China's [lost] Children: Return to Sichuan

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On 12 May, a devastating earthquake hit the Chinese province of Sichuan, leaving 90,000 people dead or missing. But the unique aspect of this tragedy was the extraordinary number of school children who lost their lives. Here, bereaved parents tell Clifford Coonan why they believe that negligence and corruption are to blame for the deaths of their loved ones

Wang Kanghua ran down the street to Juyuan Middle School as soon as her house stopped shaking from the earthquake, and dug with her fingers to find her daughter, Zhou Yating.

"This is my little girl, and this is her ID card, and here you can see her wearing Tibetan costume when she went on holiday there," she says, carefully arranging the photos on her lap. "She liked to paint, she was pretty good at it. Also Chinese embroidery. And she was great at English, she liked to watch the English-language lectures on TV. She's so beautiful. My daughter is just like a flower."

Sitting on a sofa in her sister's house and looking at the small green identity card, she shakes her head in disbelief. While she is keen to tell stories about Yating, Wang is reluctant to be photographed like this in another person's home. "It's bad luck to cry in someone else's house," she tells me.

Bad luck visited Juyuan – along with a vast area of the rest of China's western province of Sichuan – with a vengeance on 12 May. The timing of the earthquake was particularly deadly for Sichuan's children – it struck at 2.28pm, when most students were in class. Many of the younger children were having an afternoon nap before resuming their studies. And of the 90,000 dead or missing, at least 10,000 were children and students who died when school buildings collapsed during the tremor, which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale.

After many natural disasters, the focus is on the orphans left behind. But one of the most horrifying aspects of the Sichuan quake is the huge number of parents who have been left childless. More than 300 students died – like Yating – in just a couple of minutes at Juyuan Middle School, which in the quake's aftermath has become the most famous school in China. The scene I witnessed on the day after the tremor was pure horror. Heavy rain had turned the ground to mud and every time the body of one of the hundreds of teenagers buried in the ruins was dragged out and identified, a barrage of firecrackers exploded and a chorus of keening and wailing rose up from the families gathered around.

The basketball court in what used to be the playground was turned into a field mortuary and exhausted People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers dug ever deeper to find bodies. The parents and rescue workers milled around, repeatedly asking what had become of all the "xiao pengyoumen" or "little friends", and whole sides of the school buildings had slipped away as the ground shook. Support walls were left standing with blackboards on them, the day's lessons written on them.

Today the school is still a pile of rubble, the blackboards still visible, but the area has been fenced off, its precincts guarded by People's Armed Police in black combat fatigues, as well as regular police. The authorities gruffly challenge us when we approach, saying "No photos" in English. For it turns out there was more than bad luck at work in this particular disaster.

Towards the end of May, grief turned to anger for the parents of the children who died in Juyuan Middle School, as well as other schools in the region, where official corruption was blamed for poor building standards. People are full of praise for Premier Wen Jiabao, whose hands-on approach and long visits to the quake zone earned him the nickname "Grandpa Wen". But there are bitter denunciations of local officials, who are accused of cutting corners when building schools – and pocketing the cash saved by not using enough steel to make structures safe. Parents began to hold protests and called for investigations into the collapses. Why, they asked, did our schools collapse like paper houses when so many surrounding buildings survived? Within hours, the protests had transformed into a major political headache for the government.

Public displays of dissent are not tolerated in China. How would the authorities react to parents wailing and carrying pictures of their dead children? Perhaps predictably their response was tough – some parents were arrested, a number of foreign and Chinese journalists detained, and the weeks of remarkable press freedom following the quake were at an end. The first time I had met Wang Kanghua was a few days after the quake when she was burying Yating. Then, she was too grief-stricken to talk – but when I went back last week, she was more open. Talking to the parents, however, has become a game of cat and mouse with the police and we have to do interviews behind tents and in backrooms.

