The gap between word and deed is often so deep in China’s political landscape that it is impossible to know where China’s leaders really stand. Premier Wen Jiabao again picked up our hopes in his recent address to the National People’s Congress (NPC), in which he talked about the importance of press and public monitoring of power. The spirit of Wen’s remarks was contradicted in dramatic fashion, however, by Hebei Governor Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠), who rebuked a Jinghua Times reporter at the NPC for asking a probing question without, as he suggested, sufficient care for the party’s propaganda discipline.
Premier Wen’s words were: “We must let the people criticize the government and monitor the government, giving full play to the supervisory role of news and public opinion, so that power is exercised in the full light of transparency!”
But just days later, Li Hongzhong had a conniption over a journalist asking his views on the Deng Yujiao case last year. “What kind of party mouthpiece are you?” he spat back at the reporter, striking home the point the media have a duty to serve the party, not to ask uncomfortable questions.
On the heels of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, China’s government was relatively open in its approach to information, to the point that some international media called domestic coverage “unprecedented.”
A producer at one Chinese television station recalled asking a propaganda minister accompanying Premier Wen to the scene of the devastation exactly what they would be permitted to broadcast. Just run whatever you manage to capture, was his unprecedented response.
On the evening of the Sichuan quake, Premier Wen reached the rubble of what had been Dujiangyan Middle School. The next day, he reached the devastated Dujiangyan New Primary School. “Hold on, children. This is your grandpa Wen!” he shouted to the students crushed under the rubble.
It was then that Wen Jiabao issued his grave promise that the problem of shoddy school construction would be thoroughly investigated.
But in a matter of days, the winds changed direction. Shoddy school construction became a forbidden topic in China’s media. Propaganda discipline reigned supreme once again. To this day, the issue of school construction remains off limits to domestic media.
Reporting was not just off limits to the news media, however. One month ago, Tan Zuoren (谭作人), an activist and concerned citizen determined to get to the bottom of the problem of shoddy school construction by conducting his own independent investigation, was sentenced to five years in prison. [Read more about Tan’s investigation at CMP].
As I watched coverage of the NPC on Chinese television, and as I heard Premier Wen speaking in determined tones about the importance of supervision by public opinion, or yulun jiandu (舆论监督) – a term that encompasses the notion of power monitoring by the press and the public – I thought first of Tan Zuoren in his jail cell.
I call on delegates to the NPC and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) now deliberating on the Government Work Report to pay special attention to Tan Zuoren’s case in Sichuan, and to the problem of school collapses that still has yet to be properly investigated.
The collapse of school buildings in the Sichuan earthquake was a frightful combination of natural and human disaster.
In a research report issued on March 25, 2009, just three days before he was taken into custody, Tan Zuoren pointed out clearly that the earthquake itself was the principal reason for the collapse of buildings generally, and the chief reason also for the collapse of schools and the high death toll among area students.
But in a relatively high number of specific cases, the principal cause of death had been construction quality, Tan’s study found. According to his incomplete figures for 64 school buildings that either entirely or substantially collapsed in the quake, 53.05 percent of students who died in schools died as a result of problem structures not built to withstand a quake, and 27.17 percent died in old buildings that had not been properly reinforced.
I have reviewed digital video footage taken by local Sichuanese after the quake. According to eyewitness accounts, the buildings of Xinjian Primary School, which Premier Wen visited during his trip to the area, were completely flattened by the quake in less than 30 seconds.
I have also personally visited Beichuan Middle School, one of the schools hardest hit by the disaster. The main building, constructed in 1993, collapsed entirely, and the newer building, constructed in 2002, collapsed down to the second floor. More than 1,250 students died at this school. But I happened across a female student during my visit who had survived the quake, and she told me her entire class had survived because they were having computer class in an older building when the quake struck. I saw the old building with my own eyes. Built in the 1970s, the structure had survived the quake with little damage.
According to regulations, building project in Sichuan should be built such that there is “no collapse in major quakes, the potential for repair [and continued use] with medium-intensity quakes and full integrity for small quakes.”
Comparisons to the recent earthquake in Chile are startling. The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan measured 8.0 on the Richter scale, and killed 80,000 people. So far, the death toll for Chile’s 8.8 magnitude quake stands at 497, about half the number that died at Beichuan Middle School alone. The most important reason for the relatively small death toll in Chile was strict enforcement of longstanding laws to ensure construction quality. This ensured the integrity of most large-scale buildings, and ultimately saved lives.
Delegates to the NPC and CPPCC, if you have read the draft of Tan Zuoren’s research report, and if you have seen the documentaries made by Professor Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明) and others, then you will see beyond any shadow of a doubt that the problem of shoddy construction in the earthquake zone was very real.
You will also no doubt recall that on May 16, just days after the quake, People’s Daily Online invited officials from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Housing to speak with Internet users, and these officials said that “if indeed shoddy construction was a factor in school collapses, this will be strictly investigated and handled with zero tolerance.”
More than one year later, the official in charge of Sichuan’s provincial housing authority maintains that “there were no cases of collapse in the earthquake attributable to construction quality issues.”
Over the issue of school collapses in the Sichuan quake, the people have been denied the right to monitor the government, to criticize the government. The parents of the students who were lost are left with nothing but there own grief. And an intellectual who plead for the most basic justice for the people has been locked away.
What are Tan Zuoren’s crimes? He loves his nation. He loves his home. He cares for the facts. He speaks with principle. It is just as Professor Cui Weiping has said: “This kind of person is the backbone of our people . . . the foundation stone for the rebuilding of our moral fiber and conscience, and the starting point for the rebuilding of our spirit. To hold such a man prisoner is to imprison the conscience of our people!”
NPC and CPPCC delegates from Sichuan, please search your hearts. Weigh your own actions against those of Tan Zuoren, and ask yourself whether you measure up as representatives of the popular will. Have you visited the three memorials to Sichuan’s lost students that have been erected at Muyu (木鱼), Pingtong (平通) and Yinghua (鎣华)? Have you been to the Baoshan Tomb at Dujiangyan (都江堰宝山塔陵), where the bodies of students who died at
Xinjian Primary School and Juyuan Middle School are buried?
During Spring Festival, as the fireworks burst free and families were drawn together, steel bars separated Tan Zuoren from his wife and daughter. How can souls rest at piece when there is no road to justice in this world!
Delegates from Hong Kong, many of you have set foot in Sichuan before. Won’t you stand again for your brethren in Sichuan, whom you have helped so eagerly in the process of disaster relief and reconstruction? This issue of shoddy school construction is one on which we in Hong Kong have been unable to gain any traction, and the wounds over this issue have not healed. Please, ask tough questions. Find out what you can. And please, speak up with conscience for our brother, Tan Zuoren.
The earthquake at Wenchuan was not a disaster for Sichuan alone. The collapse of schools was not an isolated tragedy. Any citizen, anywhere in China, who was concerned about the Sichuan earthquake, has an obligation to care for the issue of school collapses, to care for the fate of Tan Zuoren, and to ask whether the government at all levels in China can exercise its power in the full sunlight of transparency.
Supervision crushed, criticism stifled, perverse acts of persecution unchallenged — how can we allow this to happen in any corner of China today?