Ten years after a massive earthquake hit Sichuan, many Chinese are still wondering if the thousands of students killed under the rubble of schoolrooms could have survived.
A decade-long search for justice on student deaths
“It could only be human error that the school would crumble into pieces,” said pig farmer Sang Jun, 49, whose 11-year-old son, along with 125 other pupils, died in a primary school in the city of Mianzhu.
The more than 7,000 schools destroyed in the tremors became the deadliest places to be in the 2008 quake.
More than 5,300 schoolchildren were killed in the quake by the official count, although parents and activists have put the figure at closer to 10,000.
The devastating casualties immediately prompted questions over the quality of public school buildings.
Many of the schools collapsed, even though the buildings next to them remained standing. Sang and other parents believe they were part of the so-called “tofu projects” – buildings that were rapidly, but poorly, assembled during China’s construction boom, and so named because they were said to be as flimsy and porus as tofu dregs.
The Chinese government insists it was the seismic intensity of the quake that caused the deaths, not the quality of construction of the region’s schools.
A decade of appeals
But an investigation promised by Beijing soon after the quake has never taken place. Instead, over the past decade parents and civil rights activists have carried out their own studies to determine the reasons behind the deaths of so many children.
Along with other volunteers, rights activist Tan Zuoren examined the rubble of more than 60 schools to analyze whether the buildings’ location, structure and construction materials contributed to the damage.
In a preliminary report published in 2009, they concluded that many school buildings in the disaster zone were either too old, poorly maintained or had failed to meet quake-resistant standards.
Activist-artist Ai Weiwei conducted an independent survey of the students killed in the quake. His team confirmed 4,851 names by September 2009, and a list of the names list was made into an 87-minute video.
Later that year, Ai put up 9,000 children’s backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst art museum in Munich – an installation he named “Remembering.” Together the backpacks spelled out what Ai had heard from a grief-stricken mother: "For seven years, she lived happily on this earth."
The advocates later paid a hard price, as authorities tried to quell the criticisms of corruption in public school construction.
Ai was detained for 81 days without charge in 2011 as part of the country’s wider crackdown on civil activism.
In 2010, Tan was jailed on state subversion charges. The court sentenced him over his online comments on the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown but his lawyer and supporters believed the prosecution was aimed at stopping his investigation in Sichuan.
Another earthquake activist, Huang Qi, who also helped parents campaign for government compensation, was sentenced to three years in jail in 2009 for possessing state secrets.
Tan’s campaign continued after he was released in 2014. Every year, he and over 100 parents write to state leaders to appeal for an official investigation into the substandard school buildings.
“If we cannot admit any little mistake, then our society cannot improve,” Tan said in an interview in Chengdu, Sichuan last month.
“Is it really this hard to ask them to apologise?”
The government has yet to respond, while a growing number of parents, tired of living with constant surveillance and harassments by state officials, have given up campaigning.
Zhang Jing’s three-year-old daughter died in a kindergarten that collapsed in the quake. For years she had called for authorities to compensate the families of dead students,
But Zhang recently trashed all her petition materials about the shoddy schoolhouses.
“The government will never give us justice,” she said.
What the mother can do is to take a cake to the site where the kindergarten once stood, on the date of her daughter’s birthday.
Zhang had promised the girl a cake when she turned four in September 2008.
But the earthquake struck in May.