Cai Mingrong and her husband Liu Qiang are indeed living in a tent now but we return to their quake-damaged house, the stairwell marked by huge cracks and debris everywhere. The floor of their modern apartment is still littered with belongings that fell when the quake struck – DVDs and money from a broken piggy bank are scattered on the tiles. From the window of their fifth-floor apartment you can look across the river – flowing fast because of heavy rains and filled by the draining of quake lakes – and see a field of blue tents, which is where many of their neighbours currently reside.

The couple's 15-year-old son Li Jun's basketball boots are still on the window-ledge, just where he left them before he went to school on the day of the quake. "Ah, he was a very handsome boy," says Cai. "He was a good boy and he always listened to us, although he wasn't a great student. We ran to the school after the quake and we dug him out at seven o'clock in the evening and he was dead."

Cai shows us photographs of the family visiting Guosetianxiang, a theme park in Wenjiang near the provincial capital Chengdu. "He loves sports and he's a champion at the high jump in his school. He wants to go to high school to further his studies," she says.

The parents switch between present and past tenses when talking about their children, and it is common in Chinese to discuss the dead as if they were still alive. But still it is unsettling when a bereaved parent tells you "my son loves basketball" or "my daughter loves to dance".

"The government says we should stay calm and they will resolve things," says Cai. "We're in a tent and we have food and clothes and we get 300 yuan [£22] a month and that's OK," she says.

Li Dechang is wearing a T-shirt that you see everywhere in the quake zone. It says "I Love China" on the front and "Beijing 2008 Olympics" on the back. He met Premier Wen when he came to Juyuan Middle School and, like all the parents, is full of praise for the way the central government reacted. But at the same time, he blames corruption for the collapse of the school. "He was sitting where you are now. I told him 'Thank You', the central government has been great, very nice to us," Li says.

His little girl Yunlu was 15 when she died. Li reached the school at 3pm, and at 8.30pm the soldiers dug out her body. All of the parents remember exactly what time they arrived at the school and precisely what time the body of their child was taken out of the ruins.

The experience is still very raw for Gou Congxiang, mother of Dong Xu. "She likes to cook Sichuan food, and she likes to watch TV. She wanted to be an air hostess," she says, starting to cry. She can't get the words out.

"My house is far away, so when the quake happened I thought it wasn't serious, as there was no damage to my house. I thought the children were more likely to hurt each other trying to get out. When I got here I saw lots of parents around, and I had a very bad feeling. One of the surviving children said the Third Grade had been very badly affected, so I started running. I ran to the school to dig out my daughter but couldn't find her. At 8pm, the PLA found my daughter," says Gou. "I went to the school every day for 20 days after the earthquake. I just want justice for my daughter. My only child died, but now I will try and have another child to help me get through."

Gou is lucky that she is young enough to try again. It is thought that more than 90 per cent of the boys and girls who died in Juyuan school were only children. In most cases, there is little open criticism of China's "One Child" policy, which limits to one the number of children couples can have. There is no question that the loss of any child can devastate a family, no matter how many brothers and sisters they have, and proponents of the policy say it has stopped China's population, already 1.3 billion, spiralling out of control, thus putting too much demand on fragile resources.

But because of the policy, many Chinese people postpone pregnancy until they are older and better able to care for the child. This means that many parents of the children who died in Juyuan have reached the age where having more children gets more difficult, or even impossible. For many, it's the end of the family line.

We go to the courthouse in the nearby city of Dujiangyan to deliver a petition from the parents, suing the government. The earthquake devastated this city too, and the roads are lined with tent villages and signs saying: "Dangerous building – do not enter".

This is the third time the parents have tried to file a petition; they go in small groups, wary of being arrested for causing a riot. This time, they're given a hearing but told by a court official: "The government will deal with this." A father bangs on the pillars of the courthouse to show how fragile the school pillars were.

The court officer tells the photographer Ian Teh and I to get out as we don't have permission to be there, despite the earthquake-zone access pass I wear around my neck. After we leave, two policemen yank open the doors of our car and demand that Ian wipes his camera's memory card clear. They are very aggressive.

