Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Remembering the Dead... with Gratitude?

People file past a school that collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008
Yesterday marked the sixth anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake that killed 88,000 people.

There are still questions as to why 5,300 of the dead were students killed in schools that were shoddily built and no answers even now.

Activist Tan Zuoren who tried to find answers for the families was finally released in March after spending five years in jail for investigating the deaths of the students. Artist Ai Weiwei was beaten up by police when he tried to attend Tan's trial. Later Ai's brain swelled and he had to have emergency surgery in Germany.

His latest project involves pictures of flowers online to remember the students killed, with the slogan, "Respect Life, Never Forget".

One of his installations I saw at the Hong Kong Art Fair before it became Art Basel HK was an enclosed space all in black with white sheets of paper posted on the inside. It was a long list of names of the students who died, their age, sex and perhaps they liked to draw or play music. It was chilling looking at those thousands of names.

But now six years on it seems the government wants people to move on, or it is really insensitive to people's feelings.

This year at the epicentre of the quake in Yingxiu township in Wenchuan county, locals were invited to a "festival of gratitude" that was organized by a government-backed institute. Events included a dance by the ethnic Qiang and a beauty contest "to express the area's gratitude for the aid it has received since the quake".

How can anyone who lost a loved one in the earthquake even begin to enjoy a "festival of gratitude" that features dancing and a beauty pageant? Perhaps a corruption scandal will come out of it later...

And last month it was discovered that food meant to be for the victims six years ago were found rotting in a storeroom in a village office along with bundles of clothes and other supplies.

Residents complained of a smell and then when county officials found the source of the odour, they found half-filled sacks of rotting rice, instant noodles and expired bottles of water.

The villagers apparently took videos of officials hurriedly trying to get rid of the stuff until only grains of rice were left.

Village official Guo Fangping was suspended after trying to cover up the cache, but surely he should have been sacked?

Ji Shenghui, the party secretary of Santai county claimed the food had already expired in 2008 but did not explain why they had not been disposed of. As for the rotting rice, he claimed that was for the villagers for Spring Festival, but they were soaked during transport and left in the storage room. Again, why weren't they disposed of?

Meanwhile Wenchuan has had six million tourists visit the area in 2013, generating 2.6 billion yuan for the county. But does that really help the victims' families?

As lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan says: "The earthquake was a natural disaster, but we still have to ask if the deaths of more than 5,000 students was related to a man-made disaster?"

The government is still silent on this, and will be for many years to come.

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