05/07/2009, 00.00
CHINA
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Sichuan earthquake, an official source admits possibility schools were badly built

A high ranking official speaks of the possibility of defects in school buildings. Meanwhile Chinese authorities report 5.335 students killed in collapse of schools, but experts say the toll is far higher. Ahead of the anniversary, police threaten foreign press for seeking to speak to parents of dead students.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – China today stated that 5,335 students died in the collapse of schools during the Sichuan earthquake on May 12th 2008 and that a further 546 remain disabled.  The official announcement, made in the course of a press conference in Chengdu held by Tu Wentao, the province's education department head, has sparked protests and disbelief among experts.  Bit for the first time a high level official has spoken about possible defects in school buildings.

The data on the student deaths is far below unofficial figures of 9 thousand dead including students and teachers, released shortly after the quake by local press and the state news agency Xinhua. Moreover Xinhua reports 68,712 official victims of the quake and of 18 thousand missing believed buried under the rubble.

Ai Weiwei, a prominent artist and building designer who has been compiling his own student death toll, says “far from reflect reality” and show the government “is irresponsible” because “they did not conduct a proper survey [of the dead]… this reflects badly on the government's credibility”.

Ai said his volunteers had confirmed 5,200 deaths, and that there were probably another 1,000 or so who had also died. The total figure may be around 7,000,.

Immediately after the quake the government reported 7,000 schools collapsed and another 14,000 were damaged and initially promised to investigate why so many schools fell while surrounding buildings remained intact.

But now the government claims the only cause of their collapse was the power of the quake and are racing to avoid any polemics in the lead up to the anniversary.  Instead families of the dead students are demanding a serious investigation into the cause and suspect that poor quality materials were used, given that the schools folded as if made of paper while other buildings only sustained minor damage.  Many parents told foreign media they had been threatened and arrested on many occasions because they are seeking an investigation.

Today Hou Xiongfei, vice head of Sichuan's provincial propaganda department, has accused “a few [foreign] journalists” of “inciting the crowds, asking people to organise” for protests and has warned that they “will be handled  in accordance with the law”.

The government has required foreign journalists to register with local authorities if they want to report on the anniversary, and in various cases local police has detained and threatened foreign journalists.  In separate incidents a Finnish television crew and a Financial Times reporter were attacked near Fuxin number two primary school while trying to interview parents of the 126 children killed when the poorly constructed school collapsed. In another incident on yesterday a correspondent for the Irish Times was detained by police for almost an hour for trying to meet parents of hundreds of children who died in another school collapse in the town of Juyuan. Several other media organisations have been harassed in the earthquake zone by police and government officials.

Public opinion is closely following events around Sichuan. Provincial Justice Department director Liu Zuoming told the latest edition of Xinhua's Oriental Outlook magazine, that his opinion was based on two factors: the intensity of the quake was beyond anyone's control and the fact that the large-scale collapse of school buildings was the result of flawed building-quality standards. It is perhaps the first time that an official source admits the possibility of bad construction and in within a few hours thousands of comments were circulating the internet, insisting on a verification of the materials used.

 

 

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