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China: 5,335 students dead, missing in 2008 quake

In this May 2008 file photo, a father holds a photo of his daughter who was killed in an earthquake, while sitting in the ruins of the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Wufu, in China's southwest Sichuan province.
In this May 2008 file photo, a father holds a photo of his daughter who was killed in an earthquake, while sitting in the ruins of the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Wufu, in China's southwest Sichuan province.
Greg Baker, Associated Press

BEIJING — China on Thursday released its first official tally of students who died or went missing in last year's Sichuan earthquake — 5,335 — but denied allegations of corruption and shoddy construction — a politically charged issue that has been an enduring source of grief to parents.

Tu Wentao, head of the Sichuan's provincial education department, said 5,335 schoolchildren died or went missing in the massive May 12 quake, and another 546 have been certified as disabled from injuries they sustained.

"The numbers have gone through several checks by our department," said Tu, whose remarks at a press conference in Sichuan's capital, Chengdu, were carried on a provincial government news Web site.

No reason was given for the release of the figures on Thursday — days before the one-year anniversary of the disaster, which left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing and another 5 million homeless. But some say it could be a sign that the government is attempting to stem ongoing discontent.

Authorities began a count of victims within hours after the magnitude-7.9 temblor razed a major section of the mountainous province. But they have refused until now to say how many students were killed, many of them crushed when thousands of classrooms collapsed while other buildings around them remained intact.

Officials have said that compiling and confirming the names of the students was a complicated process, and blame the sheer force of the quake as the main cause of the number of flattened schools.

"According to our investigations and samples we have taken, we have not found any case of buildings that collapsed in the earthquake zone mainly because of construction quality," Yang Hongbo, head of Sichuan's construction department, said at the news conference.

He said "once there is concrete evidence to prove that problems exist in building designs and construction, relevant departments will investigate according to law."

But parents insist the schools crumbled so easily because corruption and mismanagement led to slipshod construction methods and weak buildings that were not up to code. Some say materials meant for school construction projects were sold on the side by contractors for personal gain.

So far no one has been held responsible or punished.

The childrens' deaths have sparked national outrage and have fueled unrest among parents. Many have petitioned and protested, only to be detained or warned against speaking out. Activists sympathetic to their cause have been harassed or taken away by police.

Si-si Liu, a Hong Kong researcher with Amnesty International, said the rights group welcomed the release of the new figures, but added that fundamental questions such as why so many schools collapsed have not been answered.

"We hope that the government will make public, explain to the public what efforts they have made and what's the progress of the investigation," Liu said. "They need to be a government that is accountable to its people. Authorities have to make these efforts transparent."

The London-based group released a report last week chronicling instances in which dozens of parents were questioned or detained by police while seeking answers from courts and local officials.

Grieving parents took little solace and were skeptical of the toll.

"Announcing the numbers won't bring us any consolation," said Liu Xiaobin, whose 11-year-old son was killed when the three-story Fuxin No. 2 Primary School sank into the ground and the rest of the neighborhood remained standing.

"We want the government to investigate the situation at the schools ... or we will petition again because that is our legal right," said Liu, who traveled to Beijing last week to take his case to the central government — only to be sent home by local officials.

Ai Weiwei, an avant garde artist and high-profile critic of Beijing's policies, said Thursday's disclosure was an empty gesture.

"There's no significance to this announcement because it didn't give any names or any other information on where they died, which schools or which classes they were in," Ai said in a telephone interview. "This is nonsense."

In his blog, Ai has confirmed almost 5,000 student names and estimates that the toll could reach 8,000. At least 20 of his helpers have been detained by local authorities, he said.

Tan Zuoren, another activist who conducted his own investigation into 64 schools in the quake zone, estimated that more than 5,600 students died or were missing. Tan, who has since been detained on suspicion of subversion, said that number was incomplete.

In Beichuan, a valley town so shattered it is being rebuilt in a new location, Liang Sifa insists "the government's number is definitely smaller than the actual figure."

"In Beichuan Middle School alone, the estimated student deaths are about 2,000," said Liang, whose 18-year-old son was killed in a school collapse. "I feel uneasy because the government is still lying."