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Protests flare over quake aid in China

Though the central government has been widely applauded, some local officials are accused of corruption.

May 29, 2008|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

"I think smart officials sitting in Beijing would be thinking of using this [earthquake] incident to give local officials a good lesson," said Lynette Ong, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

But Ong, who has done fieldwork in rural China, doubts significant reforms are ahead in local governance.

Finances remain a major concern in rural China, so while the publicity over school collapses is likely to bring scrutiny and oversight of construction, Ong said, that won't necessarily address problems in healthcare and other social programs. When the nation's attention on the quake diminishes, it remains to be seen how well local officials will deliver aid to help more than 5 million homeless people resettle and pick up their lives.

Nor does Ong see drastic changes in the government allowing protests or more aggressive media coverage of social issues and local leaders. "At the end of the day," she said, "it is social stability that the central government values most."

The May 21 protest in Luojiang, about 50 miles west of the epicenter in Wenchuan, stemmed from complaints that relief supplies -- bottled water, instant noodles and sausages -- had been stored in a children's clothing shop. Some residents say they believed the shop operators had close connections to local officials.

People in the area said police arrived May 21 and sealed the clothing shop and detained at least one person. Later in the day, crowds gathered at a square and began to question authorities about the case. Scuffles broke out and police arrested a number of students, witnesses said.

"People were shouting: 'Release the students! Take out disaster relief goods!' " said Sun Dejian, 25, a restaurant worker who watched the protest.

The protest was covered on local TV, but there's been little coverage since. A foreign reporter asking questions was tailed by a local official, who insisted that he should participate in interviews.

Asked why, he said, "Residents may not have the correct understanding."

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don.lee@latimes.com

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