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A Playground Paid for With Youths' Lives

A Chinese middle school annexes land for physical education only after 20 students and a teacher are killed while jogging on a busy road.

January 16, 2006|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

GUODAO, China — Deng Yating died because she was one of the tallest students in her class.

On that cold November morning, the 16-year-old was at the back of the pack of about 800 students jogging in the darkness on a narrow two-lane road for their predawn gym class. Nearby, teacher Jiang Hua carried only a feeble flashlight to protect his students against the traffic that raced up behind them. The driver of the oversized truck never saw it.

Among the first ones hit was Jiang, as he waved to head off the fast-approaching calamity he saw over his shoulder. The next to die were the tall children, who had been lined up by height at the tail end of the class.

By the time the truck crashed to a stop, knocking down a row of trees, it had killed 21 people, including Yating.

The girl's father, Deng Nianzhu, and other parents who rushed to the scene described unbearable carnage.

"The bodies were all tangled up," he said.

As news of the tragedy at Qinyuan No. 2 Middle School here in central China's Shanxi province spread, it quickly emerged as much more than a freak accident. It came to symbolize the problems dogging China's vast school system as the country emerges as an economic giant.

As it turns out, Qinyuan is far from the only school asking its students to exercise on public roads. With schools critically short of funding for physical education, many provide little, if anything, in the way of exercise facilities.

This can prove embarrassing for a country that prides itself on producing international sports icons such as NBA star Yao Ming and building state-of-the-art stadiums for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

"This is a case of lopsided development," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at People's University in Beijing. "The problem is an overemphasis on competitive sports. The country is willing to spend billions to chase gold medals and host the Olympics. But it has devoted too little resources to basic physical education for the masses."

Last month, the central government issued a ban on elementary and middle school children jogging on public roads. But critics say the order is merely cosmetic and doesn't address the fundamental issue of why the students run on roads in the first place.

After market-style changes began to alter China two decades ago, the central government gave most of the responsibility for funding public education to local jurisdictions. But impoverished areas have trouble providing such basics as teacher salaries, heat for classrooms, even books and desks. Playground space does not rank as a high priority.

Out of desperation, and sometimes when not so necessary, some schools rent out precious real estate, turning playgrounds into parking lots, factories or practice courses for driving schools. When teachers need housing, schools that can't afford to obtain land elsewhere typically put the squeeze on school playgrounds.

As a result, many schools are left with shrinking campuses. Students are forced to take turns for recess. Others simply stay indoors.

It's a matter of priorities, observers say. Only 2% of China's gross domestic product is devoted to education, according to a recent report by the United Nations Development Program. The recommended international standard is 6%.

Even if more money was allotted to education, it wouldn't mean that more would go to sports.

"They might use the money to buy computers instead," Zhou said. "The national mind-set needs to change. We need to care more about ordinary students' health."

The history of Qinyuan No. 2 Middle School mirrors that of many small-town schools in the country's impoverished heartland. Originally housed in a temple in the 1950s, it was lucky to move to a former machine-making factory that went bankrupt. Today, the tiny campus is sandwiched among several factories, including a coal refinery and, residents say, an explosives storage facility.

For years, the school tried to expand its playground, which provides enough stretching room for only about 200 of its 1,100 students. It was unable to secure the rights to fields nearby -- until two weeks after the accident, when the local government helped bulldoze the previously untouchable farmland and turned it into a playground, of sorts.

"We don't run on the street anymore," said one teacher there who declined to give his name. "We have a new playground. Why they didn't do this earlier, I don't know."

The recent economic boom has transformed China from a place of bicycles into a car- and truck-infested nation with some of the most deadly roads on Earth. More than 89,000 people were killed in traffic accidents in the first 11 months of 2005, according to official figures.

Until the deadly accident here drew national attention to the issue of safe playgrounds, many youngsters accepted that when it came to exercise, it was the highway or no way.

Even some of the parents of the victims grew up running on the streets.

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