a woman surnamed Liu who helped Ai with his independent investigations.

"A lot of people will be thinking of him when they commemorate the victims of May 12," Liu said.

She said independent investigators were still trying to uncover the truth behind the widespread collapse of school buildings, but were being subjected to official harassment and threats.

An online campaign for the parents of dead schoolchildren was deleted soon after being posted, she added.

Activists jailed

Two prominent rights activists, Tan Zuoren and Huang Qi were both handed jail terms for subversion after they tried to probe the collapse of school buildings in the 8.0 magnitude quake.

Tan's wife Wang Qinghua said she had told her husband on a recent visit in jail that many people were thinking about him.

"I told him I received a number of SMS messages saying that people will be thinking of Tan Zuoren on the third anniversary," Wang said.

"He told me they could forget Tan Zuoren but there were other things they should never forget," she added.

A woman surnamed Zhong who helped Tan with his investigations said many people feel helpless in the face of the crackdown on investigations surrounding the disaster.

"We all know that Tan Zuoren is a good guy, but there isn't much that we ordinary folk can do to help him," she said.

"These buildings were clearly 'beancurd' buildings," Zhong said. "Premier Wen [Jiabao] said they would pursue the investigations, but we haven't heard anything more about it."

"They won't let us go to Beijing to petition, either," she said.

Continuing struggle

A bereaved parent surnamed Yang said parents would continue with their struggle to speak out on behalf of their children, even if it meant going to jail.

"It is only fair that the truth should be heard on behalf of the children," Yang said. "So far, there has been no justice for those poor children who were crushed to death."

"If you open your mouth to say anything about it, they will take you away and send you to jail," Yang said.

Chinese officials say nearly 3,000 new schools and more than 1,000 hospitals in Sichuan have been built or reconstructed, at a cost of nearly 800 billion yuan (U.S. $123 billion).

More than three million homes were rebuilt in the year after the quake, while the worst-hit regions saw economic growth one percentage point higher than the rest of the province, Xinhua reported.

The vice governor of Sichuan says the provincial government will allocate an additional 3 billion yuan (U.S. $461.5 million) in the next three to five years, to help over 1,200 villages eliminate poverty.

Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see and Bi Zimo for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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