MAC: Mines and Communities

After quake, China leans on grieving parents to buy their silence

Published by MAC on 2008-07-28
Source: New Youk Times

HANWANG, JULY 24: The official came for Yu Tingyun in his village one evening last week. He asked Yu to get into his car. He was clutching the contract and a pen.

Yu's daughter had died in a cascade of concrete and bricks, one of about 240 students at a high school here who lost their lives in the May 12 earthquake. Yu became a leader of grieving parents demanding to know if the school, like so many others, crumbled because of poor construction.

The contract had been thrust in Yu's face during a long police interrogation the day before. In exchange for his silence and for affirming that the ruling Communist Party "mobilised society to help us", he would get a cash payment and a pension.

Yu, a wiry 42-year-old driver, had resisted then. This time, he took the pen. "When I saw that most of the parents had signed it, I signed it myself," Yu said. He carries a framed portrait of his daughter, Yang, in his shoulder bag. Local governments in southwest China's quake-ravaged Sichuan province have begun a coordinated campaign to buy the silence of angry parents whose children died during the earthquake, according to interviews with more than a dozen parents from four collapsed schools. Officials threaten that they will get nothing if they refuse to sign, the parents say.

Chinese officials had promised a new era of openness in the wake of the earthquake and in the months before the Olympic Games, which begin in August. But the pressure on parents is one sign that officials are determined to create a facade of public harmony rather than undertake any real inquiry into allegations that malfeasance contributed to the high death toll in the quake.

Officials have come knocking on parents' doors day and night. They are so intent on getting parents to comply that in one case, a mayor offered to pay the airfare of a mother who left the province so she could return to sign the contract, the mother said.

The payment amounts vary by school, but are roughly the same. Parents in Hanwang said they were being offered the equivalent of $8,800 in cash and a per-parent pension of nearly $5,600.

Flush with tax revenues after two decades of double-digit economic growth, China has used its financial muscle to make Beijing and Shanghai into architectural showcases and to open diplomatic doors in Africa and Latin America. At times, the one-party state also acts like a multinational corporation, offering money to people with grievances in hopes of defusing public protests. Most people, the Government assumes, ultimately put profit before principle.

"Most of the parents now feel tired of this," said Liu Guanyuan, 44, whose 17-year-old son died here in the collapse of Dongqi Middle School, also the gravesite of Yu's daughter. "There's a Chinese saying: The people sue the Government, and the Government doesn't care."

Local Government leaders have repeatedly promised to get to the bottom of why a staggering 7,000 classrooms collapsed in the quake, killing 10,000 children. But there is little evidence that they have conducted more than a cursory examination, and some hints of a cover-up.

The issue remains one of the most delicate facing the Chinese Government. Many parents accuse local officials of negligence or corruption during the construction of the schools.

The New York Times obtained a copy of the compensation contract offered to parents from Hanwang. It is written as if the parents were beseeching a beneficent ruler for money.

"From now on, under the leadership of the party and the Government, we will obey the law and maintain social order," it says. "We vow resolutely not to take part in any activity that disturbs post-earthquake reconstruction."

Another section is full of praise for the Communist Party: "Natural disaster is merciless, but the world is full of love. The party and the Government reached out their hands to us and mobilised society to help us and alleviate our hardships."

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