Dams and Earthquakes

China’s secret death toll

(April 25, 2009) Nearly a year after the deadly earthquake, relatives and others who ask questions are harassed, spied upon and arrested.

In the 11 1/2 months since China’s devastating May earthquake, Wang Tingzhang and his wife have been transformed from docile, law-abiding citizens into defiant troublemakers, at least in the eyes of authorities.

Along the way, they’ve been pushed, punched, wiretapped, followed and detained.

Their offense?

Asking too many questions about what happened to their only child, Wang Dan, an 18-year-old girl who was buried under the rubble of her high school in the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan Province.

In the early weeks after the quake, Beijing was widely applauded for its efficiency, compassion and openness in handling China’s worst natural disaster in decades. But since then, the curtain has fallen.

Even the death toll is shrouded in secrecy. Although about 70,000 people are believed to have died, the government has yet to release an official toll. DNA testing that could identify thousands of victims has stalled with no explanation from authorities.

The possibility that corruption might have been involved in the building of schools is the most politically sensitive aspect of the earthquake post-mortem. Parents and researchers asking about schools that collapsed have been detained and harassed.

Tan Zuoren, a literary editor and environmentalist who was creating an archive of children killed in collapsing schools, was arrested in March on charges of subverting state authority, according to Amnesty International, which added that his dog was stabbed and his computer stolen in a pattern of harassment leading to his arrest.

In the past few weeks, more than 10 volunteers working on a similar project with Ai Weiwei, a Beijing artist known for co-designing the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium, have been detained while researching in Sichuan. Although all were released within a day, cameras, film and notebooks were confiscated.

“Those in power view anybody asking questions as challenging the legitimacy of the government,” said Ai, who has registered 5,000 names of the dead and is still counting. “In the case of my volunteers, you could say they deserved it … But for the parents, most of whom are peasants and ordinary people, to be followed, harassed, wiretapped, this is very scary for them.”

There’s a growing clamor for an accounting of victims’ names, ages and details of how they died so it can be determined if schools did collapse at a higher rate than other buildings.

“If we bury the names of the dead, we cannot claim to have human rights in China,” wrote the influential Southern Metropolis Daily in a hard-hitting editorial published Wednesday.

Even the Chinese government pledged recently to register “the names of the people who died or disappeared in the earthquake and make them known to the public.”

To Wang Tingzhang, struggling the past 11 1/2 months to get information about his daughter, the Chinese government’s promises sound hollow.

“They pressure us. They try to control us. They follow us and listen to our phone calls,” said Wang. “But even if they kill us, it doesn’t matter because we’ve lost our daughter. … We’re not scared of the government anymore.”

Wang and his wife, Liu Shengying, live with his mother in a shack they made of blue tarpaulin and bamboo to replace their destroyed home.

Until the earthquake, there was little to distinguish them from millions of other Chinese migrant workers. Although they both came from large peasant families, they were true believers in the Communist Party and its limitations on family size. Without complaint, they had just one child, and poured their savings and ambition into her.

“Girl or boy, I didn’t care,” said Wang, 44. “I didn’t get much education myself. I would break my bones working or sell my house to make sure my child had a future.”

On the day of the earthquake, Wang was working out of town. By the time he flew home and reached Dongqi Secondary School where his daughter was enrolled, it was 13 hours after the quake.

The 1970s-era building had collapsed, burying the students under four floors of concrete and steel girders. Wang pitched in, helping to pull out mangled bodies, looking for his daughter.

Given the lack of refrigeration and the overwhelming number of bodies, those not immediately identified were taken away for a mass burial on a nearby mountain. But volunteers carefully photographed the faces, jotted down information about clothing and body size on index cards and snipped hair to be filed away in plastic bags for future identification.

A month after the earthquake, Wang and his wife got a telephone call from Hanwang municipality where they live, asking them to submit blood for DNA testing. They took the blood test and waited.

And waited. Every few months they visited the municipal office or the education department to ask when — or even if — they might expect results.

“I realized that my daughter was dead. But there was still this fantasy that somehow the phone was going to ring,” Liu said. “We felt that even if she was dead, we wanted to get confirmation.”

The couple had other questions about the school, where 240 out of 1,200 students were killed. Why had no repairs been made to the building, which was so structurally weak that students were ordered not to run in the corridors?

They asked what had happened to nearly $6 million that had been donated to the municipality for rebuilding by the automobile company Dongqi Co.

A group of parents went to the City Hall in October, hoping to get answers from officials. Instead, they found the front door blocked by police who kicked and punched them as they approached.

In November, Wang and his wife went to the school to meet other parents from their daughter’s class and compare notes. They ran into one of their daughter’s classmates — one of four in the class of 50 who had survived.

Chatting away, they didn’t realize they were being surrounded by police dressed in riot gear. They say the police herded the parents into a waiting bus.

“We’re going to take you to the municipal offices and they’ll answer your questions,” Wang said the police told them.

Instead, they were taken to the police station and locked up. They remained there from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., when officers told them they couldn’t return home until they signed a statement confessing they had “surrounded the school and disturbed the public order.” Exhausted and famished (they hadn’t been permitted to eat), all the parents signed.

Since then, Wang and his wife haven’t been able to meet with other parents. Every time they’ve tried, the police have discovered their plans immediately.

“Our telephones are tapped,” Wang said.

His wife, five months into a difficult pregnancy, is unable to travel. Wang still goes regularly to the municipal offices to ask when DNA results might be available but says he’s been brushed off.

“They tell us it’s complicated,” Wang said.

“Now it’s almost a year and I’m beginning to wonder. Are they really doing DNA testing, or was this just something to tease us? It feels like they don’t want outsiders to know the death toll.”

Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2009

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