Saturday, 12 May 2012

Still Demanding Justice Four Years On

I remember feeling woozy at my desk in Beijing exactly four years ago at 2:28pm. I felt like I was drunk, but obviously hadn't had a drop of alcohol.

It took me a few minutes for the strange sensation to dissipate.

About 20 minutes a colleague came by to say there was an earthquake in Sichuan and then that evening we found out it was a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake that killed almost 70,000 lives.

We read about the soldiers rushing to the scene but lacked equipment so they had to dig through the debris with their bare hands.

Originally China was too proud to ask for assistance, and then when overseas expertise were allowed to come, the critical 72-hour period was already over to save more people.

Most of the casualties were children, in schools that were later found to be shoddily built.

Premier Wen Jiabao visited the disaster area and pledged the government would investigate into the "tofu" buildings.

This emboldened parents of the dead students to criticize local officials for corruption, but after a while they were ignored and later detained and even beaten up for demanding justice.

Four years on, no one has taken responsibility for the badly-built schools and no investigation of any kind has been carried out. Obviously the Chinese government, both central and provincial want to claim it was a natural calamity. But how can they say that when buildings next to many of these schools were still standing?

Many parents lost their only child that day. And they are still bitter, and rightly so.

Zhou Xinrong, 47, lost her 15-year-old son Lu Qianliang at Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan four years ago today.

"I am exhausted both physically and emotionally after having taken on the might of the state apparatus for the past four years. But I will persist as long as I am still breathing, even if it means waiting four decades," she said.

She has been detained six times in the past four years, and has even gone to Beijing to try to petition -- but that led to her spending time in a "black jail" and extralegal place by thugs apparently hired by Dujiangyan authorities.

That's because soon after the earthquake, she refused to sign for "condolence money" -- compensation to pay for her son's funeral and employment, but in return they could not criticize the government over the "tofu" buildings.

At first many held out, but due to financial constraints, many eventually caved in and got compensation, but Zhou is one of the few who have held out.

She has found it difficult to move on also because she and her husband were already in their 40s and could not conceive another child again.

When she lost her only hope for the future, it fueled her courage even more to fight the system.

Meanwhile rebuilding in the area hasn't turned out as promised as many homes were quickly built and already show cracks.

Another serious problem is embezzlement. The National Audit Office released a report last month citing officials siphoning off funds earmarked for reconstruction, using money to build extravagant offices for themselves, and rebuild schools having structural problems.

Interestingly the report this year did not release a figure, but the one from last year said 188 million RMB was misused in 36 reconstruction projects.

That's nothing compared to 2010 when it was reported a whopping 5.8 billion RMB was not used properly.

Hmmm perhaps some of that money ended up in Hong Kong, Macau and elsewhere?

Professor Zhu Lijia of the Chinese Academy of Governance, said the incompetence of local authorities and the abuse of reconstruction money fueled public distrust of the government.

"Organized irresponsibility is prevalent throughout the quake relief and reconstruction process, among central and local government agencies. This not only poses grave hazards to social justice and sustainability, but has also further undermined the government's credibility," he said.

Zhu and another Beijing-based political observer Hu Xingdou, also point out Beijing's reluctance to admit glaring inadequacies in rebuilding, especially with regards to the investigation into the shoddily-built schools that Premier Wen had promised to do four years ago.

"It is preposterous to cover up real problems, because stability cannot be achieved at the expense of justice and human lives," Hu said.

If the government really cared about "social harmony" it would have made sure accountability mechanisms were in place to ensure transparency to inspire public confidence.

But instead the party believes reforming the system would uncover even more problems and so it prefers to sweep things under the carpet and hope no one notices as it continues to ingratiate itself in any way possible.

How can "Grandpa" Wen sleep at night, knowing he publicly made a promise to investigate why thousands of school children died and still four years later absolutely nothing has been done?

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