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China quake survivors swallow grief and anger

A year after China's devastating Sichuan earthquake, the central government seems eager to build soundly constructed neighborhoods, but it is also clearly intolerant of any dissent.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

After last May's massive earthquake buried her son under tons of shattered concrete at his collapsed school, Han Xuehua, numb and disbelieving, boiled spicy water every Friday for weeks to prepare hot pot, his favorite dish. "I didn't want to accept that my child wasn't coming home," she said softly. "I still cannot accept it."

Han and dozens of other parents have pressed their town government to acknowledge that the school was shoddily built, to prosecute those responsible for its construction and to allow families to grieve at the site. Their demands have been rejected. Officials and local police have warned them against speaking openly or petitioning at higher levels. The parents are under constant surveillance, their phone calls monitored and their movements restricted.

Xiong Yonghao, a wiry man with close-cropped hair and a quick, nervous laugh, also was consumed by grief and fury after his 11-year-old daughter died in a school collapse several miles away, in the city of Mianzhu. He led a parents' protest campaign in the months after the quake, but he decided in October to move on and began bidding for contracts to rebuild destroyed houses.

"I have to accept reality," Xiong said. "I cannot live just waiting to die."

These are the faces of the survivors of the Sichuan earthquake, which ripped through this mountainous province in southwestern China on May 12, killing about 80,000 people and leaving millions homeless. Although the central government is eager to rebuild and has spent huge amounts erecting new, soundly constructed neighborhoods throughout the quake zone, it has also flattened dissent. Thousands of police and public security officials from all over China have poured in to suppress any signs of anger and protest.

President Hu Jintao has praised the rebuilding efforts as proof of the superiority of China's socialist system, with its central command structure and enforced national unity. Indeed, money, materials and government volunteers from all over the country deluged Sichuan after the quake, and officials here say most projects can be completed within two years, much less time than they originally estimated it would take to restore normalcy to the 46 million people in the province affected by the disaster.

But normalcy seems a long way off, perhaps impossible, for people such as 37-year-old Han. On a recent day, her eyes, set in a round, sun-baked face, had a mournful, lost look. She tried to have another baby, she said, after China relaxed its one-child policy for parents who had lost a child in the earthquake. But she miscarried at five months.

"It's hopeless. I'm just getting older and older," she said, standing in front of the tarp-covered shack where she spent the winter. "What will happen to me?"

Enforcing calm
On April 4, a holiday known in China as tomb-sweeping day, when people pay tribute to the dead, the tensions in Juyuan erupted into the open.

One parent, Li Shanfu, set out at 8:30 a.m. for the Juyuan Middle School grounds to publicly mourn his daughter, a 16-year-old student who had been pulled from the building's ruins and later died of her injuries.

Li, a 44-year-old construction worker who used to sell his blood plasma to raise money for his daughter's school fees, said nearly 2,000 special police officers had surrounded the site, now just a fenced-in field of weeds with four rusty basketball hoops. Before he reached the cordon, Wang Zhen, a town vice governor, approached him and asked him to stay calm. If Li would go home, Wang said, he would be given 1,000 yuan, or about $145. If he kept quiet until after the May 12 anniversary, he would get another thousand yuan.

Li, a stocky man with a cellphone attached to his belt and a squint from long days spent working in the sun, said he refused and kept walking. Wang then reportedly signaled three other officials to surround Li. "Don't go to the middle school," Li said one official told him. "It will only bring back painful memories. Come have some tea."

Li said he resisted, telling the officials: "I am not breaking any law. You have no reason to detain or arrest me." Citing Mao Zedong, communist China's revered founder, Li warned that he was prepared for a long struggle and that if he were detained, he would protest to higher authorities.

Nevertheless, Li was forced into a police car and taken to a teahouse. He was held until 5 p.m., the officials never leaving his side. When he was allowed to go home, they followed him until he reached there. He finally mourned his daughter that night, alone in the back yard of his earthquake-damaged home, where he had buried her ashes last summer.

Zhao Deqin, a mother of twin 16-year-old girls who died in the same school, was stopped before she started out for the school. Police approached her the afternoon before tomb-sweeping day and told her not to return home that night and not to go to the school the next day.

"They were afraid many of us would make trouble," said Zhao, a slight woman with long, loose hair. "If I'm not at home, then the other parents cannot find me to go together with them to the school."

Zhao spent the night and the next day at her husband's construction site in the nearby city of Dujiangyan. Because she has alleged publicly that schools were shoddily built and that she was compensated for the death of only one of her daughters, Zhao has been tracked closely since last summer. In October, she said, she was detained for 20 days after she gave some of her daughters' ashes to an artist who wanted to create a memorial.

"Police call me a terrorist and say I'm trying to start a riot," she said. In her run-ins with local officials, she has also been accused of being a member of the banned religious sect Falun Gong. Such accusations have resulted in years-long detentions for others.

Indeed, 20 minutes into Zhao's interview with a reporter, conducted in an alley behind a small restaurant in Juyuan, two plainclothes officers emerged from the back of the restaurant. One led Zhao away, and the other escorted the reporter through the restaurant to the street out front, where eight uniformed police officers and more than a dozen plainclothes officers were waiting. Zhao said later that she had been able to slip away and was not harmed, but that she was afraid to continue the interview. The reporter was detained and interrogated for two hours, then released.

Wang, the town vice governor, declined repeated requests for an interview. Zhang Bin, the town's party secretary and highest-ranking official, said he was busy and assigned another vice governor to answer questions. But that person said he was familiar only with the rebuilding of farmers' houses in the area and had no information about the collapsed school or other matters.

