China Puts 2008 Quake Victims’ Families Under House Arrest Ahead of Anniversary

Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have placed families who lost children in the devastating earthquake of 2008 under house arrest ahead of the 10th anniversary of the tragedy on May 12.

More than 80,000 people, thousands of them schoolchildren, died in the quake that devastated mountainous regions of Sichuan, flattening the majority of school buildings and prompting widespread public anger over corruption allegations linked to shoddy construction standards.

But one decade on, parents say their campaign for compensation and for financial assistance promised as part of the reconstruction program has drawn a blank.

Instead, many are now under close surveillance or house arrest to prevent them from taking their complaints to the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, they told RFA.

Quake parent campaigner Sang Jun, who lost his son in the collapse of the Fuxin No. 2 Elementary School in worst-hit Mianzhu township, said he is currently under round-the-clock surveillance by state security police.

“I have had state security police here for a couple of days now, people watching me,” Sang said. “This is because I and some of the other victims’ families boarded a train for Beijing, but we were brought back by officials from Zhengzhou, who persuaded us to come back.”

“All of the main quake parent campaigners, and the families of Mianzhu schoolchildren [who died], are now under house arrest, and we’re not even allowed to go out,” he said.

In total, 129 students at the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Mianzhu died in the quake, out of an estimated 5,000 casualty toll for schoolchildren across the quake-hit area.

Broken promises

Fellow campaigner Li Yan said she had been forced to stay home by police, too.

“We were summoned to the village government offices a few days ago and told not to give interviews to foreign media organizations,” Li said. “We are calling for an explanation of the ‘tofu’ construction materials used in school buildings from the government.”

“Also, there is the question of the upkeep of our other kids, which is proving very difficult,” she said.

Bereaved parents were permitted to have a second child after the disaster, in a special dispensation under the former “one-child policy” family planning rules, but they say the government also promised to fund the children’s education and other living expenses: a promise that has yet to be kept.

Li said she is now struggling to meet all the expenses for her second child on a subsidy of just over 100 yuan a month.

“My husband died of cancer in 2014, and I just want to be able to work to raise my kid and meet their expenses,” she said. “But I can’t even work now because my father now has cancer too, and there’s nobody to take care of my kid.”

Calls to the Mianzhu city government offices rang unanswered on Wednesday.

Lawyers warned away

Sichuan-based author Tan Zuoren, who has served time in prison for investigating corruption behind the widespread collapse of school buildings in the quake, said he has continued his research since his release from prison in April 2014.

Tan, 63, said that repeated attempts by victims’ relatives to stage protests or petitioning events have been quashed by the authorities, and human rights lawyers have been warned off accepting compensation cases linked to Sichuan’s child quake victims, on pain of losing their license to practice.

“The parents are looking for a response in relation to their own child, but they have received no legal assistance, because no lawyer will dare to take on such a case,” Tan said. “No court would accept such a case, either.”

“Actually it’s against the law for administrative departments to interfere with the courts’ decisions on whether or not to accept a case,” he said. “The State Council has issued a directive saying that local governments can’t do this for any reason, especially not for maintaining social stability.”

Tan was sentenced by a Sichuan court in February 2010 to five years’ imprisonment for “incitement to subvert state power” after being formally accused of defaming the ruling Chinese Communist Party in e-mailed comments about the 1989 bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators around Tiananmen Square.

But his supporters say he was detained because he planned to issue an independent report on the collapse of school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake.

Stability maintenance concerns

Zhao Wei, whose home was destroyed in the quake, said the authorities typically focus far more on “stability maintenance” than they do on the rights of victims.

“The stability maintenance regime is very strict right now, and the subject has been very sensitive for a while lately,” Zhao said.

“The authorities won’t let anyone report it or even mention it. Local people aren’t allowed to mention May 12, to reminisce about the disaster, and especially not to pursue the question of what happened to the international aid funds that came into the disaster zone.”

“We asked them at the time what happened to the leftover money, but they have never answered,” Zhao said.

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