At a restaurant on the city's outskirts, the parents meet to discuss their next move. Around 30 mothers and fathers sit around, eating fruit and telling stories about their children. There are tears, fond smiles and a lot of determination as they plan their quest for justice.

"Some of us have been arrested when we tried to petition before. They've no right to arrest us! We haven't done anything wrong!" says one parent.

Yang Jiang scrolls through photographs on his mobile phone. There are pictures of his daughter Yang Yin at various tourist spots, pulling faces and posing for the camera. Then the images shockingly turn to photographs of her body as it was pulled from the rubble. "She was such a great girl," says Yang, smiling.

Wang Jinghui, an elegant woman dressed in black with the poise of a society matron, arrives for the meeting in her own car. She is the aunt of He Xue, and because she had a bit of money and lived in the city, she brought the girl up on behalf of her sister, a poor farmer from a remote area. This is common practice in China, where children are often brought up by the most suitable person in the family, be it an aunt or a grandmother.

Wang Jinghui has a small plastic bag of Xue's things, all the documents and certificates that make up a person's life. She has also kept copybooks and paintings by Xue. Traditionally at a funeral Chinese people burn the things that they think their loved ones will need in the afterlife – items such as food, money and clothes – but often people miss their loved ones too much and keep some things back. Wang Jinghui has kept her niece's paintings, which are strikingly good still-lives.

"Xue was the only child in the family. I got there at 3pm but they didn't find her until 14 May, two days after the quake," says Wang. "When my sister got the news, she fainted, she couldn't deal with it. And look at this photo," she says, pointing to an elderly man in a blue Mao suit. His name is He Shicai and he was the grandfather of He Xue. When he heard that his granddaughter had been killed, he died of grief, says Wang Jinghui. She turns away and puts her head in the crook of her arm and cries for a long time.

Liu Li approaches to show me a small photograph of her daughter Hu Huishan, which depicts her as the cover star on a mock-up of a teen magazine called Sophisticated. "She is great at swimming, at basketball, at ping-pong and she always gave the speech at the flag-raising ceremony in her class. She's a prefect for her class and has been for years, since primary school," says Liu, who is wearing her daughter's earrings. "She was a sunshine girl, and everybody said she was an angel. She always smiled when she came up against difficulties.

"When the earthquake happened we were at our house about 15 kilometres away," Liu continues. "It didn't feel like much. And anyway, we had chosen the school because we thought it was solid and safe and we presumed it would be OK. Then my brother-in-law told me that the quake had hit the school really badly. I got on the phone, but the lines were down. My brother-in-law has a taxi and he drove us 15 kilometres, then we ran to the school from where the road was blocked. Our daughter was the first to be dug out of the wreckage." Liu holds her daughter's cremation card as she speaks.

Her husband Hu Ming tells how Huishan's grades were so good that she'd been able to get a coveted place in Juyuan school, even though the family lives far away.

We go to lunch, a fiery Sichuan broth of red peppers, chillis, peanuts, coriander and a big fish in the middle, served with local beer and Sprite. It's delicious and parents go out of their way to heap choice morsels of fish on to my dish. Just as at banquets all over China, there are constant toasts and animated discussions about the food and whether everyone has had enough. The quake is banished for a few minutes but it hangs over the room like a shadow, and by the time people are lighting up cigarettes, talk again turns to how the families are going to get justice. There are tears again, and there is anger.

The government has sent payments and support messages to the parents of thousands of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake, in an effort to show solidarity and to reduce political fallout over shabby building standards. But that is far from enough for these bereaved parents.

As one father says, "All we want is a response from the government. We gave our children to the school to study, and they all died. Those responsible should pay – but they are ignoring us.

"A natural disaster we could understand," he continues. "We would grieve, we could move on. But this was negligence. This was corruption by local officials. We just want to know the truth."

