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Critic of flimsy China schools reportedly held

Zeng Hongling wrote online essays after the Sichuan quake. Beijing appears to be stepping up a media crackdown.

June 19, 2008|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Chinese authorities have detained a retired teacher who criticized the shoddy school construction that led to the deaths of thousands of children in last month's devastating earthquake, a Hong Kong human rights group said Wednesday.

The report by the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy could not be independently verified. But observers say the detention of Zeng Hongling, who wrote about official corruption in school construction and post-quake relief efforts, fits a pattern in which the Communist Party is tightening the noose around an increasingly vocal civil society.

According to the rights group, Zeng, 56, a retired teacher at the Southwest University of Science and Technology in the city of Mianyang, was detained June 9 in Chengdu on charges of "inciting state subversion."

One of the essays she wrote for the U.S.-based Chinese-language website observechina.com was titled "Earthquake relief efforts fully reveal the true face of party officials."

The stark contrast of so many children crushed to death in collapsed schools while some government buildings nearby stood undamaged has been a powerful rallying point for parents, who have questioned whether corruption led to faulty construction. The issue is so potentially explosive that authorities have ordered state media off the story and tried to silence parents and their supporters seeking answers.

In the immediate aftermath of the May 12 earthquake, Beijing had relaxed restrictions on media coverage of the disaster, leading to some of the most thorough and daring reporting China has seen in years. Critics say that window of opportunity is now closing as the Communist Party tries to contain the simmering discontent.

"The government only sees a limited role for public opinion," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Once they take charge of a situation, they start silencing other voices because the party is keen to present itself in a favorable light. It does not want to be accountable to any other external institutions."

Zeng's apparent detention follows the arrest of another Internet writer last week in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, the province where the magnitude 7.9 earthquake killed nearly 70,000.

Huang Qi ran a website that chronicled the plight of China's poor. He too raised controversial questions about the school collapses and spoke up for people whose children were killed.

Huang was charged with possession of state secrets, a vague and often arbitrary accusation against people who veer from the party line.

The crackdown notwithstanding, Beijing is gearing up for the Summer Olympics with an eye to its international reputation.

On Wednesday, a San Francisco-based human rights group reported that officials had shortened prison sentences for 19 political prisoners convicted of subversion charges. The Dui Hua Foundation said the reductions in the last two years illustrated the importance of outside pressure in improving China's human rights record.

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chingching.ni@latimes.com

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