Following central government dictates, the town offered $8,800 to each family that lost a child in the earthquake and set up a retirement insurance policy for each of them because China's social security system generally does not cover residents of rural areas. Most parents rely on their children to care for them in their later years. To collect the money, however, parents had to sign a statement promising to keep quiet. Most signed, but many cannot abide the forced silence.

Lessons learned in blood
Towns throughout the earthquake zone buzz with the sounds of concrete mixers, earthmoving equipment and circular saws. A yellow haze hangs in the air, thickened by construction dust and fumes from thousands of trucks delivering supplies.

Banners strung up along town streets proclaim residents' faith in the Communist Party's handling of the rebuilding effort. "Remember what the party did for us," one trumpets. "The people of Anxian will be grateful forever for the party," another says.

Liang Xuezhong represents one aspect of that powerful body. Party secretary of a district in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, Liang got a call in August reassigning him to Sichuan province to help rebuild Mianzhu, where more than 11,000 people died in the earthquake and economic losses topped $20 billion.

"To be here to help Mianzhu rebuild is the proudest thing I've ever experienced," Liang said.

Arriving with $1.2 billion donated by the Jiangsu government, Liang is a bit of a hero as he personally approves each of the 220 rebuilding projects, including 43 schools, that Jiangsu has committed to undertake. Each school will be built to standards designed to withstand a magnitude-9 earthquake, Liang said.

Propped against the walls of his office are three framed photos of Liang escorting Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao on tours of the reconstruction sites, hard hats all around. A large man with an unruly shock of hair, Liang, 55, clenched his fists, leaned forward and bellowed: "We must win this combat! This earthquake has moved the whole Chinese nation!"

Just outside Mianzhu, Xiong surveyed the hubbub as the final touches were being put to 20 houses his construction team had built for a group of farmers.

He has pushed the death of his daughter in the earthquake to "the corner of my memory," he said.

Xiong's wife left him in October, and the parents' campaign he had been leading to press the government to investigate substandard school construction was getting nowhere. Xiong, 36, decided he had to put his energies into building safe, comfortable houses for others.

"It's true I fought for my daughter's death after the earthquake because the pain of losing a child, you cannot imagine," he says. "Time made me accept reality. Time can change a lot of things."

Xiong's days are filled with meetings with the local village chief and the leader of the farmers' group. The three must agree on every detail of the rebuilding, which is being closely supervised by the Mianzhu government.

A family of three can claim about $8,000 in government rebuilding subsidies and low-interest loans, Xiong says, making his houses, which cost about $9,000 on average, affordable. But the $1,000 out-of-pocket costs are still steep for many. Last year, according to local government statistics, the average farmer's income was $760 -- a figure inflated by the subsidies.

Xiong's houses are simple, generally four rooms with a concrete floor, and are built in two neat lines, 10 to a row. They include stylish details, such as ceramic birds on the roof, for luck, and carved wooden doors.

But the houses must also meet new safety mandates, which include steel-reinforced concrete pillars, stronger window frames and thicker walls built with bricks certified for use in an earthquake area. The school Xiong's daughter died in lacked these features.

Fuxin No. 2 Primary School was built in 1988 using blueprints the local education bureau copied from elsewhere to save money. Jiang Xuyin, deputy chief of the team that built it, said he had presented documents three times to a special investigative team after the quake showing that officials had required his workers to build a two-story brick building with no reinforcements. Then, two months into construction, the officials told them to install a third floor, Jiang said.

"Mianzhu didn't have much money," he said. "It's just like cooking. They wanted our construction team to cook a nice meal, but they gave us bad-quality ingredients. They still expected a nice meal."

Jiang said he does not know whether the investigators issued a report or a conclusion. Still, he said he thinks no shoddily built school would be tolerated today.

"This kind of thing can never happen again," he said, chain-smoking cigarettes in his home, whose walls still displayed cracks from the earthquake. "It was a lesson learned in blood."

Empty rooms
New school buildings throughout the region are models of modern construction. Several, including the new Fuxin No. 2 Primary School, are being built and funded by corporate foundations.

"We insisted that we be in charge of everything until we give out the keys," said Teng Hongnian, who runs a foundation funded by Ting Hsin, a giant Taiwanese food manufacturer. "First, we wanted to give the kids very solid schools and pass on environmentally friendly concepts. Second, we found that people had a lack of experience in dealing with an earthquake."

On the edge of Juyuan, a new middle school is being built. It looks like a college campus. The government of Shanghai, one of China's wealthiest cities, is overseeing the work. Several parents said they go by many days just to marvel at the high-quality materials and the care being taken by the workers.

But Han, who lost her son in the quake, said she takes no comfort in the replacement school, as she wandered the empty rooms of her new home, built with government subsidies and several loans she is not sure how she can repay. Her husband has not worked since the earthquake and rarely sleeps, she said. He is up past midnight each night, drinking and staring at photos of their son, she said.

Han has gathered her son's few possessions -- his school books and composition pads, a pencil box, a ceramic piggybank and photos of cars, his passion -- to bring to their new home. She salvaged his bed and kept it under a tarp so she can place it in a room that will be just like the one he left the morning of May 12.

"I can never forget my only son," Han said. "If he had survived, we'd be moving together into this new house, and that would be the happiest day. Now, I don't have any joy for this."

Researchers Liu Liu in Sichuan province, Zhang Jie in Beijing and Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

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