December 23, 2008 / 12:14 AM / in 9 years

China quake ruins cleared, but school anger unbowed

JUYUAN, China (Reuters) - The morning before China’s vast earthquake killed Kang Ergui’s son, the father worked as a security guard at the boy’s school.

<p>A woman collects bricks at the ruins of houses which were destroyed by the earthquake in Qingchuan, Sichuan province in this December 16, 2008 photo. The May 12 quake rocked China's southwest, killing more than 80,000 people, toppling towns and villages, and turning schools to rubble even in areas otherwise spared the worst carnage. Picture taken December 16, 2008. REUTERS/Christina Hu/Files</p>

Now seven months on, Kang is among the grieving parents who -- harassed, silenced, and sometimes arrested -- keep defiant vigil over memories and questions the government would rather leave untouched in the disappearing rubble.

The May 12 quake rocked China’s southwest, killing more than 80,000 people, toppling towns and villages, and turning schools to rubble even in areas otherwise spared the worst carnage.

The Chinese government has embarked on a massive, frenzied reconstruction drive that spares no time for the doubts that torture families of the children killed.

The parents say there is less room than ever for their suggestion that incompetence or corruption led to the building of shoddy schools that crumbled all to easily.

“The Communist Party and central policies are good. Things change at the local level,” said Kang, an oversized jacket draped on his slight frame. “They don’t allow us to be interviewed. The police send people to monitor us, to have us re-educated.”

A mild-mannered man, Kang would have been a quiet, pliant citizen in normal times, blending into the background. The quake has changed that.

The school where his only son, 16-year-old Yang Bo, was crushed to death along with about 300 other students has reopened nearby, but Kang said his contract as a guard, which ran until 2009, was scrapped because of his stubborn demand for answers.

A cold wind blows across gravel and weeds where his son’s school once stood on the edge of Juyuan, a semi-rural town 50 km (31 miles) from the Sichuan provincial capital, Chengdu. The neighborhood resembles a gap-toothed mouth, intact apartments and shops ringing the bulldozed ground.

LONELY BATTLE

The quake parents’ accusations of corruption and mismanagement behind the students’ deaths initially struck a deep chord in China, a society where family-planning restrictions make single children the focus of immense hopes and love.

But reports about school collapses have long since disappeared from Chinese media, blocked by official orders, and the government message is now about rebuilding and moving on.

Those who are unwilling to forget are fighting an increasingly dangerous and lonely battle.

Zhao Deqin, a mother whose twin girls perished in the Juyuan school collapse, is lying low after being held by local authorities for 40 days, her friends said. Dong Tianqun, who lost her daughter, regularly changes her phone number to evade police.

“The officials want to control our movements. They don’t want us to talk about this,” said Dong, whose 16-year-old daughter was buried in the Juyuan wreckage.

For all of China’s rescue and reconstruction work, lauded by governments and aid organizations around the world, the transformation of anguished parents into fugitives shows a state that can be loath to scrutinize past mistakes.

“You can never go against the government but we are still begging for an explanation,” Dong said.

A third parent, who only gave his surname, Liao, said parents had been hounded by city officials to sign an acknowledgement that the earthquake was a natural disaster and that, by extension, their children’s deaths were not preventable. The bullying has intimidated many into silence, he said.

Compensation payments have also helped. Parents have been given 160,000 yuan for their lost ones in Juyuan, nearly twice as much as that reportedly offered in nearby Hanwang, the site of another high school collapse.

“We’ve attached great importance to the questions of family members regarding school quality,” Wei Hong, vice governor of Sichuan, told a press conference last month. “The government will try its utmost to properly resolve their questions.”

A Reuters survey of news reports put the toll of school dead at about 9,000.

REBUILDING

A temporary school has pride of place in the middle of a sprawling compound of barrack-like homes in Leigu, a town where residents from battered Beichuan county at the quake’s epicenter now live.

The grounds teem with students skipping rope and playing soccer. On the gates, a red banner flutters softly: “Developing top schools is the basis for rebuilding Beichuan.”

In recalling the moment that the earth shook, Jing Dazhong, the county chief, said he was in the middle of a ceremony awarding medals to local students.

“My first thought was to get the students to safety,” he said.

The earthquake was ruthlessly egalitarian in its destruction in many parts of Sichuan. More than half the local finance ministry’s staff died when their building gave way in Beichuan.

But the exceptions were glaring in Juyuan, Mianzhu and Xiang‘e, where schools were the only buildings in their immediate vicinity to be flattened. Those around them were virtually unscathed by the quake.

A group of women in Juyuan played mahjong at a small sidewalk table across the street from the gravel patch where the school had stood. They said they missed the happy shouts of children at the start and end of the school day but shrugged aside questions about responsibility, quick to praise the official relief effort.

Kang, the soft-spoken father, said the government had not heard the last from the parents.

After the earthquake turned the Juyuan school into a pile of crumbly concrete, Kang worked feverishly to extract students. One boy said he had heard Kang’s son calling, that he was still alive, just trapped. Kang could not get close to him.

“We’ve been waiting patiently,” he said, carefully weighing his words. “If they (local officials) really don’t give us an explanation, we’ll have to go to Beijing and request a response.”

Additional reporting by Royston Chan; Editing by Nick Macfie and Megan Goldin

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