Before we leave, Wang Kanghua is fussing, incredibly politely, concerned with making sure we have enough tea to drink. "It took three weeks for things to get back to normal," she says, "but they'll never really get back to normal in this town. The damage is too big." In Sichuan, there are too many parents like her.

Wang Kanghua, mother of Zhou Yating, 15

"More than 300 children died in my daughter's school. Some haven't even been counted because their parents haven't registered them. And we know there are still some children buried there, but their bodies will never be dug up. The government should be responsible. Everyone can see the building was terrible.

We were there by the time the rescue team arrived at 3pm. We dug for seven hours with our bare hands to find her body. When we found her she was dead, her hands and feet all injured. We did everything we could to save her, to keep her safe. But now there's no way out of this disaster.

When we had the funeral I burnt all my daughter's things, her paintings, her little bits and pieces, and now I wish I'd saved some things when I see what other parents have kept."

Li Dechang, father of Li Yunlu, 15

"We don't want to burden our government and we don't want to burden our families by having many children. Also, we don't care about the gender of the child. We love our children, regardless of their sex. My little girl Li Yunlu was 15 when she died; in September she would have been 16. The earthquake happened at 3pm and at 8.30pm on the same day the People's Liberation Army dug out her body. This was a natural disaster but the school was not built properly."Yang Pingxiu, mother of Zhangfeng, 14

"My daughter liked to watch TV and she liked to take pictures and she really liked to sing. She wanted to be either a singer or a police officer when she finished school. After the quake, my husband and I walked to the school and we dug her up at 5pm. Zhangfeng was in politics class; her classroom was on the first floor. When we found her I stopped breathing. Now we have enough to eat and to stay alive. We're all farmers, after all, we can grow what we need, and the government gives us rice and money. But every day I cry – we are miserable, so sorrowful."

Yang Pingxiu, mother of Zhangfeng, 14

"My daughter liked to watch TV and she liked to take pictures and she really liked to sing. She wanted to be either a singer or a police officer when she finished school. After the quake, my husband and I walked to the school and we dug her up at 5pm. Zhangfeng was in politics class; her classroom was on the first floor. When we found her I stopped breathing. Now we have enough to eat and to stay alive. We’re all farmers, after all, we can grow what we need, and the government gives us rice and money. But every day I cry – we are miserable, so sorrowful."

Cai Mingrong and her husband Liu Qiang, parents of Liu Jun, 15

"Our son would have been 16 on his next birthday. He was our only child. Ah, he was a very handsome boy. And he was a great basketball fan, he liked [the Chinese basketball star] Yao Ming. He was a good boy and he always listened to us, although he wasn't a great student. We ran to the school after the quake and he was buried in the rubble; we dug him out at seven o'clock in the evening and he was dead. We were, all of us in this area, working hard for our only children. Times have been tough, then they started to get good. Things were good for a while. Then he just died."



Liu Hua, mother of Yang Li, 16

"I live not too far away from the school, just a few kilometres. When the quake happened I was at home and I rushed to the school. I didn't know how serious it was, as the damage to our own house was pretty small. My husband was in Chengdu, where he works, and he came here and found my son's body at 8pm. I work on a market stall and life has to go on, of course, but my mental state is seriously damaged. This will be with me for ever, and for me things will never get back to normal. How am I supposed to recover from this? It's a huge shock. We're not rich people, we are poor people, it was tough for us to raise him."



Wang Jinghui, aunt of He Xue, 15

"I was 10 kilometres away from the school and I got there at 3pm but they didn't find my niece until two days after the quake. Xue studied painting and was very beautiful. She's my sister's daughter, but I raised her. I live in the city and we have a bit of money, so I brought her up. My sister is at home now; she is in a very bad way. It's not about the One Child Policy – if we had two children we'd still be devastated if one died. Our concern is the building quality. My sister is only a farmer; she doesn't know about this kind of thing. One has to help the world know about this."

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