Image: A father and daughter burn offerings in Beichuan
Peter Parks  /  AFP - Getty Images
A father and daughter burn offerings as thousands of people flock to look at the devastated town of Beichuan which was destroyed in the May 12, 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
updated 5/12/2009 11:00:35 AM ET 2009-05-12T15:00:35

State leaders laid flowers and survivors burned paper money for departed spirits as a mournful China marked the first anniversary Tuesday of a devastating earthquake that left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing and 5 million homeless.

Addressing a memorial service before a destroyed school in the Sichuan province town of Yinxiu, President Hu Jintao pledged strengthened support for rebuilding and disaster prevention and efforts toward a "more harmonious relationship between man and nature."

"The great task of earthquake rescue and recovery reminds us again that unity is strength, that victory can only be gained through struggle," said Hu, before leading military and civilian leaders, diplomats, students and emergency services workers in laying carnations before a stone memorial.

The 30-minute ceremony followed a minute of silence beginning at 2:28 p.m. (11:28 p.m. ET), the moment the magnitude-7.9 temblor — the deadliest earthquake to hit China in decades — struck on May 12, 2008, toppling or burying villages, snapping bridges and razing large portions of Sichuan and two neighboring provinces.

The solemn event was broadcast live on national television, underscoring the disaster's searing effect on the national consciousness.

In the nearby county seat of Beichuan, mourners gathered at a destroyed middle school where about 1,000 students and faculty were killed, piling flowers and burning candles and sticks of incense amid the smoke and crackle of exploding firecrackers. Many brought pictures of their dead children and pasted notes to a metal fence surrounding the rubble, including one reading "peace to the dead, strength to the living."

Bereavement and resentment
Burning paper money as an offering to their 17-year-old son who was crushed in the school collapse, Jin Dalan and her husband Chen Guanghui gave voice both to their bereavement and continuing resentment over the government's treatment of parents.

"I'm just trying to talk to him to ask why he doesn't visit me in my dreams. I just want to know that he's OK and that no one is bullying him,' said Jin, 45.

Chen, like many parents of dead students, said he was still waiting for a proper response to allegations that school's were inherently unsafe as a result of shoddy construction enabled by corruption and weak oversight.

"Of course I'm angry. The school was badly built. Nothing else around here collapsed," Chen, 47, said.

Traffic was heavy on narrow roads leading into the deep mountains that surround Beichuan, the closest major town to the epicenter of the quake. Police blocked roads about 3 miles from the heart of the old town, leaving hundreds of former residents to stream into the mountains on foot, many heading out before dawn.

Outpouring of grief
Last year's destruction triggered an outpouring of grief around China and united the country in a massive rescue effort boosted by volunteers, private donations, and international aid.

The quake cast a shadow over the Beijing Summer Olympics that followed in August, and while Chinese media have continued to report on developments in the quake zones, new concerns have since begun to compete for attention.

While the government continues to fund reconstruction, the devastation to the local economy and the fallout from the global economic crisis has cast doubts on whether the region will ever fully recover. In the days leading up to the anniversary, the nation struggled with the worldwide outbreak of swine flu, with China's first case officially confirmed in Sichuan's provincial capital of Chengdu on Monday.

Shoddy construction goes unpunished
The most politically incendiary issue, however, remains the issue of school safety amid allegations that corruption and mismanagement led to shoddy construction.

Video: After China's quake, many still ask why Parents have tried to sue or petition local and central authorities, but many have been detained or warned against speaking out. Activists and lawyers who have tried to help them have met the same fate and reporters visiting the area have been detained, harassed, and physically threatened.

So volatile is the issue that until last week, the government had refused to release an official tally of students who died, saying the task was complicated and time-consuming. That figure, released in an apparent response to public pressure, showed 5,335 students were killed in the quake_ although parents and activists say the number is too low.

So far, no one has been punished or held responsible over the schools, and officials insist that they have not found evidence so far of shoddy construction — a claim questioned by experts and parents alike.

Xu Changyun, a 39-year-old construction worker who also lost his son at the Beichuan school, said parents were losing hope of ever finding justice.

"I've lost all the hope deep inside, and I don't think our effort will have any effect," Xu said.

More on: Chengdu   |  Earthquakes

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Earthquake anniversary in China

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  1. In a cemetery in Qingchuan County, a mother and grandmother mourn for their child who died at a school in the May 12, 2008 earthquake. (Tao Ming / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Mourners gather by a marble monument after a memorial ceremony to mark the first anniversary of Sichuan earthquake in the epicenter of Yingxiu town in Wenchuan in southwest China's Sichuan province. The earthquake in 2008 left over 90,000 killed or missing. (Zhou Chao / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A mother cries while she mourns her dead daughter Xiang Yazi (left in picture) at the ruins in Beichuan county, Sichuan Province. Mourners crowded ruins in southwest China on Tuesday to mark one year since an earthquake shattered the region, while President Hu Jintao called reconstruction efforts a testament to national strength. (Jason Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A woman places a flower in the devastated town of Beichuan in China's earthquake-ravaged Sichuan province on Monday. A year after the Sichuan earthquake devastated huge parts of southwest China, the grief and desperation of the tragedy still haunts the survivors of the magnitude 8.0 temblor. (Peter Parks / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Former residents of the quake devastated town of Beichuan walk past a mass grave covered with grass and decorated with flowers to form the numbers 5.12. (Ng Han Guan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. An elderly Chinese woman cries as she arrives in Beichuan to prepare for the first anniversary of the May 12, 2008, Sichuan earthquake where 87,000 people were left dead or missing and five million others homeless. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Students visit an area where landslides completely buried a village and more than 780 people. The site is now called the Donghekou Earthquake Site Park, a memorial to Sichuan earthquake victims. (Jason Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A man grieves in Beichuan. (Ng Han Guan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Kindergartners and their teachers look at quake-devastated Mianyang, a city in Sichuan province. (Imaginechina) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Liu Xia, head of a kindergarten where at least 300 children were killed during last year's Sichuan earthquake, mourns for the dead. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Chinese man mourns the victims of the May 12, 2008, earthquake in Konghekou, a village in Sichuan province. (Lang Shuchen / Imaginechina) Back to slideshow navigation
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