Beijing's silence hints at school coverup
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - The silence surrounding investigations into why so many schools collapsed during China's massive earthquake in May suggests Beijing's reluctance to face up to the fact that the failure of government education policies is partly to blame for the deaths of thousands of children.

When China dismantled the Mao Zedong legacy of people's communes in the mid-1980s, the central government in Beijing delegated responsibility for education funding to local governments. While abdicating its role as a provider, Beijing at the same time set ambitious targets to reduce illiteracy and provide nine years of compulsory education for all by the end of the century.

Poorer places like Sichuan, where the May 12 earthquake struck, struggled to comply with Beijing targets. Local government coffers were not deep enough to pay for teachers' salaries and construct new school buildings just as children of the baby-boom generation were entering the classroom. Money was raised through bank loans and donations, creating a pile of debts.

The dearth of funds led to cutting corners in school construction and the so-called "three without" schools emerged in rural areas - classrooms built without standardized design, without construction supervision and without quality control.

"We have a saying in our industry that bridges are gold, roads are silver and schools are worse than scrap iron," said Chang, a construction engineer with projects in Sichuan province who wants only his surname used. "Contractors make very little money out of school projects and they often squeeze their profit from the construction material."

Seismologists and construction experts have pointed to the lack of reinforcing iron bars in many of the collapsed school buildings and the use of substandard slab floors.

In Yuquan, a small rural community two hours by car from the provincial capital Chengdu, the school buildings withstood the magnitude 8.0 earthquake but both buildings are now fenced and several yellow "danger" signs warn students off.

"There are big cracks in the walls of both buildings and the upper floor of the primary school's wing is leaning out," said Dai Jinhua, a development worker with China Youth Development Foundation, which is building temporary schoolrooms for the 1,600 children in Yuquan.

"These buildings will be destroyed and a new school will be built in three years," he explained.

The school principal, Peng Bangfa, initially lashed out at foreign media bias in reporting the negative side of disaster relief, but did say that both buildings were built with local money. The primary school was constructed in 1984 with money raised by the township. The junior middle school at the back of the campus came up in 1996 with funds allocated from Mianzhu county, which administers Yuquan town.

Asked whether the central government supervised the construction of the buildings, he was defensive. "I was transferred here only six months ago," Peng said. "I don't know anything about the quality of school construction."

Throughout Sichuan province - one of China's poorest - a countless number of schools collapsed within minutes of the May 12 temblor. Sichuan education authorities say the earthquake destroyed 7,000 classrooms. Nearly 10,000 children and teachers were crushed to death or died under the debris.

Ever since the disaster, bereaved parents have tried to pressure local officials to investigate why so many school buildings collapsed while nearby apartments and government offices stayed upright. From Dujiangyan city to Mianzhu and tiny Wufu, parents have marched and begged. They have cried and threatened to sue the government, hoping to find out the truth about the tragedy.

"Premier Wen Jiabao said this quake was China's worst natural disaster since the founding of modern China. I think what makes it so bad is the number of children that died," said Cai Xinjin, an elderly man who sat in the sun outside of the local school in Yuquan. At the age of 70, Cai is old enough to remember other natural calamities but he says he has never before felt such sadness at the loss of so much young life as with this quake.

After allowing some displays of grief by parents and promising to investigate, provincial authorities have tried to stifle complaints and avoid public discussion of the claims of corruption and shoddy construction. Newspapers in Chengdu have carried articles blaming the ferocity of the earthquake for the massive scale of destruction and exonerating human behavior as a possible contributor to the death toll.

China's first reading of the quake's magnitude was reported as 7.9 but later revised to 8.0. United States-based Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology maintains the earthquake measured magnitude 7.9. Nearly 90,000 people are dead or missing in the quake. Some 5 million people are homeless.

Those who have tried to point fingers at the government for mismanaging public education have been detained and silenced. Zeng Hongling, a retired teacher who wrote essays decrying the conditions of rural schools and posted them on overseas websites, was detained in June by Chinese police, according to a human rights group based in Hong Kong.

Huang Qi, a prominent human rights activist, working with parents of deceased children to help them launch a legal campaign, was detained in mid-June as well. He had since been charged with possession of state secrets.

But as early as 2000, Beijing admitted publicly its spending on education was falling behind and pledged to aggressively expand its financial support for national schools. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in 1999 China was still spending less than 3% of its gross domestic product on education, compared with the 4.1% spent by the majority of developing countries.

Beijing's goal of nine-year compulsory education was declared accomplished in 2000 as planned. But the Ministry of Education estimated that by the end of the same year local governments had accumulated more than 50 billion yuan (US$7.3 billion) in education debts.

What is more, the central government was saddled with a legacy of poorly built and outright dangerous school buildings.

Between 2001 and 2005, China invested in the reconstruction of more than 60,800 rural schools. In 2001, Beijing also reversed the long-standing policy of letting local governments fend for themselves and assumed back financial responsibility for supporting education in poorer areas. But for thousands of school children in Sichuan that reversal appears to have come too late.

(Inter Press Service)