Police, money silence protests over China quake school deaths
Dujiangyan, China (AFP) Aug 27, 2008
Parents of children killed when poorly built schools collapsed in China's earthquake remain angry but police intimidation and cash payments have largely quelled their protests, locals said.
About 7,000 schools collapsed in the May 12 quake, often as nearby buildings stood firm, and relatives of the dead children initially spoke out loudly against the graft they believed led to the shoddy construction of the schools.
However a police crackdown in the months following the earthquake and the handing over of wads of cash to grieving relatives have apparently helped quash what was a rare moment of freedom of expression in communist-ruled China.
"The families have accepted compensation payments -- they have to accept the money because the police can be very terrifying," said a shop-owner surnamed Cheng near the Juyuan Middle School where at least 200 teachers and children died and protests were amongst the angriest.
"When they accept the money they are told to keep quiet, we have all been told not to accept interviews (with the media)."
According to Chinese press reports, compensation payments for each child lost were at least 32,000 yuan (4,500 dollars) throughout the quake zone.
But Cheng said the parents of each dead child at the Juyuan school received up to 170,000 yuan -- more than five times as much.
Parents who spoke to AFP in June during the protests -- some of which were forcibly quelled by police -- refused to talk to journalists this week.
"It is not convenient for me to speak to you now, please don't call," said You Zhenghua, who had dug her 14-year-old daughter out of the Juyuan debris with her bare hands.
One father whose daughter survived the Juyuan collapse said relatives were still angry over why the building caved in.
"It is clear that poor construction was a problem -- why didn't other buildings here collapse?" he said, while asking his name not be used for fear of repercussions from authorities.
The earthquake left nearly 88,000 people dead or missing in southwest China's Sichuan province and surrounding areas.
According to official estimates, up to 9,000 teachers and students were killed in the collapses of the school, but locals believe such estimates are far below the real numbers.
While doling out compensation and pressuring the parents to keep quiet, the government has also rounded up activists seeking to help the families.
Veteran rights campaigner Huang Qi, 44, was in July charged with "illegal possession of state secrets" after he collected data on collapsed schools, according to his wife. Authorities have not commented on his case.
Liu Shaokun, a Sichuan school teacher, was also reportedly sent to a labour camp late last month after he posted photos of collapsed school buildings on the Internet.
Liu was arrested on June 25 and sentenced to one year of "re-education through labour" for "disturbing public order," the New York-based Human Rights in China said. Police have refused to comment on Liu's case.
Immediately following the quake, China's state-controlled press was allowed to report freely on the anger of the parents over the collapsed schools, but such freedoms were curbed three weeks later.
As part of the crackdown, two AFP staff members were among at least six foreign media representatives held by police for a short time and then ordered out of town after they tried to report at Juyuan and other schools in June.
"We have to be thankful to the media for their concern," said Zao Sufang, 80, whose home near the front gate of the Juyuan school partially collapsed.
"Because of the reports, the situation here has ended much better than it would have otherwise," she added.
In response to the parents' initial complaints, the government vowed to "thoroughly investigate" each school collapse and hold any official responsible.
It has also insisted that it has had an "open attitude" to foreign press reporting in the quake zone.
Relief workers had gone into the worst-hit areas of southwest China's Sichuan province to pass on the millions of items of clothing but the homeless said they did not need the help, the China Daily said, citing relief workers.
"Once our warehouses were full, we had to rent a badminton court just to store them," the China Daily quoted Li Huarong, a civil affairs official in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, as saying.
Li said 60 tonnes of secondhand clothes would be auctioned off on Saturday because authorities had run out of room to house it all, with the proceeds going to help quake victims in other ways.
"It has cost us a lot of money to launder and store the clothes, so we decided it would be better just to auction them," she said.
About 10 million people were made homeless or forced to relocate following the May 12 earthquake, which left 88,000 dead or missing.
Many of those who lost their homes have been living in camps throughout the quake zone, with billions of dollars already spent on immediate relief and reconstruction work.
But it seems that the money will not have to be spent on clothes.
"Just a week after the quake, we told people to stop sending us secondhand clothes, but they kept on coming," the China Daily quoted Zhao Linjiang, the head of the central donation depot in Chengdu as saying.
"People would just dump them on the ground and leave. We received as many clothes in the three months after the quake as we had in the past three years."
Zhao said his depot, which operates separately from the one planning the auction, had received about 2.5 million items of clothing since the earthquake.
Despite already being rejected, Zhao said the depot planned to clean two million pieces of clothes and distribute them to victims.
The other 500,000 pieces of clothes would be recycled for use in mattresses and mops, according to Zhao.
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