HONG KONG—Authorities in China's quake-hit southwestern province of Sichuan have prevented hundreds of parents of schoolchildren who died in the May 12 earthquake from visiting the former school sites where their children died to carry out memorial rites one month after their deaths.
While official figures have yet to be compiled, several thousand children of school age are believed to have died across the province after school buildings collapsed on them, sparking mass outpourings of grief and rage at the authorities by bereaved parents, who say shoddy construction was to blame.
One month on, families traditionally remember their dead with a memorial rite at the scene of death, including a mourning photograph, paper offerings and incense to the spirits of the deceased. But parents whose children died in the collapse of the Juyuan Middle School near Dujiangyan city said they were banned from carrying out the ceremony by police.
"The authorities wouldn’t let us to go to the school to commemorate our kids," a bereaved parent surnamed Zou said. "Police were deployed around the school as well as every other intersection. We don’t understand why they did this to us."
Some mourners detained
A woman surnamed Dong, also a parent at the school where 300 teachers and students died in the earthquake, said they were escorted away from the area in the morning and brought back again at nightfall.
"We were taken away this morning," she said. "They just don’t want us to commemorate our kids today: no wreath-laying, no paper money-burning. We dare not resist, or we would face arrest."
Parents at Beichuan Middle School near Mianyang city said they were also prevented from carrying out memorial offerings at the school site.
Ms. Yang, whose youngest child died in the quake, said that her husband intended to go to the school but was blocked by police. Some parents, she added, were detained by police.
"Parents were not allowed to go to the school site. We just want to pay our respects to our children," she said. "If we insist, they will arrest us. It's really unbearable."
"Some parents who entered the school site earlier were escorted away from the area," Yang added.
Parents plan lawsuits
Some local residents expressed sympathy for the parents.
"We don’t think it’s right to prevent those parents forcefully from holding memorial services at school sites," a Beichuan resident surnamed Xu said. "I understand that government needs to maintain order, but the memorial service does not necessarily lead to chaos and could give the parents some much-needed comfort."
Local officials have denied media access to parents trying to file lawsuits against the government over allegations that crucial corners were cut during the construction of school buildings, saying that they are "emotionally unstable."
Parents in several locations across Sichuan are filing papers and looking for lawyers to represent them in similar cases. Some say concerns were raised about building safety standards long before the quake hit.
Sichuan officials 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.
Population controls relaxed
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 team, comprising experts on childbearing, will conduct surgery in the quake-hit areas to provide technological support for those wanting to give birth to another child," Zhang Shikun, director of the science and technology bureau of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying.
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. Provicincial population control chief Li Bin said Friday that all families with their only child killed or disabled in the quake should be incorporated into the special assistance system.
"Regular subsidies will be issued to these families to alleviate the financial difficulties brought about by the quake," she said, stressing that the commission was making efforts to enable the subsidy to reach their hands "at an early date."
Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Jia Yuan. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.