Bryan Lee
Tue, May 27, 2008
The Straits Times
Chinese ask why

DUJIANGYAN - THE earthquake's destruction of Xinjian Primary School was swift and complete. Hundreds of children were crushed as the floors collapsed in a deluge of falling bricks and concrete.

In contrast, none of the nearby buildings was badly damaged. A separate kindergarten less than 6m away survived with barely a crack.

An adjacent 10-storey hotel stood largely undisturbed. And another local primary school, Beijie, a 'key' school catering to children of the elite, was in such good condition that local officials were using it as a refugee centre.

'This is not a natural disaster,' said Mr Ren Yongchang, whose nineyear-old son died inside the destroyed school.

He stood beside the rubble, shouting and weeping as he grabbed the exposed steel bar of a broken concrete column. 'This is not good steel. It doesn't meet standards. They stole our children.'

There is no official figure on how many children died at Xinjian Primary School. The building which was once Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan city also snuffed out 278 lives when it collapsed in the quake.

The total number of student deaths in the quake seems likely to exceed 10,000, possibly much higher, a staggering figure that has become a simmering controversy in China as grieving parents say their children might have lived had the schools been better built.

The government has launched an investigation, but censors, wary of the public mood, are trying to suppress the issue in state-run media and online. Angry parents at several destroyed schools are beginning to stage small demonstrations.

On Wednesday, more than 200 Xinjian parents demonstrated at the temporary tents used by Dujiangyan's education bureau, demanding an investigation and accusing officials of corruption and negligence.

'We want...justice for our children,' one father said the day before the protest. 'We want the local officials to pay the price.'

On Sunday, parents of 127 pupils killed at another school - Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Mianzhu - marched in the street.

The earthquake was so powerful, measuring 8.0 in magnitude, that a certain amount of damage could not be prevented. But engineering experts say Xinjian and some other schools in Sichuan were especially vulnerable.

Xinjian was poorly built when it opened its doors in 1992, parents say, and never got its share of government funds for reconstruction because of its low ranking in the local education bureaucracy and the low social status of its students.

Across Sichuan province, more than 13,000 schools were damaged in the quake, the head of the provincial education department said.



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