China Probes Quake Graft Claims

Citizens in China have formed surveillance groups to supervise aid distribution to millions hit by the May 12 earthquake, as officials promise full accountability for relief supplies administered by the Chinese Red Cross.
2008-05-27 - MIANYANG, Sichuan
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Rescue workers in Mianyang city, Sichuan province, comb through the wreckage of buildings which collapsed in the May 12 earthquake.
Rescue workers in Mianyang city, Sichuan province, comb through the wreckage of buildings which collapsed in the May 12 earthquake.

China’s Red Cross has called in national auditors to keep track of goods and money donated to help the millions left homeless by the Sichuan earthquake, as public anger mounts over allegations of misdirected aid donations and deaths caused by shoddy construction.

Around 1,000 parents of children who died when their primary school collapsed marched in quake-hit Mianyang city at the weekend, holding photographs of their dead children. They were allowed to march by police and took their complaints to government officials.

Officials said an investigation team had been set up, including parents of children who died. Officials from another city will manage the team, which will investigate what happened in buildings at the Fuxin No.2 Primary School, where 127 children died.

“The working group has been set up with the specific task of investigating the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School,” an official in the Mianyang municipal government news department said.

“It includes parent representatives and will conduct itself in a transparent and open manner. The timing of its conclusions will depend on the expert assessments.”

Parents said the school had been built on unstable foundations in the first place, echoing Chinese media reports that it was first constructed in 1989, and had been declared to be unsafe as early as 1996.

School ‘built on hole’

“That primary school was built on a big hole. They just filled it up with rocks,” said a woman whose daughter sustained head injuries when the building collapsed in the earthquake.

“It’s dangerous and unstable.”

Commenting on the investigation in the Hong Kong media, construction expert Zhou Jintian from the Beijing Institute of Technology said the school’s brick walls had been unable to withstand the quake.

“The building is made of bricks, and each floor is placed upon a load-bearing wall of bricks,” Zhou said. “Brick walls are unable to withstand the sideways forces generated in an earthquake. The building needs to be built with a flexible steel frame.”

Premier Wen Jiabao pledged continuing investigations into allegations of shoddy construction at schools across the quake-hit region, where similar complaints are being leveled at government officials. At least 6,000 schoolchildren and teachers are believed to have died in collapsed school buildings.

“We are already working with the ministry of construction to meet with their local departmental counterparts to determine all that we can with regard to the buildings that have collapsed,” Premier Wen Jiabao said in an interview with Phoenix TV.

Call for compensation

Nanjing-based scholar Sun Wenguang published an article immediately after the quake calling on the government to bring those responsible for shoddy construction work to justice.

“China has spent 400 billion yuan on the Olympics, and three billion yuan on an opera house. Is it possible for the government to allot 100 billion yuan to improve the construction of school buildings?”

“I think people should demand that the government do something, such as compensating the parents who lost their children. Why were there so many victims in that quake?” Sun said.

“It is because of a lack of funding for education, resulting in substandard construction in elementary schools, which left students dead,” he added.

Netizens commenting online and callers to RFA's listener hotlines echoed Sun's view.

"In the quake, school buildings collapsed one after another, and classrooms fell to the ground.  But few government office buildings collapsed," a listener from the eastern province of Jiangsu said. "We see on television that the collapsed buildings were not build with reinforced concrete."

"They now say nothing is more precious than human lives.  But did the thought cross their minds when they were building those schools?  The news reports keep saying that this was a natural disaster and not a manmade disaster.  Was it?" he said.

Residents of disaster-hit areas have also voiced complaints that aid appears to be being diverted away from the millions of earthquake victims left homeless, with scant food and water, after the quake.

“The head of our production brigade might get more, but we just received a box of instant noodles and two bottles of water,” one resident of Shifang city, Sichuan, said.

Suspicion falls on officials

“Much of the money and relief supplies must have been taken by local cadres,” she said. “The other day when my husband went to the office for something, he happened to see some delicious food inside. But we cannot get them.”

Surveillance groups are already springing up in rural communities to monitor the distribution of relief.

Chengdu-based Li Tinghui, one of the organizers of such a group, said it had been formed to prevent graft. “We are monitoring the donated money to prevent some officials from bilking profits from the natural disaster,” she said.

“We will follow up on cases and investigate. For example, if a house has collapsed, we will investigate how this is reported to claim relief and how the relief money is spent,” she added.

The Red Cross Society of China said it would call in national auditors following a series of complaints posted on the Internet of misuse of donated funds.

One posting alleged that two China Red Cross staff members asked for receipts worth five times the actual price when buying medicines from a store, while the society’s Web site was attacked by a hacker last week, who alleged it was collecting a five percent “management fee” for donations collected in its name.

Inspections ordered

The society is inviting the National Audit Office to examine its purchase of around 6,500 tons of grain and 1.7 million mosquito nets destined for quake-hit areas, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Service director Chen Mingren said the society would draft in experts to set standards for the procurement of goods, invite government inspectors to check shipments and publish purchase notices on its Web site, with transparent advertising of public tenders.

His statement came after Premier Wen Jiabao pointed to a discrepancy between the 16 billion yuan in pledged aid, and the value of the aid actually seen in the disaster area.

“We must ensure that all funds are used entirely for disaster relief. This matter cannot wait until rescue is over to be investigated,” Wen said.

“We haven’t just sent down a notice, we’ve dispatched numerous audit inspection teams, have begun examining goods; also the details of how the money is being released and used. This is also a very important test for our government at every level,” he said.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Grace Kei Lai-see, and in Mandarin by Qiao Long, Xin Yu, and Yan Xiu. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie, Chen Ping and Jia Yuan. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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